Farming is a way of life in New Zealand – about half the country’s land is used for primary production. New Zealand Trade and Enterprise reports that New Zealand-grown produce feeds over 40 million people. Each month, we export over 7,500 different animal products and 3,800 dairy products to 100 countries. We are also a major supplier of kiwifruit, apples and other natural products.

Agriculture is the backbone of our economy. It has shaped who we are as a nation, but it has also had an impact on our country’s natural landscape and environment.

Our Land and Water (Toitū te Whenua, Toiora te Wai) is one of 11 National Science Challenges. The aim of Our Land and Water is to enhance the production and productivity of the primary sector while maintaining and improving our land and water quality for current and future users.

The challenge’s three research themes are:

  • greater value in global markets
  • innovative resilient land and water use
  • collaborative capacity.

Research theme 1: Greater value in global markets

Globally, consumers are willing to pay higher prices for products with particular qualities. Some consumers value products with reduced environmental impacts, for example, grass-fed beef and dairy products over products from animals that have been factory or feedlot farmed. Cultural authenticity can also add value by telling a story that connects the product with the people and place in which it is produced. Interesting stories give products unique points of difference, which help set them apart in global supply chains. Country of origin is a third quality producers can use to their advantage. New Zealand’s geographic isolation enables the country to have some of the most stringent biosecurity regulations in the world. New Zealand businesses – like Fonterra and Zespri – tap into these consumer desires when marketing their products.

This is an example of good sustainability practices and innovation within an industry

By reducing fruit wastage, kiwifruit producers have lowered the environmental impact burden per fruit consumed. They’ve even gone a step further by making the biospife – a combination spoon/knife included in packaged kiwifruit. The biospife is made out of kiwifruit residue and can be composted along with the skins.

Research theme 2: Innovative resilient land and water use

What we do on the land can have adverse effects on the environmental, social and cultural wellbeing of the region and country. For example, nutrients or other contaminants from agriculture may leach into groundwater or run into freshwater catchments. Reduced water quality affects local ecosystems and the people connected to them.

Resilience – in this context – means using the land profitably while reducing adverse effects. The aim of the research is to provide information and tools that help producers make decisions about the land’s capacity to grow a product at a particular level of intensity in a sustainable manner. Knowledge of soils, the landscape, management practices and mitigation strategies are important.

Examples of how riparian planting can improve stream health

Find out about some of the management practices currently in use to reduce adverse effects: riparian restoration, denitrification beds and nutrient management strategies.

A second focus of this research theme is next-generation solutions. The growing public awareness of environmental issues requires new solutions to the ways we use and manage our land.

Examples of how technologies have reduced the negative impacts of agriculture

These innovative technologies give farmers detailed information about pastures and crops.

Aerial mapping technology measures the quantity and quality of pasture to improve fertiliser application. The C-Dax Pasture Meter is a tow-along device that enables better on-farm feed budgeting.

Research themes 3: Collaborative capacity

Our Land and Water is one of the largest of the National Science Challenges. It will require diverse groups to connect and work together.

The challenge is hosted by AgResearch and includes all seven government Crown research institutes and four universities. The challenge will connect scientists with farmers, growers, iwi and decision makers such as regional councils.

Collaboration is central to the way science develops, but there are gaps in understanding how to best use interdisciplinary approaches to address complex land and water problems. The challenge proposes to fill these gaps with the Collaboration Lab – a physical and symbolic laboratory that will research the collaboration process. For example, there are plans to develop and enhance Māori agribusiness, and Our Land and Water will use the mātauranga from this endeavour to inform other collaborative practices.

The Nexus – connecting the themes

The research themes are not stand alone tasks. They are intertwined throughout the challenge. Solutions developed as part of one research theme are likely to be integral to the success of the other themes.

Take up the challenge

How do the National Science Challenges fit into the New Zealand Curriculum? Of what interest are they to students and teachers?

Each challenge focuses on relevant, real-world issues facing New Zealanders. They are contextual examples of the nature of science – scientists, businesses, councils, iwi and the public working to understand and investigate the issues, communicate the research findings and then work together to adopt the solutions.

In addition, knowledge and discussion of Our Land and Water supports the NZC vision that young people will take up opportunities offered by new knowledge and technologies to secure a sustainable economic and environmental future for our country. Vision Mātauranga, which is at the heart of each challenge, recognises the value and contributions Māori knowledge brings to science and society.

Nature of science

The magnitude and complexity of the challenges in New Zealand’s land and water sectors require science and society to work in completely new ways that may require new models of engagement and social interaction. Part of this National Science Challenge is to investigate and develop the models through the Collaboration Lab.

Useful link

Published 20 December 2016