President’s Address to National Council Federated Farmers

February 15, 2017

Dr William Rolleston

Members of National Council, ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to be delivering this president’s address to you.

Last year we all learnt a new phrase – “Post Truth Politics”.  We discovered that it is apparently legitimate, according to one White House spokesperson, to cite “alternative facts”.

For us in the primary industries where evidence and science are so critical, these tactics are not new.  I have termed it Post Factual Science.

In the world of Post Truth Politics and Post Factual Science evidence and truth no longer matter.  In that world, just because someone said so, it must be true. In that world people live in their own bubble on the internet where their ideas are not challenged and their prejudices simply reinforced.

Post Factual Science in particular threatens to send us backwards technologically or at least slow our progress.

This impacts us as farmers in New Zealand.  

We witnessed Post Truth Politics in both the Brexit referendum and the US presidential election where politicians could blatantly make things up and be believed (perhaps the audience just didn’t care).  The outcome of post truth politics has been a check on the liberal journey the western world has been on.   In the US commentators point to the failure of the Democrats to look after their working class constituency, preferring a narrow focus on social liberalism and environmentalism.    The result is a reactive slide into isolationism, protectionism, anti-globalisation and the ugly side of nationalism.

This is a problem for us as farmers as it threatens trade. The Wall Street Journal noted that 57% of Trump voters thought that trade takes away jobs.

The Rust Belt of the USA where the car and steel jobs have been lost will find that those jobs have gone not so much because of trade or immigration but because of technology.  Ironically, robotics and automation is allowing developed countries to bring manufacturing back home but the jobs won’t be coming with them.

A Trans Pacific Partnership which includes the USA has gone for the meantime but I would not write off its long term prospects.  The TPP took more than ten years to negotiate. A presidential term is four.  

Thankfully the flurry of executive orders has not yet included trade tariffs on Chinese and Mexican imports.  Perhaps the president is starting to listen to the advice that such tariffs will only hurt his own consumers and a trade war would be crushing for US farmers.  

New Zealand needs to hold the line in our trade with the USA and make small gains where we can but any trade deal, in my view, can wait.  “America first” is not a good pretext for a balanced outcome.

We will also have to be careful not to be caught in the crossfire of any trade war and the government and our officials need to play their cards skilfully and tactfully.  There are opportunities in disruption.

If there is any area of government which needs investment priority right now it is our trade division.  We cannot afford the things we want and need, like hospitals and social services, if we cannot earn our way in the world.

Four days before the North Canterbury earthquake I was at a Cairns Group meeting in Geneva.  I presented the New Zealand farmer view of the importance of free trade and the positive outcomes of deregulation.  I noted the dulling effect subsidies were having on the dairy supply response.  I described the volatility in international prices caused by a thin market exacerbated by restrictions on trade such as tariffs and non-tariff trade barriers.

We also heard from Professor Kym Anderson, School of Economics, Adelaide University, on the barriers to, and trends in, free trade.  Developing countries, he said, had until recently restricted exports through penalties such as export tax.  
Argentina farmers, for example, were penalised with an effective tax rate of up to 90% on their exported goods.  It seems bizarre to us but the intention was to flood the local market with cheap product.  The reality was that Argentina had less ability to pay its way.  Their new government is reversing this policy and other developing countries are now starting to apply subsidies to stimulate production just as developed countries are reducing theirs.  

Another emerging barrier to trade is the environmental penalties applied by governments in developed countries, such as ours, which, if based on production, have a negative impact on competitiveness and disrupt world trade.  Just like export taxes these penalties reduce a country’s ability to pay its way and perversely to afford the environmental interventions it desires.

Some political parties here in New Zealand continue to be fixated on penalising New Zealand farmers in just this way through including biological emissions in a carbon tax or the ETS.  What is worse, since we are carbon efficient protein producers any penalty will simply be exporting production to other less efficient players making the global environmental problem worse, not better.  

In the climate change negotiations last year, with the World Farmers Organisation, we advocated increased productivity and farmer resilience as the way forward to meet the dual challenges of climate change and food production, which are both recognised in the Paris Agreement.

The proposed Federated Farmers policy on climate change, which will be discussed at this National Council, focuses on productivity as a significant contribution to our efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.  Trade distorting production penalties will not take us there and we should be just as wary of them as we are of trade distorting subsidies.

The Geneva meeting agreed that the Cairns Group was more important now than it has been for a number of years.  Not so much to make progress but to ensure the evidence is put into the public dialogue and to hold the line in an uncertain world.

While Post Truth Politics threatens our ability to trade, it is technology which is threatened by Post Factual Science.

Post Factual Science is argument dressed up as science but which abandons the principles of evidence, balance and context in order to persuade.

We have seen Post Factual Science frustrate us in the debates on immunisation, fluoride, 1080 and genetic modification.

Alternative medicine is full of it, ironically legitimised by the liberal tolerance which has been so roundly rejected in the USA.  I am sure there are those who still believe Green Party MP Steffan Browning was on to a good thing when he supported the use of homeopathy to combat Ebola.

We have to be wary that Post Factual Science does not creep into our agricultural practices.  This is why institutions, such as the Fertilizer Council, are so important and why our investment in scientific research, which uses the scientific method to sort out fact from fiction, causation from correlation, is critical.

And before you think that these things do not swing close to home, the new campaign for the Post Factual Science warriors is to have Roundup and glyphosate in general banned from our fields.  

It is of course legitimate for individual farmers to avoid these products but farmers should be free to use those methods and technologies which are assessed as safe and effective.

Our decision makers need to resist Post Factual Science and pandering to fear.  Our local councils appear to be particularly vulnerable in this space.  The problem for us is that once rules are notified in Regional and District plans the burden of proof to have them removed can become insurmountable.  We have seen this in the rules imposed by several councils on genetic modification and the use of glyphosate.

And it is simply not acceptable for regional councils to notify plans that include fencing rules for hill country farmers which are patently impractical and detrimental for the environment as well as the economy.  

Councils need to realise that they have to work with farmers if they are to effect change, they must sort out fact from fiction early on and set out with rules which are practical, doable and evidence based.

Five years ago Federated Farmers provided leadership in bringing the primary industry players together and in getting consensus on the Government Industry Agreement for biosecurity.  This was a major achievement.

The kiwifruit industry knows that the government will not cover the full cost of an incursion.  Kiwifruit did it the hard way, paying for their incursion while the industry was on its knees.  That is why they were the first to sign the GIA.  Joining GIA allows farmers to work together and with government to develop the financial and practical tools they will need to deal with future biosecurity shocks.  Joining GIA gives farmers a stronger voice across the entire biosecurity chain.  It can help stiffen MPI’s spine when it comes to eradication and can weed out those interventions which are not cost effective.

I would have hoped that with Federated Farmers as a party to the Government Industry Agreement the immediate response to the Great White Butterfly incursion would have been more than the two years of monitoring.  
This was a pest which would have cost the livestock industry over $5 million per year in control measures alone.  

In the end it was DOC who stood up and took the responsibility of eradicating it.  At the time I wrote to both DairyNZ and Beef and Lamb asked them to support DOC’s efforts and received only an indication of a few thousand dollars from one.  

Could we have done better?  I think so. I would have hoped that the pastoral industry through its levy funded bodies would have provided more support and I would have hoped that by being a partner in GIA the strength of the Federated Farmers’ network would have been better utilised.

Federated Farmers is the voice of farmers. Federated Farmers has the networks.  It is our livelihoods on the line and we must continue to show leadership in this space and make a commitment to join the GIA in our own right. Our levy paying bodies also need to step up to the mark.   They need to remember that it is farmers, our members, who provide the money to do the things they do. We are in this together.  

Internal matters
Last year was a difficult year for us as an organisation.  

It has though seen the Federation emerge organisationally stronger and fitter and with superior capability.  We are ready for the election year ahead.

However, membership revenue continues to be under strain – a combination of the rural recession related to dairy incomes and ongoing farm amalgamation.  We are looking hard at our subscription categories to make them fairer and reflect the scalable benefit that larger operations get from their membership.

We also need to consider how local campaigns should be funded.  Federated Farmers only has so much capacity.  Contributions from local farmers and supporters as well as co-ordination of our collective efforts would not only boost capacity but would also show that the issue was indeed important to farmers. I hope we will make time to discuss this over the next two days.

Now that we have our leadership in policy and communications in place and with the efficiency and increased effectiveness of our information and communication systems we can focus on other unfinished business, such as development of the Adverse Events Network.  The Network will not only build on our strength as an organisation but will assist provinces to stay in touch with and relevant to farmers.  The value of Federated Farmers and the collective effort of farmers during the North Canterbury earthquake has been clearly demonstrated.  It is time to formalise these arrangements so that valuable time is not wasted reinventing the wheel as each adverse event hits us.

The primary industries, livestock farming and in particular dairying has been under attack for some years now.  Five years ago National Council, through its election of a new board, decided it was time to stand up and be part of the conversation on issues such as the environment - we had to show leadership and be part of the solution.

In my speech to you in June last year I outlined many of the good things that farmers have been doing in the water space but good news doesn’t travel like bad news.  We have had some help though.  Mike Joy’s statement that he wanted to see all ruminant animals out of agriculture exposed his end game to the public and helped put his arguments into perspective.

 It is clear to me that we need a more coordinated effort from the primary sector and scientists to tell our story.  But we need the right strategy.  To quote Michelle Obama “when they go low, we go high”.  Going high though is a long-game strategy.  It takes persistence and resources.  If we are to regain the trust of beltway New Zealand we must base our argument on facts, we must show Post Factual Science for what it is.  We must be the dripping voice of reason.  We must also understand “middle New Zealand” so that we can find a path which meets their concerns and desires while taking us to a positive outcome.

To do this the agricultural industry must work as a team and each must play their part.  We need our scientific institutions, in particular our levy funded bodies, to stick to their knitting.  They must remain objective and must be seen to remain objective.  When our levy bodies stray into advocacy they risk losing their mantra of objectivity.  They risk becoming no more than compulsory unions. As I said before it is our members who pay their levies and it is on behalf of our members that we must hold them to account – as friends and partners.

Federated Farmers is an organisation of people.  Our dedicated staff and you our elected office holders are the strength of this organisation.  Federated Farmers is an organisation with a proud history, a strong brand and a ton of resilience.  We have a significant influence on this country and we must use that influence responsibly.  We are assisted by our strategic partners – FMG, Vodafone, Perpetual Guardian and StockX – and we thank them and our other supporters.  

I want to take the opportunity to congratulate Kevin Geddes on his QSM.  Kevin has served Federated Farmers for 26 years and to me is an institution in his own right.  He is what makes this a great organisation.  Thank you, Kevin, for your long and ongoing contribution which has been suitably recognised.

I also want to mention Jeremy Blanchard who worked here in this office and sadly died last year.  For me Jeremy was always a friendly face here in Wellington, full of ideas and enthusiasm.  Even though he had left Federated Farmers he kept in touch with many of his colleagues and he will be missed.

The political shocks of the last twelve months have changed the world but I also get the sense there is a desire to push back toward normality from some sectors at least.  While Post Truth Politics has been a revelation for many it may do some good if it exposes Post Factual Science and its use of alternative facts.

We must all play our small part in changing the public discourse on agriculture.  We have the advantage that reality and the facts are persistent.  But the public view won’t change if we do nothing.  It is up to every one of us, every farmer and everyone else in the rural sector.

This election year is likely to be a challenge for agriculture because what politicians think and the regulations they make matter to us.  We must continue to strive to improve the way we work on farm and we must continue to challenge the alternative facts.  

Thank you.