Comment: Fast and furious start to freshwater consultation

Freshwater iStock-1065897876

Boy, it’s been a grumpy month in the red meat sector, which should have been celebrating the success of a great 2018-19 meat export season and what has the potential to be a very great 2019-2020. Opinions have been flying fast and furious as freshwater consultation hasn’t gone ‘quite’ as well as the Coalition Government might have hoped.

Those attending the MIA cocktail function in the middle of last month were looking over their shoulders not only at what’s coming at them in global markets but also from our own Government. The annual function was held the day after the joint launch of the Ministry for the Environment (MFE)’s freshwater consultation on 9 September by the Minister of Environment and Trade and Export Growth David Parker and Minister of Agriculture and Minister of State for Trade and Export Growth Damien O’Connor.

Aimed at achieving one of the election promises for the Government – ‘swimmable rivers’ – the consultation, based on years of work, revolves around proposals for drafts for a new National Policy Statement for Freshwater, National Environmental Standards for Freshwater and regulations for Stock Exclusion Section 360. It will involve farmers and growers working with Farm Environment Plans, which the beef, sheep and deer sectors are already advocating, excluding livestock from waterways, planting stream and riverbanks, planting erosion prone land, smart fertiliser use and creating setbacks. The proposals have been informed by four advisory groups, Kāhui Wai Māori, the Freshwater Leaders Group, a Science and Technical Advisory Group and a Regional Sector Water Subgroup comprised of council leaders and senior staff.

Nobody argues with the overall goal, the sector knows freshwater is at the centre of the Kiwi lifestyle. Much of what is proposed is already being done and it appears the proposals will tighten up industry standards, introduce more restrictions in certain locations and for particular activities.

However, it seems farmers are being asked to do far more than their urban counterparts. What is proposed will cost some producers a great deal of hard-earned income and the consultation’s launch – unfortunately timed during calving and lambing, the most stressful time of year for sleep-deprived sheep and beef farmers – raised the ire of the red meat sector.

Beef + Lamb NZ (B+LNZ) says the proposals will have a disproportionate effect on the majority of sheep and beef farms, while the Meat Industry Association feels they are a blunt instrument for complex water problems.

The sector’s passion was evident at the 20 freshwater consultation meetings around the country as farmers turned out in their droves to ask questions and make sure their concerns were heard about some of the proposals that, for some, will have massive consequences – some having driven for hours to get to the meetings at such a busy time of year. Extension of the consultation period by a paltry two weeks from six to eight weeks to the end of October, while welcome is insufficient for such weighty proposals and it should have been extended further.

As a whole the sector has been taking huge steps forward environmentally, for which it should be recognised. Farmers generally want to do the right thing, work really hard and, like other members of the public, care deeply about their farms and environment and are trying to understand what is required of them.

It is understandable they are really concerned about threats to their way of life, rural communities and livelihoods as they come under siege from all the environmental/climate change demands being thrust on them at little notice with little consultation and limited understanding.

There are other social implications that must be taken into account too, not least of which is mental health in rural communities.

In a section of a generally excellent Q&A programme devoted to the issue, I fixated on one phrase uttered by the spokesperson from the Choose Clean Water Campaign, a member of one of the advisory groups: “We want to make sure farmers adhere to water standards demanded by the public.”

Since when were farmers not the public too? Aren’t we all citizens of this country? The government needs to demonstrate a level of inclusiveness and understanding that farmers are facing a whirlwind revolution in on-farm technology, massive and unreasonable pressure from environmental and water demands.

We, not they.

Highly respected agribusiness consultant – a former Agricultural Communicator of the Year – Chris Garland put it well in his open letter to ministers and the PM: “Farmers are not environmental vandals. They are a business sector that has found itself at the centre of a maelstrom of environmental concern,” he wrote.

Another of those farmers finding themselves awake with concern about the issue in the wee small hours was Wairarapa sheep and beef farming leader Roger Barton. Motivated by Minister O’Connor’s Twitter dismissal of Garland’s well-considered and founded explanation of farmer sentiment as ‘politically motivated’, he tapped out an email to the Minister, defending the agribusiness consultant’s words, at 4.50am on the morning of 20 September.

Opening his Dear Damien with “I will be blunt, you are making me angry,” Barton’s passionate letter about Garland’s “perfect summation of the rural mood” goes on to say:   “His comments and concerns are absolutely correct. We are all seeing it in our communities,” he wrote, asking if the Minister, himself, could imagine the “horrendous cost” of establishing sheep-proof fences down the edges of gullies, “to achieve the unachievable.”

Barton wrote: “In the very late 1980s a group of Wairarapa based farmers, John Atkins and Phil Guscott, established Lean Meats operating in the marketplace (San Francisco initially) as Atkins Ranch.

“One of Phil’s abiding comments was that, but for two exceptions in the then Cabinet, we set up in spite of government not because of government. The roadblocks and difficulties created by bureaucracy were many and continuous. Your attempt to claim the high ground around farmer success in the market-place just doesn’t start to ring true.”

Damage limitation from the Minister since the launch has included the release of the latest Situation and Outlook for Primary Industries (SOPI) report and claiming a more positive than negative attitude from urban New Zealanders to rural New Zealand extrapolated from the latest UMR research.

It was great news from the SOPI Report for the red meat sector, which has had a record-breaking year and is expected to virtually repeat it in the year to end June 2020 with exports valued at $10.1 billion. Hard work by all sections of the industry over the past decade, guided by the Red Meat Sector Strategy blueprint and supported in the initial stages by the previous government through Primary Growth Partnerships is paying off for the sector and the country, alongside favourable market conditions. That should be applauded.

However, the UMR research shows while 54 percent of those questioned had a positive or very positive view of the sheep and beef sector, that left 45 percent who were neutral, negative, very negative or simply unsure. The UMR research was from a survey of 1,000 New Zealanders 18 years and over, taken during 1-5 August, BEFORE the freshwater fracas. I would say the primary sector has space to make quite a bit of improvement on this, moving more of those 29 percent of neutrals into positive territory.

More research on rural confidence – Rabobank’s latest quarterly pulse-take – found that had already plummeted to -33 percent in late August/early September from -2 percent in the previous quarter – before the launch of the consultation.

The next reports from both surveys will show a different picture, I suspect.

In her National Statement to the UN’s General Assembly this week, our Prime Minister reiterated New Zealand’s commitment to sustainable agriculture. Our sector is moving forward in this regard and is a leader in the Primary Sector Coalition on Climate Change.

Our Minister of Agriculture says he is proud of our farmers, which is welcomed, but he needs to stand up more for them in Cabinet and get better engaged with the sector.

As Barton suggests in his email, the Minister needs to: “get his feet back on the ground in the provinces and start to understand where and why the sentiments of professionals like Chris Garland are real and not contrived for political effect.”

He concludes: “Listening is a skill Damien … you need to start listening.”

More information about the consultation is available at B+LNZ’s website and also the MFE website. Consultation is open officially until 17 October, but submissions will be accepted up to 31 October.

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