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MPhil in Engineering for Sustainable Development

global challenges, engineering solutions

Interventions to balance Aotearoa New Zealand’s agricultural system’s contribution to food security with environmental protection: A systems thinking approach with planetary accounting methods

How can we feed the world without devouring the planet? (Monbiot, 2022). In its current state, our global food system is feeding the world in a way that is overshooting planetary boundaries (i.e. the Earth’s environmental limits) (Rockström et al., 2020). The EAT-Lancet Commission (2019) called for the ‘Great Food Transformation’; an urgent and radical transition of the global food system to reduce ‘planetary overshoot’, while providing healthy diets for the world’s growing population. They developed a framework consisting of global environment limits for the food system as well as system change interventions. However, for the world to facilitate the change required, the framework needs to be scaled:

  • to the national-level to inform strategic decision making and policy development
  • to the farm-level as this is where practical decisions are made that can directly impacts the food system’s transgression of environmental limits.

In this research, the EAT-Lancet limits were used to generate a 2021 ‘planetary overshoot’ baseline of Aotearoa-New Zealand (NZ)’s agricultural production system. The results suggest that in relation to how much nutrition NZ is providing, the system is overshooting its ‘fairshare’ of some planetary boundaries (agricultural greenhouse gases – 280%, nitrogen – 220% and phosphorous – 560%). That is to say, the food being produced in NZ (for export and domestic consumption) has an environmental impact intensity which exceeds the required averages for sustainable and healthy diets (defined by the EAT-Lancet Commission (2019)). Several NZ agriculture experts were interviewed to inform how NZ could and should respond to this case for change. They highlighted systemic barriers that influence decision-making within the agriculture system, as well as enablers to help the system move forward. Two key leverage points for wider systems change, that are within the land steward’s agency to initiate are data collection and developing partnerships with local Iwi.

The NZ government could incorporate the systems-thinking approach outlined in this research to inform a strategic and integrated agricultural environmental policy that balances food production and planetary protection. The approach could also form the basis of a holistic on-farm decision making framework to help land stewards understand the trade-offs. At the farm and national level it could help to provide a step towards an industry-wide paradigm shift where environmental sustainability and long-term food security is prioritised over short-term maximised production.



Course Overview


The need to engage in better problem definition through careful dialogue with all stakeholder groups and a proper recognition of context.


An ability to work with specialists from other disciplines and professional groups acknowledging that technical innovation and business skills also must be understood, nurtured and combined as precursors to the successful implementation of sustainable solutions.


An understanding of mechanisms for managing change in organisations so future engineers are equipped to play a leadership role.


An awareness of a range of assessment frameworks, sustainability metrics and methodologies such as Life Cycle Analysis, Systems Dynamics, Multi-Criteria Decision making and Impact Assessment.