Nature supports agriculture

I dream of a nature-rich Hawke’s Bay.

Some have told me that we have that already … well, they are wrong. 

Here in Hawke’s Bay, the nature most see on a daily basis is a steady stream of exotic birds and plants. While mynahs, starlings, palm trees and oak trees have a certain charm, they are not substitutes for the indigenous species that evolved and adapted here for millions of years. 

This year’s pandemic led to a forced isolation of much of the world’s population. The effect on the earth was positive. We saw polluted cities become brighter and clearer, wildlife re-emerge in villages and towns, and streams, rivers and canals become less murky. The dramatic cut in air travel saw fewer planes in the sky, emitting less carbon dioxide. Mount Everest could be seen from Kathmandu because the skies cleared as pollution diminished.

Here, and around the world, people asked if the birds were louder – the answer was no, we could just hear them! 

It was good to see the temporary changes in the world and especially here in Hawke’s Bay, but it is not enough. The problem is much deeper. 

Sure, we live in a wonderful landscape with bountiful produce and spectacular scenery, but we have serious ecological issues that won’t just disappear. They will not improve without our help.

About 85-90% of the region’s indigenous ecosystems have disappeared, largely because of agriculture. Dozens of species found only in Aotearoa are extinct. A thousand years ago, moa thrived in Hawke’s Bay, and they are now long absent. Levels of extinction here are as high as anywhere in the country.

Don’t misunderstand – I am not against agriculture. I like to eat, and enjoy good wine. Like all residents, I benefit from the prosperity of Hawke’s Bay. I understand that progress is important, and Hawke’s Bay can be justifiably proud of being the Fruit Bowl of New Zealand. 

But we need to acknowledge that agriculture has been a problem. Agriculture supports Hawke’s Bay, but nature supports agriculture. Nature provides the ecosystem services that ensure sustainability for both agriculture and human societies.

Clean air, clean water, healthy stable soils, raw materials, energy, medicines, carbon sequestration, climate regulation, waste decomposition, and disease control are only a few of the services that sustain us. 

Yes, even the pandemic can be traced back to the loss of disease control in a highly modified ecosystem in China. It happens here too – think of bovine tuberculosis transmitted by possums, toxoplasmosis transmitted by cats, and Mycoplasma bovis that threatens our cattle industry. All are exotic species, brought here and brought together by humans.

Farmers bear no more responsibility for the destruction of our ecosystems than the rest of society. Removal of native bush, pollution of rivers, introduction of more than 25,000 exotic species of plants – all of these were driven by demand from all New Zealanders and often by government subsidies. 

Is it too late to restore sustainable habitats rich in indigenous species? The task can seem overwhelming, but as the saying goes, ‘A 1000-mile journey begins with one step’.

Each of us can play our role as custodians, kaitiaki, of Hawke’s Bay and its future. To do that, it’s useful to consider what and where nature is.

For individuals, nature starts in our garden or even the lonely pot plant in the corner of a noisy restaurant or shop. Every day I see examples of individuals caring for the plants or the patch of earth outside the back door. Every little ecosystem can contribute to the larger ecosystem of Hawke’s Bay.

Individual action is critical, but we need more than that. We need the buy-in and inclusion of key stakeholders in our communities. For me, the two groups central to restoring our landscape to its natural order are farmers and Māori.

Farmers too often get a bad rap in protecting our environment, but many are actively leading the transition to more sustainable farming practices, practices that can begin to heal nature. 

Hawke’s Bay farmer Bruce Wills has been a high-profile flag bearer for better practice through leadership roles at Federated Farmers, Apiculture NZ, and now the QEII National Trust. Hawke’s Bay regional councillor Will Foley is exploring new farming modes from a perspective of benefits to human health and well-being. 

Equally importantly, we must all acknowledge the central role of Māori, who deeply feel their connections to nature. Even the term ‘tangata whenua’ refers to this link. Māori understand that the journey to recovery will be long, and they embrace their role as kaitiaki for the long-term. We need them on this journey.

Guidance from a Māori perspective comes from the Whanganui River Settlement Act (2017). The Act confers “legal personality” on the entire catchment. The catchment is recognised as a ‘living whole’ that ‘supports and sustains … the health and well-being’ of the people of the entire catchment. 

This is equally relevant in Hawke’s Bay. I think every square metre of New Zealand deserves the same respect as the Whanganui catchment. Most of our land is vested in the farming community, who thus have the burden of leadership to repair damaged land and take us to a sustainable future. By ensuring the long-term health of the land, the farming community will also provide higher-value products for the international economy – environmental restoration is thus the key to our future wealth and well-being. 

As humans we cannot take any credit for the respite Earth was given, as we did not change our lifestyles out of choice. Covid-19 forced it upon us. But the pandemic lockdown reminded us that nature can recover if we give it a chance. 

So, I hold to my dream of a nature-rich, sustainable future for Hawke’s Bay. We each need to step up and play our part as individuals. We can support those leaders and groups who are showing the way. 

And we need to understand that this is a long journey. Biodiversity recovery is a long-term commitment and not simply the tagline for every three-year election cycle. Success in this endeavour will make our lives and futures better. 

Charles Daugherty is Emeritus Professor of Ecology, Victoria University. Awarded an ONZM for his work on tuatara ecology and management. A former trustee of Zealandia, he’s involved with Biodiversity Hawke’s Bay since retiring to Hawke’s Bay, serving as chair of the trust board, but writing in his personal capacity. 

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5 Comments

  1. I totally agree. It is disappointing to see palms and oak trees still being planted, especially in public spaces. This is N.Z. not England. Plant more natives please.

  2. Two key things HB farming could do to help more rapidly restore crucial bio-diversity: expand plantings of highly diverse hedgesrows as an integral part of cropping fields and orchards and reduce the use of glyphosate herbicides. A recent USA EPA report implicates glyphosate as a major contributor to plummeting numbers of threatened species. It will be no different in NZ. There are other approaches to weeds that can help to build soils and biodiversity instead of harming the ecosystem.

  3. Thanks Charles for this reminder. While I agree with you completely about living with nature, I wonder if you would like to comment on the intensive tree planting that has occurred in the Tauroa valley to Kopanga Road area of Havelock North in recent years? It is a mix of exotic and native trees supplying a year round food source for tui and kereru year round and drawing the species of native birds right down into the gardens of the more urban areas of town.

    1. As the author of this article, thanks so much to Joan, Phyllis, and Kay — I agree with all you say. Re Kay’s question: Exotic plant species certainly have key roles they can play in providing year round food for indigenous birds and insects. According to scientists at Landcare Research, over 30,000 plant species have been introduced to NZ – more than for any country in the world. Many of these provide real benefits in certain environments. But at least one species per month escapes cultivation and becomes a problem – wilding pines are an especially egregious example. But mixed plantings can have benefits, and Councils and the NZTA should aim to provide a better mix of native and exotic plants for public lands such as roadsides and parks. There’s no longer justification for mass plantings of eucalypts along roadsides, for example, especially as fire risk increases with climate change. Use of natives should be the default choice until greater benefits can be shown from use of exotics.

  4. To improve and protect native biodiversity we need also to look at the personal choices of so many residents to keep as “pets” such species as cats and dogs. These are introduced, mammalian, carnivorous predators and not only kill/eat our native and endemic birds but also endemic gecko, skink, weta, frogs. We will never see kiwi, kokako or kakapo in our environment while so many people keep these animals.
    I know which I would prefer.

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