Posted on 06 March 2009
Meet New Zealand Science Advisory Panel Member, Dr. Gavin Kenny who has dedicated much of his life to understanding agricultural ecology and climate change
My name is Gavin Kenny. I live in the Hawke’s Bay region of New Zealand. My parents and grandparents were all dairy farmers and I grew up by the coast, at a place called Mount Maunganui. I worked as a forest labourer for a year after leaving school before studying horticultural science at Massey University in New Zealand. I then completed a Masters degree in horticultural science followed by a PhD in agricultural meteorology at Lincoln University.
I began a career in climate change in the UK managing an EU project on climate change impacts on agriculture. I returned to New Zealand at the beginning of 1993 and spent the next eight years with a research group at University of Waikato, working on climate change projects in New Zealand, Bangladesh, and the Pacific Islands as well as a development project in northern Viet Nam.
I have been a contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) since the early 1990s and now work independently, focusing on grassroots adaptation projects with New Zealand farmers and growers.
My focus on working with farmers and growers is influenced in part by my background. I also strongly believe in the words of Murray Bookchin (author of a book chapter entitled ‘Radical Agriculture’, 1976) ‘We must begin with the land if only because the basic materials for life are acquired from the land.’
Some of the changes that are being observed in New Zealand include a southward spread of sub-topical grasses, warmer winters with fewer cold, frosty days, an increased frequency of damaging late frosts and more erratic rainfall patterns. Such changes are tempered by the knowledge that New Zealand’s oceanic climate is ‘predictably unpredictable’ and that farmers and growers are constantly attuned to the weather and seasonal climate patterns.
Adaptation to climate variations is integral to farming and growing in New Zealand. Hill country farmers in drought prone eastern regions have already been through considerable change as a result of subsidy removals in the early 1980s and droughts in the 1980s and 1990s. An important change has been a shift towards increased flexibility in thinking and farm management. For example a shift to more trading stock, and fewer breeding stock, provides greater flexibility to offload stock during a drought. Not every farmer is doing this, but it is much more common than in the past.
The kiwifruit industry for example has had to adapt to rapid change, most often driven by market pressures and the need to consistently produce high quality fruit from a very variable climate.
While many farmers and growers say they are well attuned and adapted to present conditions, long-term strategic responses such as plant breeding are not presently factoring in climate change to the extent that is needed. We also need to understand a lot more about the resilience and long-term sustainability of different farming systems. At present there is a lot of variation in farming and growing systems, even among those who are thinking more proactively about climate change. Some are moving more towards organic or biological systems. Others are much more technologically focused in what they are doing. There are others who are successfully bridging between the two. There is, in fact, a lot happening on the ground that we are not necessarily well attuned to.
Over nearly two decades of working on climate change I have witnessed a significant shift in attitudes. In the last seven to eight years, through my work with New Zealand farmers, I have noted an increased awareness and acceptance of climate change. However this increased awareness has been strongly tempered by issues such as the emissions trading scheme. Concern around issues like this tends to influence what people choose to believe. In this regard I don’t believe the basics of communication and engagement have been done well enough over the last decade. We need to work a lot harder at engaging with grassroots people and working with their accumulated knowledge and experience to help guide us forward.
My own attitudes to climate change have evolved. Throughout the 1990s I often struggled with research that was focused on looking at uncertainty. How do you get people to take you seriously when you try to communicate the uncertainties? I still have challenges with this. However, I am constantly finding farmers and growers who have their heads up and have no doubts about the science of climate change.
The experience of traveling for 5 months in 2007 removed any residual doubts I had as to whether climate change was real or not. The most powerful conversation I had was at 4500m in the Himalayas with a very articulate Nepali man who talked about the short and long term consequences of higher temperatures and less snow. Everywhere I have been overseas, and increasingly in New Zealand, I have heard similar observations albeit to differing degrees. Farmers around the world, who are attuned to their local environment, are experiencing higher temperatures, changes in rainfall, more erratic weather patterns, and unseasonal weather events.
We all need to understand a lot more about what farmers and growers are dealing with, what they’re doing and how we can work together with them. There is a need for us to develop a better understanding of the long-term resilience and sustainability of different farming and growing systems. At the same time the good things that are being done need to be identified and communicated more effectively.
I strongly believe that a better understanding of what is happening on the ground will lead to more effective policy responses and research support. This requires a recognition that smart ecological and economic thinking can actually go hand in hand. I have encountered a wide range of people who are already working in such a manner. If we can overcome our tendency to label and categorise, and learn to listen to each other a lot more, then much can be gained. In fact I think such an approach is fast becoming a necessity.