Red meat sector: earning environmental social licence

Becoming more visible, being inclusive and remaining sincere is the way forward for the New Zealand red meat sector to earn its ‘environmental social licence’ to operate.

The comments came out of a panel discussion which heralded the start of the fifth Red Meat Sector Conference in Nelson on Sunday evening. About 150 witnessed the panel before heading on to the Hamburg Sud Welcome Cocktail Drinks, ahead of the main conference day on Monday.

On the RMSC environmental social licence panel are - left to right - Colin James, James Parsons (B+LNZ), John Ford (Highland Station), Bryce Johnson (Fish & Game) and Phil McIntyre (Landcorp).
On the RMSC environmental social licence panel are – left to right – Colin James, James Parsons (B+LNZ), John Ford (Highland Station), Bryce Johnson (Fish & Game) and Phil McIntyre (Landcorp). Photo: B+LNZ.

Speakers included this year’s 2015 Ballance Farm Environment Award national winner John Ford of Highland Station near Rotorua, New Zealand Fish & Game Council chief executive Bryce Johnson and Landcorp general manager environment Phil McKenzie. Political commentator Colin James, managing director of the Hugo Group deftly facilitated the forum discussion.

The Ballance awards were one way of finding the performers to put forward as examples for the industry, it was explained. John Ford said he’s one of 12 in his progressive farm discussion group and his 1,240 hectare sheep and beef Highland Station sits “about in the middle”. Any one of them could have won, he claimed.

His explained his family want to be profitable and they aim to manage the farm in the most ecologically and environmentally sustainable way they can. They are using long-term sustainable policies as they look forward to the next 100 years.

“While you have to be (in the) black to be green, if you want to be profitable you have to be green as well,” he said, though cautioning that some good profitable policies are not always necessarily good for the environment.

Fish & Game’s Bryce Johnson commented he believes that New Zealand is at a crossroads in terms of the environmental limits that the public will accept.

“Fresh water is centre stage,” he says. The public, including Māori, are getting behind clean water: for swimming, fishing and safe food gathering. He doesn’t think the red meat sector was too bad but it was caught in with the general pastoral agriculture debate. Issues surrounding the Resources Management Act (RMA) are largely invisible to the wider public and he believed there was a “huge opportunity for industry to pick up on that”.

From Ford’s experience at Highland Station, the way to stop the regional councils setting impossible RMA limits was to work closely with them so they understand the effects of what they were proposing.

For Johnson, “Sector leadership is critical,” he said.

Fish & Game has asked the government for a public inquiry into pastoral agriculture. He urged meat companies to establish a national standard for their suppliers of baseline performance criteria for environmental reporting and to get groups like his to endorse it.

While there is already a lot of good work being done, Johnson said there is a need to make what the sector is doing more visible. He suggested meat companies could take a bigger profile in consumer media, as Silver Fern Farms’ recent New Zealand advertisements did. He also suggested that people from urban areas who are using rural resources, such as hunters and fishers, could be turned into allies to support the sector.

Landcorp’s Phil McKenzie agreed. “The more we explain what we are doing, then the more the public will support us.”

Both the Fords and Landcorp use the ‘Overseer’ programme effectively to achieve environmental objectives, they said. In addition, Land Environment Plans (LEPS), “are really worth doing,” according to McIntyre.

Hawke’s Bay sheep and beef farmer, Sam Robinson, said the sector needs to stop fixating on the dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) figures and start thinking more widely of the health of the ecosystem and to encourage environmental groups to do the same.

Wrapping up the panel discussion, Beef + Lamb NZ chairman James Parsons said it was crucial the red sector got the social licence bit right.

“While farmers are humble people, the highest performing operators are also very good stewards of the land, their businesses and their people.”

His challenge for the sector is to: “Take the public with us.'”

To get better urban engagement, it is vital to take the great stories the sector has and make sure they are genuine and authentic, Parsons believes.

“Social license is working with our stakeholders to find a way to continue what we are doing, well into the future,” he said.


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