Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Common ground beyond the sloganeering

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Farmers and environmentalists share a goal: healthier land use, say Chris Falconer and Marnie Prickett.
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By Chris Falconer and Marnie Prickett. Falconer is a dairy farmer. Prickett has worked for healthy waterways as an educator and community organiser, campaigner, policy adviser, and researcher. Both write in their personal capacities. 

From the noise out there, you might think a dairy farmer and an environmental advocate wouldn’t share the same goals. But the loudest voices and repeated soundbites obscure the fact that conflict isn’t farmers versus environmentalists. 

Here we are, on the same page, to say one of the most important ways New Zealand can reduce its greenhouse gas emissions, restore rivers, and support rural communities is to move to healthier land use. 

And we’re here to explain that the real conflict exists between those who recognise our need to shift to healthy land use and those who are strongly resisting change. 

Soundbites like “unworkable regulations” and “tidal wave of regulations” are coming from the usual protagonists; groups like Groundswell and Federated Farmers, who claim to be the voice of farmers, although they’re not. 

Regulations are framed by their opponents as sudden, numerous, dubious and onerous – but the reality on the ground does not match the rhetoric. In Waikato, over the past five years, there has only been one additional statutory requirement: to report artificial nitrogen use. It was well signalled and takes all of five minutes. 

But still these soundbites go on uninterrogated and are picked up by predatory politicians.

The regulations introduced by the Labour-led Government in recent years have also been well signalled. In 2003, Fonterra and the government signed the Clean Streams Accord, committing to reduce the impact of dairy farming on waterways. A few years later, after a lack of progress and increasing pressure on waterways, the agricultural minister at the time, Jim Anderton, said: “If an industry wants to avoid regulation, it must take concerted action before the rest of the community demands government intervention.” 

And it has been communities all over the country that have been pushing central and local government to have stronger regulations on emissions, water, forestry, and biodiversity for decades.  Not only to stop where we’re going wrong but put the country on the path to healthy land use.

It hasn’t been politicians or the Labour-led Government pushing for regulation. It’s been the public. It’s been ordinary people, from all sorts of backgrounds and every region, over many years. 

And again, this is obscured by those soundbites. 

Pastoral farming, horticulture and forestry occupy approximately 50% of our land so it really matters for everyone how the agricultural industry operates. Healthy land use recognises and responds to the needs of the natural environment and people. This might mean that where birds and fish are dying or disappearing, wetlands are restored. Or, if swimming holes or drinking water are contaminated, farm systems are changed to reduce pollution flowing into water. Healthy land use reduces emissions produced and increases emissions sequestered. Healthy land use is more resilient under flooding and drought and reduces these risks to the community.

It’s the win, win, win. And, while there are challenges and nuance to this, it’s doable. Chris has been doing exactly this on his farm for the past nine years; promoting and prioritising values that deliver on the metrics not usually associated with the industry but that really matter to the wider community. Others are out there doing this work across sectors, different soils, and different regional climates. However, we need to be doing it at a larger scale, across regions, across the country. 

Another confused or dishonest claim about new regulation relates to our new national freshwater policy. The policy is designed for councils to make decisions on a catchment-by-catchment basis. It has science-led bottom lines that establish what a healthy catchment means broadly. Then councils (along with their local communities) decide how this will be achieved over the next few decades, including what steps need to be taken in the short term. 

Groundswell, Federated Farmers and the National Party have repeatedly said they want to change the policy to have catchment-based management. But this is already how the policy works. What they appear to really mean by this is that they want to get rid of bottom lines so that any level of pollution is legal. 

Internationally, regulations for agriculture like New Zealand’s are being introduced. Further requirements may be administered through industry schemes, supported by processors, and phased in over time (as the international market demands lower-impact goods). 

Very little happens quickly in the regulatory space, and it hasn’t. Extreme language used to resist (and push) change is unhelpful when navigating it. Change is happening, though. It will and must continue if our land use is to support our communities and be resilient in a warmer world.

So we ask, journalists, interrogate those soundbites. Over the noise of this election, ask what do they really mean? What history and reality do they obscure?

And for the rest of us, let’s keep working for that common, healthy ground.

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