Friday, April 12, 2024

Regs that are worth the paper they’re written on

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The high-value future of the food and fibre sector will come at a paperwork price that is even higher than what the sector pays today, says Daniel Eb.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

In this series, the lads discuss levers.

This month, for the first time in half a decade, I took a regular job. 

Up until now, I’ve been fortunate enough to run my own little agri-comms business. Like most owner-operator outfits, it runs lean. Clients sign on with a two-page contract and a handshake – knowing full well that if I don’t deliver, they can (and should) drop me. It’s not for everyone, but this lack of administrative oversight suits me down to the ground. I like being able to just focus on the work.

Landing on a payroll recently was a bit of a shock. I chafed under the first few days of induction manuals, HR systems and health and safety briefings. I was hired do the work, and all this extra stuff felt like it was just getting in the way. I found myself empathising with a lot of farmers out there who look at the mounting pile of regulations the same way. It’s slowing down the real work. 

In the same way that a tennis player or golfer might struggle to take up a team sport, it’s been harder than I thought to give up some of that autonomy and self-direction. Like most things done day after day after day, that way of working has become part of my identity. 

Having to abruptly start following someone else’s rules – however commonsense and well intentioned they are – just hasn’t felt right. 

But something has balanced out the paperwork chafing. Something that I can already tell is worth it:  joining a team. Dropping into the weekly scrum with half a dozen people who are equally obsessed with transforming food systems for human and environmental resilience has been a welcome change.

The opportunity to learn from people who have been doing the hard yards of system change in food and farming for decades, is worth the price in admin hours. Being able to build off their reputation and hard lessons learnt will be worth giving up a little autonomy. 

With all the talk of “Team Ag” recently, it’s a good time to pause and reflect on what collective work can achieve – even if it costs the individual time, money and effort. The food New Zealand farmers produce is rated as the world’s safest because of the assurance and monitoring schemes that run on boring paperwork. 

New Zealanders overwhelming trust farmers to properly care for their livestock because the rules generally keep pace with social expectations, the vast majority of farmers comply and breaches are enforced. We are slowly (probably a bit too slowly) building a firewall against a future biosecurity threat through increasing NAIT compliance. 

No individual farmer, however talented, can achieve these things. Instead, everyone pays the price in paperwork.

This isn’t full-throated support for all regulations. Many of the recent batch lacked farmer input and quickly evolved into political footballs. They relied far too much on the stick (for example, tax) instead of the carrot (new market development – like biodiversity or robust carbon sequestration credits). 

Worse, they put the stick and the carrot at the wrong end – leading with threats of punishment, instead of splashing some cash to incentivise farmers to experiment with the new markets first, before showing the stick. 

Data duplication remains an unnecessary time-waster and policymakers failed to account for the weight of so many regulations being imposed so quickly – particularly at a time when weather and economic shocks were straining farm balance sheets and the wellbeing of those on the land. 

Those intending to add to the paperwork load have a responsibility to design it well. 

But the high-value future of the food and fibre sector will inevitably come at a paperwork price that is greater than today’s. Our ability to sell into high-standard markets like the European Union, or prove the environmental claims that the world’s most discerning customers are looking for, will be built on endless farm environment plan updates, GHG number calculations, online catchment meetings, new supply chain assurance reports and real-time water, animal health or other sensor monitoring. 

Even when designed perfectly, it will mean chafing under paperwork at 10pm in the farm office or at the kitchen table. 

But that’s why we have red wine. 

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