“Evolution or revolution?”, Simon Upton

The New Biological Economy: How New Zealanders are Creating Value from the Land
Eric Pawson and the Biological Economies Team
Auckland University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781869408886

Having lived away from New Zealand for the best part of 15 years, I was delighted to read The New Biological Economy. In one fell swoop, its 13 crisp chapters brought me up to date with many very significant changes that have been transforming the land and landscapes of this country. 

Whether a New Zealander who has lived through it day by day would react in the same way I am not sure – change is often easier to appreciate after an absence, and nothing described in this book happened overnight. On the contrary, it describes merely the latest chapter in decades-old soul-searching about a sustainable economic model for this continental fragment – vertiginously remote both in time and space – that humans have only lately colonised and are still coming to terms with.

But even those familiar with the detail of some of the stories related in this collection of essays will benefit from this enquiry into “how New Zealanders are creating value from the land”. Eric Pawson’s deftly pitched introduction and epilogue crystallise the issues: how does a first-world standard of living erected on the back of the environment through the massive export of commodities adjust to a model that generates more value from using biological resources in a way that is both environmentally sustainable and aligned with social well-being? 

It is a debate I have lived with. As a very young MP in the 1980s representing hill country farmers, I was confronted with the yawning gap between land-use, social and economic viability and environmental degradation. As subsidies were removed, the rural community went through the traumatic experience of seeing land covered in trees (if they were lucky) or reverting to gorse (if the environment was lucky); of seeing populations halve, schools and local businesses close and, in some cases, distraught farmers commit suicide; and the commencement of what has seemed an interminable debate about how to shape a different farming future.

We are still in the midst of that latest transition kicked off 25 years ago. This collection covers the full gamut from a dairy industry built on industrial-scale volume production to the nebula of tiny place-based entrepreneurs on Banks Peninsula producing everything from merino wool, cheese, wine and honey all intricately connected by human interdependencies and, literally, hiking paths.

But the adaptation underway can never be simplistically summed up by sector or place. Amidst the behemoths of the dairy world there are small artisanal producers. And in the winding remoteness of Banks Peninsula, giant cruise boats disgorge floods of tourists into tiny rural communities like Akaroa. The economic adaptation that is being wrestled with is ultimately about different ways of looking at the same landscapes, different narratives about how past (hi-)stories can become alternative futures, and different framings of the challenges by policy makers.

Two elements of the genesis of this volume have particular significance for me. Firstly, the title: the “biological economy” label is attributed by the authors to one of my predecessors as Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Morgan Williams. It was he who coined the phrase and who championed a new way forward in his 2004 report Growing for Good. 

As his words (still on our website) put it: 

we depend on our environment’s natural capital – rivers, lakes and aquifers, soils, biodiversity and atmosphere. Growing for Good investigates how we can learn to live off the income from this natural capital without exhausting the capital itself … Undoubtedly, we have the ability to run vastly more ecologically and economically efficient farming systems.

It is a pity that those busily intensifying land and water use at the time didn’t pay more heed. The painful process of asserting environmental limits after they have been breached is going to consume us for decades. But Williams has been vindicated, and this book is, in a way, a testament to his diagnosis.

Secondly, the research underlying the book is rooted in a Marsden Fund grant. As the person who created the Marsden Fund, it is a real pleasure to see the Fund being used to support challenging work in the social and economic sciences with the expectation that the output will generate (as Pawson puts it) “material for public and policy consumption, so as to crystallise and encourage fresh ways of thinking.”

It is in the nature of academic research – especially Marsden-style research – that settled notions are challenged or reinterpreted. It is the world as it might be otherwise that provides a standpoint for critical analysis. I was fully expecting a volume that would leave no complacent stone unturned. In the event I was surprised by the mildness of many of the critiques offered. 

I was left wondering if human geographers are driven to a meliorist interpretation through the undeniable fact that, much as we might want to imagine an “other” world, it is this one in which any useful policy will have to be implemented. Or if the business of their research involves getting so close to real lives and real people and entering into their narratives so successfully, that critical judgment recedes into the chiaroscuro of descriptive language.

Certainly, some chapters seem relatively lightweight. The chapter on tourism, landscapes and biological resources, while full of interesting description and identifying obvious conflicts, fails to nail some of the vulnerabilities that New Zealand tourism faces. And the chapter entitled “Central Otago transformed” is awash with bland descriptive language that on occasions verges on promotional puffery. To discuss tenure review and the on-selling of freeholded Crown lease land for property development and alternative high-value uses without any reference to the debate about how much private windfall gain these freeholdings delivered is surely to avoid one of the key debates of the last two decades.

An altogether steelier tone pervades the writing of Richard Le Heron who authors the opening sectoral chapter on dairying and (with Nick Lewis) the final chapter on Te Ipu Kai – the Food Bowl. Le Heron’s writing exposes a constant awareness of the gap between traditional neo-liberal economic analysis, which places the focus of data collection and policy readiness on the business or entrepreneur, and an alternative framing that measures economic activity and public subsidy in terms of social and landscape-based outcomes. 

Le Heron’s description of the food innovation network is particularly insightful. You do not have to subscribe to an anti-capitalist critique to question, with him, why it is that subsidies for business development, research and innovation should not be assessed in terms of their ability to generate social returns rather than just private enrichment. But the specificity of an alternative approach is only dimly hinted at in his complaint that “there is no narrative of the collective, no collectivity in the narratives and no attempt to build collective memory, collective institutions or other forms of social return.”

While the chapters on places and networks (Banks Peninsula, Central Otago, Hawke’s Bay, the food innovation network and the Taniwha economy) benefit from a different “lens”, their conclusions are more tentative, maybe because these collections of people and affinities are less easily framed by familiar measures. There is an excellent digression under the heading “captured by our categories” in Matthew Henry’s and Erena Le Heron’s chapter on Hawke’s Bay that exposes the path dependency of economic and social evaluation caused by familiar “data assemblages” (like regional GDP numbers).

Perhaps for this reason, the six sectoral chapters on dairying, lamb, merino, kiwifruit, apples and wine provide the most useful case material for the lecture room. In each case, the myopia of productivism is exposed for its economic, social and environmental vulnerability and the story of a transition to an alternative model adding more value under all three headings is crisply told. Each has its own knot of opportunities and constraints. With lamb, it is the challenges of material and time; with merino, the threads of place, people and organisational change; with kiwifruit and apples, the management of brands and intellectual property in a global production system; with wine, the exploitation of social trends and place.

Dairying alone seems yet to have confronted some of the issues that other primary sectors have, if not put behind them, come to terms with. Contemporary dairying is portrayed as strongly contested in a way that the other sectors, tourism possibly excepted, are not. As Le Heron notes, there are real-time contests about the “truth” of dairying’s impact which are evidence of “growing social concern and the stamp of social ownership regarding how the country’s natural resources [viz. water] used by dairying should be managed.”

Perhaps surprisingly, wine emerges as the other sector with at least a flashing amber light on the industry dashboard. I was surprised to learn that in nominal terms alone “the average price achieved by New Zealand wine on global markets has fallen by more than a third over the last fifteen years, with both bulk wine and high volume sales of Marlborough sauvignon blanc key contributors”. 

The tensions of volume to feed a fast-moving consumer goods model with tiny volumes of artisanal, terroir-based production all being marketed under a feel-good “brand New Zealand” umbrella are well-described by Lewis and Erena Le Heron. In one of the more critically astringent contributions, they make the obvious, but too rarely uttered, observation that growth and success are not necessarily the same thing. While image-making has managed to bind together large-scale industrial producers and boutique artisanal enterprises, the tensions are real. Readers are offered a thoughtful account of an industry that has taken sustainability increasingly seriously, but must now future-proof what that means in a world of diverging business models.

For a collection of themed essays, The New Biological Economy makes for a particularly coherent and comprehensive read. This is, without doubt, rooted in its research-based genesis. More than that, Pawson’s book-end essays (complete with a finely drafted “How to read this book” distillation) provide a superb weaving together of threads. As an offering, it should be equally readable by industry leaders and policy makers. Only those with an over-weening investment in the short-run status quo can fail to ponder the issues it raises about the sustainability with which we try to secure a tolerable living from a battered but still rich natural asset base.

I was left particularly struck by an observation in Hugh Campbell’s chapter on “the two lives of the kiwifruit industry”: “It was fortunate,” he observes, 

that the land base for kiwifruit production survived the crisis intact. The recovery period for the industry pre-dated the surge in demand for dairy land that would emerge after the year 2000. Many orchardists had retained their land simply because at the time there was often no other saleable option. They were therefore in a position to move into the new kiwifruit era.

This piece of “luck” underlines a particularity of a land and landscape-based economy: the role of ever-changing market signals in determining land uses and landscape change. There is a large measure of chance involved – will market signals ordain a stable path dependency or catalyse radical change? In the 1980s it was policy that drove radical change. The economic model that emerged passed the baton to the market. But, as the anecdote from the kiwifruit industry shows, where or how land-use changes and with what impact on the landscape will depend on forces originating far from the places people live.

This poses a real challenge for both communities and the environment. Think of the massive conversions from forestry to dairying north of Taupo, or similar conversions from dry tussock to irrigated dairying in the Mackenzie Basin. Compare that with the remarkable constancy of sheep on Banks Peninsula. Evolution or revolution? Policy change and markets can wreak both. As the government prepares a National Policy Statement on Versatile Land and High Class Soils, it will be interesting to see how this generation of policy makers understands value creation from the land. 

Simon Upton is Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

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