5 minutes with Ken Taylor

Director, Our Land and Water.

How did Our Land and Water start and why?
Our Land and Water is one of 11 National Science Challenges that are tackling the biggest issues facing New Zealand that need science to help fix them. We channel government funding into ambitious, ‘mission-led’ science programmes that aim to transform New Zealand for the better. Our Land and Water is one of the largest National Science Challenges, funded by the Ministry of Business Innovation and Employment for up to $96.9 million over 8 years.

The National Science Challenges are a new way of doing science for New Zealand. Our research is done collaboratively among science providers like Crown Research Institutes (CRIs) and universities and we bring a range of scientific disciplines into each programme. We involve stakeholders in our research to make sure it’s relevant to industry and communities and to speed up adoption of change. Our Land and Water’s official objective, set by the government, is to enhance the production and productivity of New Zealand’s primary sector, while maintaining and improving the quality of the country’s land and water for future generations.

As Director, what does your role entail?
Ultimately, I’m responsible for making sure our research is bringing us towards achieving our mission. That means making sure our science produces useful outputs, has impact and is accessible. It’s also really important for me to be connected to the social and political context we’re working within. I keep closely in touch with what’s happening in Wellington and the current and potential new policy that’s relevant to achieving our mission.

I work with the science community and manage our many relationships – Our Land and Water has 16 partner research institutions, including all seven CRIs and most of New Zealand’s universities. Across our programme of research, there are about 160 scientists and over 100 collaborating institutions, businesses, regional councils, industry bodies and other stakeholders.

We are also building strongrelationships with Maori communities and agribusinesses because we recognise their perspectives have much to offer the country.

What major projects have you been working on over the past 12 months and what are some of your recent major achievements?
The biggest project for me over the past 12 months has been helping theteam develop our science strategy for the next 5 years. This was a huge undertaking that required talking to lots of people to make sure our science programme has taken the pulse of industry, farmers, our communities, environmental groups, councils, the scientists and regulators.

One of our biggest projects so far has been the development of the ‘land use suitability’ concept and finding ways of making it work. Land use suitability is a way of planning land use that expands upon the traditional assessment of land capability, to include a much more detailed understanding of how and where land naturally reduces agricultural contaminants, the resilience of downstream water bodies and the impacts on the goals our communities have set for our fresh water. Eventually this research will produce tools that make the consequences of different land use decisions clear and predictable.

Our goal for these tools is to give land owners confidence to diversify their land use, giving them greater resilience to changes in regulatory limits, weather and markets and improve productivity, profitability and environmental outcomes.

What are the predominant trends regarding farming inputs, as social licence becomes more of a hotbutton issue in our primary sector?
In New Zealand, we’ve had a tradition of focusing on outputs rather than inputs – managing for effects rather than restricting activities. There’s no doubt that in some quarters there is an increasing call to control inputs directly.

My view is that continuing to manage for effects is the best approach, because it allows farmers the flexibility to make the best adjustments or changes for them and their own circumstances and land. However, that requires a good understanding of the relationship between land-use activities and environmental effects and access to management tools that allow land managers to see that connection. The rapidly growing field of agriculture technology and precision agriculture will help here, as will the tools our researchers are developing.

Social licence to operate will only be restored when communities see a clear demonstration that things are getting better in the environment. Trust comes with seeing the evidence with your own eyes. We are starting to see some encouraging results. Phosphorus trends are improving and our research shows this is largely to do with onfarm mitigation strategies working.

How does Our Land and Waterwork with New Zealand farmers?
If you want buy-in and rapid uptake, you have to work closely with the people making the change on the ground.

One of our major research programmes, Next Generation Systems, has worked closely with innovative farmers to identify potential land use mixes and new systems of primary production and helping them de-risk, trial and evaluate their transformation.

Later this year, new research will look at innovative farms that are responding to niche market opportunities or creating a diversity of enterprises, while matching their practices closely to the fine-scale attributes of the land.

Another research programme, Storying Kaitiakitanga, has interviewed people in M ori agribusiness about Maori food production practices that employ the principles of kaitiakitanga, which includes values of guardianship and responsibility. One of the things we think will really help us as a country are the ways M ori look at farming and the environment as part of the same system. This joined-up thinking is validated in Western science as an ecosystem approach. If we’re going to achieve our mission we have to think in terms of systems beyond farming.

What can farmers do to help your cause?
Our Land and Water has a goal to transform New Zealand’s farmland into more diversified mosaics of land use – because an individual farm may be made up of parcels of land that are suitable for different uses. Our land-use suitability tools aren’t yet complete but on the Our Land and Water website farmers can find our research-backed suggestions, resources and sources of funding (under Get Involved, see What You Can Do On the Farm) and some existing tools (under Resources, see Toolboxes).

We now have the science to demonstrate the positive impact precision agriculture can have. Our research has shown that using variable rate irrigation on farms with variable soil types can cut the amount of nitrogen and phosphate being lost by 70–80%. We also know a lot more about critical source areas – low-lying land such as gullies and swales where run-off accumulates – and our research has shown the importance (and cost-effectiveness) of targeting interventions and additional mitigations to these small areas.

In many areas we will go a long way towards meeting environmental bottom lines by implementing precision technology and better managing critical source areas. In other areas, land-use change may be necessary to meet future regulatory limits and the demands of our markets.

Farmers can also participate in our research programmes. Look at our website at the research projects underway and if there are any you have a particular interest in being involved with, please get in touch with us. Visit the Our Land and Water website at www.ourlandandwater.nz