We seem to have survived the recent spate of food safety scandals with most of our markets intact.

But that shouldn’t make us complacent, for our reputation as the producer of safe, healthy food has taken a hit, and it’s inevitable our exports will come under ever more intense international scrutiny as a result of these recent food scandals.

Ravensdown’s sale of fertiliser has risen from 354,671 tonnes in 1979 (year after founding) to 1,490,000 in 2012

Testing methods to see whether there are illegal residues in food have become increasingly sophisticated, and they can now pick up tiny residues in food, as we found last year when residues of dicyandiamide (DCD) were found in Fonterra milk, during random testing. DCD was only ever used by around 5% of farmers. But when DCD residues were detected in our milk supply, the reputation of all dairy farmers was on the line, and so were our export markets.

So we are going to have to be ever more vigilant about our food exports, as our competitors will seize on the discovery of even the tiniest residue in food exports, and use it to undermine our reputation and brand.

This is a real concern, as city-dwelling consumers are becoming ever more interested in the way food has been produced, and will react swiftly to any food contamination scare. Consumers want to feel good about what they are eating, and reassured that food is safe and has been produced in a way that doesn’t harm the environment. These expectations put even more pressure on farmers to produce safe, contaminant-free food.

Need to re-think farming practices

All these converging trends suggest we need to re-think some of our conventional farming practices, and look for more sustainable and biological methods of farming that won’t result in chemical residues in food.

We also need to examine everything we put on our soil, and seek to reduce our chemical inputs into farming as much as possible.

In particular, we need to question the wisdom of continuously applying large amounts of superphosphate fertiliser to boost pasture growth – something that is regarded as ‘standard practice’ on most farms.

For there is a real risk, if we continue to pour more and more superphosphate onto our farms, that residues of nitrogen will end up in food.

The discovery of illegally high nitrate residues in milk would be a blow for our industry and for our reputation as producers of safe food. So I believe the time has come to look for other ways of boosting soil productivity that don’t rely on the constant use of superphosphate fertilisers.

There are other well proven, less expensive and more sustainable ways of boosting soil productivity that dramatically reduce the need for synthetic urea. And they can get the same productivity outcome.

Farmers can create a nitrogen cycle within their farming systems, by natural methods such as boosting the microbiology of the soil, and using the good old earthworm, which provides nitrogen for free – as much as five tonnes of nitrogen per hectare a year. A healthy, balanced, productive soil should contain billions of microorganisms such as earthworms and fungi and bacteria, which help to break down organic matter and liberate nitrogen and other minerals from the soil. Clover also produces nitrogen in soils. In fact, 20% clover pasture will give farmers around 60 kilograms of nitrogen a year for free.

Less cost, less pollution

These methods could save on expensive inputs and add many thousands of dollars to farmers’ bottom lines. For constantly applying synthetic fertilisers to soils is an expensive practice, as nitrogen needs to be applied every few weeks to boost pasture growth, and veterinary products are often necessary as well, to sort out animal health problems such as bloat or grass staggers.

Applying synthetic fertiliser is polluting as well, as around 30% of fertiliser will leach into groundwater and surrounding waterways, which is wasteful as well as polluting. Using alternative methods of boosting soil productivity could also help solve the problem of nitrogen pollution of our rivers and streams, which is becoming more serious by the year.

For all of these reasons, I believe the time has come for a debate about some of our farming practices, and ways of reducing our reliance on chemical inputs. As a stakeholder in agriculture, I look forward to participating in that debate.

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