Landcare Research - Manaaki Whenua

Landcare-Research -Manaaki Whenua

Environmental monitoring framework for New Zealand production lands

Image – Cissy Pan.

Image - Cissy Pan.

The New Zealand Sustainability Dashboard (NZSD) is a sustainability assessment and reporting tool being developed for the country’s primary industry sectors. It recognises that sustainability is a product of good governance that supports and maintains profitable enterprises while encouraging and protecting the environmental integrity of ecosystems and the social well-being of communities. Mitigating pest threats in production landscapes without undermining other sustainability goals is a key challenge for New Zealand.

Here, Catriona MacLeod and the Agricultural Research Group on Sustainability (ARGOS) present a proposed environmental framework (Fig.) for assessing sustainable land management of New Zealand’s production landscapes. This framework and its indicators are practical, locally grounded and universally accepted. They closely match systems being designed and tested by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organisation (Sustainability Assessment of Food and Agriculture Systems) and by the Department of Conservation and regional councils (a coordinated biodiversity monitoring and reporting system).

Guiding and monitoring progress towards the overarching environmental goal

The New Zealand Sustainability Dashboard’s environmental framework has an overarching goal to protect, and where necessary restore, ‘agro-environmental integrity’ – the state that sustains the full potential of land and its natural capital, ecosystem processes and services to efficiently and indefinitely produce healthy, high quality food and fibre, while enhancing natural heritage values and meeting obligations to global environmental change. The framework recognises the need for an integrated management approach to maintain livelihoods, social well-being and restore ecological integrity; this will require working across a range of spatial scales (e.g. farm, catchment or regional) and governance jurisdictions to deliver the desired management outcomes.

The environmental framework is designed to help guide farmers, industry, local and national policymakers, and the New Zealand public towards achieving agro-environmental integrity. It identifies four critical components that need to be achieved, each defined by a specific set of objectives and indicators (Fig.):

  1. The natural capital of production landscapes is maintained

Natural capital underpins the production and sustainability of intensive farming in New Zealand. Natural capital stocks include soil quality, availability of nitrogen fixers, and vegetation sufficient to keep the land intact and soils moist. Ecosystem services are the flows of materials (e.g. food and fibre), energy, regulation benefits (e.g. biological pest controls to replace pesticides) and information (stored in species and ecosystems) from natural capital stocks. To secure or build these stocks and maintain flows of ecosystem services, three objectives are addressed:

  • Maintaining ecosystem processes: focusing on soil, water, land cover, ecosystem disruption and pollination
  • Reducing agricultural pest threats: considering new and established agricultural diseases, weeds and pests
  • Limiting environmental pollutants: assessing risk and persistence of toxins
  1. Resilience of New Zealand agriculture is secured for future productive use

Resilience is about learning how to deal with uncertainty and adapt to changing conditions. To support farmers, rural communities, industry, and agricultural economy to build resilient systems for coping with significant challenges posed by new threats (e.g. new diseases), shocks (e.g. increases in the price of fuel) and drivers (e.g. changing market demands) in the future, two key objectives are addressed:

  • Minimising material and energy subsidies: considering renewable versus non-renewable use of resources
  • Maintaining agro-biodiversity: assessing genetic stocks, beneficial species and ecological refuges in the landscape
  1. Production landscapes contribute to national ‘natural heritage’ goals

A high proportion of New Zealand’s species are endemic and both valuable and highly vulnerable. Natural ecosystems in production landscapes are highly fragmented and potentially vulnerable, as are the species within them. Yet such production landscapes occur in lowland, fertile, warm areas, which can support a high abundance and diversity of indigenous biota. Again, pest management can contribute to the overall goal of agro-environmental integrity through helping protect vulnerable species and ecosystems. However, there is limited information available to demonstrate whether biodiversity representation and persistence are improving or not. Three key objectives are addressed to support national ‘natural heritage’ goals:

  • Improving ecosystem representation and composition
  • Preventing extinctions and declines
  • Reducing conservation pest threats
  1. New Zealand meets global environmental change obligations

The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change established an international policy for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and increases in carbon sinks to address the global challenge of human-induced interference with the climate. Agriculture, which releases significant amounts of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, is likely to be adversely affected by global warming. Two key objectives are addressed to meet New Zealand’s global obligations:

  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions
  • Increasing carbon sequestration

Next steps for the Sustainability Dashboard environmental framework

Kiwifruit orchards in the Bay of Plenty. Image – Zespri International Ltd. An iterative and interactive process will be used to refine and develop the proposed NZSD environmental framework, to ensure it is both useful and enduring. The NZSD aims to provide a harmonised framework for stakeholders to more clearly define their sustainability goals, outcomes and objectives for New Zealand’s production landscapes. Next steps in the development process will include working with key stakeholders to ensure that the framework:

  • is comprehensive (i.e. embraces diverse values and goals) and that the information collected by the environmental framework can be readily integrated with the economic, social and governance components of the NZSD;
  • can be readily tailored to meet specific industry needs (initially focusing on developing prototype dashboards for kiwifruit, wine, Ngāi Tahu Ahi Kā Kai and organic farming enterprises);
  • can connect multiple data layers and key stakeholders to integrate and harmonise monitoring goals and information. This will include integrating information across sectors, landscapes and institutional jurisdictions to make best use of monitoring data and meet multiple reporting needs (regulatory, market access and business improvement); and
  • uses a transparent process for prioritising indicators for development and implementation in the prototype NZSD. This will include ensuring that the indicators are derived from information that is not only relevant and practical but also tightly prescribed, rigorously field tested and audited.

With large pest impacts to both the productive and natural heritage components of New Zealand farmland, the costs and benefits of pest management will be an integral part of the NZSD to inform an integrated sustainability assessment and reporting process. This will help guide stakeholders to best practices for New Zealand’s society and environment.

24_NZSustainabitlity_dashboard_logoThe New Zealand Sustainability Dashboard project is funded by the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment (AGRB1201).

Catriona MacLeod

Agricultural Research Group on Sustainability

Help inform NZSD design – participate in our online surveys.

Later this year, we will be inviting feedback on the design of the NZSD’s sustainability assessment framework, using online choice modelling surveys. If you would like to participate in these surveys or help us to coordinate participation within your organisation, please email Isabelle Le Quellec (