New Zealand’s kiwifruit marketer Zespri is capable of taking a lead role in transforming part of the global food system to becoming more sustainable – for both our country and internationally.
That’s the message business journalist and author Rod Oram gave in his talk on global sustainability trends and opportunities for our kiwifruit industry to Priority One members at Mount Maunganui on March 19.
Giving an overview of how the planet is faring in the face of human activity, what is happening in terms of sustainability and NZ’s current situation, he also talked of what Zespri could take the lead on.
He complemented Zespri – saying since the brand launched in 1997 it has really come to life, overcome adversity such as the vine-killing Psa-V, and in 22 years has developed into a truly global system for kiwifruit, holding a remarkable record of innovation.
The audience were talked through the incredibly complex biosphere, which is responsible for all life on the planet, and how we’re destroying its health – which will in turn affect our ability to live, grow food and survive.
“We know where we’re heading on climate change – if we keep pushing past 400ppm of Co2 we’re in deep trouble…and one of the most notable things about these [biosphere] boundaries is phosphorus and nitrogen flows, which are entirely because of the way we use artificial fertiliser on the ground to grow food. They are really serious breaches.
“Land-use change is another agricultural issue, and so is biodiversity loss…that is our biggest breach.”
Rod says Co2 emission from cars and burning coal to generate electricity are causes “but in aggregate, agriculture has the largest negative impact on that biosphere – on our life support system”.
Discounting ice on the globe, 75 per cent of land is actively managed by humans. “And humans, in our activity, move more of the earth surface than forces of nature.”
This is dubbed the Anthropocene – the first time in 4.5 billion years on the planet a living organism – which happens to be people – is the biggest cause of planetary change.
“Trying to turn this around is one of our monumental challenges,” says Rod. “And while we can already see where research and development and business investment might take us with electricity, transport, building and infrastructure – this type of work is only just beginning to emerge in agriculture.”
Rod says the most important concept to helping the biosphere recover is circularity – we need to be able to unmake everything we make.
“I don’t mean a bit of downcycling…but in fact to be able to re-use all natural resources and crucially all human-made resources – the compounds we’ve created, some very toxic – we need to able to deal with those down to parts per billion.
“So we maximise the resources that were there and minimise pollution and damage we’ve caused. This is simply working with nature – not against it.”
Rod says so much of what we do has a negative impact on nature. So how do we transform and turn inside out everything we do, so we’re giving the biosphere a chance to recover?
The enormous challenge is about a radical re-invention of the food system so when we do agriculture we’re helping nature regenerate, says Rod.
And this is where Zespri comes in. “I think Zespri is very crucial in this – because you’ve really excelled at working with all the people you need in your organisation both here and abroad – whether it be scientists, or those in orchards, in labs, in markets and in business.
“There’s a very strong sense of culture in the Zespri system that’s developed inside Zespri and the country. And a very defining character and attitudes of the kiwifruit system and its people in that process.
Truly global system
“And, above all, for developing that into a truly global system for kiwifruit, and Zespri’s remarkable record of innovation…then all the way out into the markets.”
Rod says Zespri also holds a remarkable record at primary distribution level “of having a share of global revenue that’s twice the share of the actual volume of kiwifruit. That’s testament to the power of Zespri”.
“So I suggest the integrated, fast-evolving system that’s been developed here can meet this challenge – of trying to transform just a part of the global food system.”
Rod can’t see Zespri straying far from Kiwifruit – “and it doesn’t need to”. “Kiwifruit is wonderful in that it still has lots of attributes to breed or be developed and health factors that can be proven with studies.
“But the horticultural system around it – that is where changes could come. I’d hope particularly around regenerative agriculture. And that’d be the very important and distinctive contribution Zespri could make. Essentially, offering consumers the goodness of regenerative kiwifruit.”
Through this, Rod says Zespri could help urban populations reconnect with natural food production. “I’m being whimsical, but you can help them practice circular economy principles such as composting food waste and biodegradable packaging, making soil for their local regenerative food systems.
“To have biodegradable packaging for kiwifruit to be sent off to other parts of the world, and when it degrades in those other markets it then becomes soil in the local food environment.”
Rod says it’s about leading from the front. “I’m utterly convinced Zespri has that leading capability and ambition and the ability to build on these very big issues over the next 10 years or so.
“And take a huge step forward and make a real contribution to this global transformation in agriculture.”
Zespri’s chief innovation and sustainability officer Carol Ward says Rod also spoke to the Zespri board on his visit “because sustainability is a priority for us and we’re trying to get our head around what that means”.
“We have a role to play in terms of developing a sustainability strategy, building our actions and our work plans, setting our objectives and targets, and monitoring our progress.
“So Rod has given us food for thought on the role Zespri can play in terms of building its sustainability journey, not only for its produce but for NZ and globally. I’m incredibly excited.”