Sustainability assessment to future-proof New Zealand’s agriculture

Sustainability assessment of New Zealand’s agriculture at first glance has one simple goal - to keep our farmers farming.  However, confronting how to achieve this quickly gets complicated. Efficient, prosperous and environmentally friendly farming demands knowledge and skill, and application of new tools, that must be constantly updated and enhanced.  Securing market access depends increasingly on showing faraway customers that the food we produce is safe and nutritious and has been produced in an ethical and sustainable way.

The New Zealand Sustainability Dashboard (NZSD) project has created and tested a variety of tools to make sustainability assessment more efficient and effective.  In the past six years (2012-2018) it deployed prototype tools in five sector case studies (wine, kiwifruit, irrigated mixed agriculture, Ngāi Tahu farms and wild food harvests, Māori forestry) and helped other organisations plan their own process including HortNZ, Beef+Lamb New Zealand and Aquaculture New Zealand. 

Sustainability assessment requires seven recurring steps to make it efficient, effective, and adaptive.  Description of a seven-step process breaks a potentially bewildering concept into more manageable components to avoid “paralysis by analysis”. This report is structured using this seven-step model.

Sustainability is more like a journey than a destination. It is helpful to focus on the process of improving sustainability and resilience (a journey) rather than becoming fixated on whether we have arrived yet (the destination). Attention to journeying builds confidence and avoids risk of becoming overwhelmed and dispirited by uncertainty and multitude of potential threats ahead.

Demonstrating rewards keeps people committed to improving sustainability. A sustainability journey is more likely to be maintained if it delivers immediate and tangible rewards for the main actors i.e. the growers, producers, at one end of the supply chain, marketers and strategists in the middle, and consumers at the end.  Sustainability is not just about securing ‘good’ to be collected later by unknown others - it is also about capturing rewards for producers, right now. We recommend early investment in demonstrating the economic benefits of sustainability so that actors are encouraged to participate.

Sustainability assessment is improving steadily. Methods are becoming more standardised, comprehensive and trusted and increasingly demanded of producers by markets, regulators and local communities.

Tools to help are available. More powerful, flexible and less expensive monitoring tools for assessment and reporting across multiple scales have emerged within just the six years of the NZSD project.  Sustainability assessment requires selective application of a whole suite of tools at different stages and according to what is discovered as the journey unfolds.  An indicator framework provides a broad terrain map to make sure all threats and opportunities are considered; prioritisation and decision support tools ensure the measurement of the most important things in the most cost-effective way; benchmarking and target setting protocols to measure progress and incentivise learning.  Communication tools encourage all actors to be kept moving collaboratively in the same direction. 

Co-design of locally relevant assessment criteria builds relevance and participation. The international and NZSD research is clear: importing a single or universal recipe for sustainable practice and assessment into a community of producers and processors is unlikely by itself to trigger long-term change for sustainability.  The NZSD project findings urge instead a slower and more inclusive process from within the community, to build ownership in the initiative so that all actors see it as their own journey, initiated and navigated by them, and moving in a direction that suits their collective needs.  Design of the programme must be informed by the producers’ own knowledge and skill and be put into action by them.  This reflects a fundamental respect of the producers, their needs, their identity, and their contribution to a prosperous New Zealand.