Katie Milne addresses National Council

3 July, 2019, Wellington

Kiwis can be proud of the rural women and men who produce the top quality food that arrives daily in supermarkets, and the extra which is shipped offshore as exports that help fuel our economy.  Over 65% of our exports come from agricultural food production and we produce it with a lower carbon footprint than any other country in the world.  

Biosecurity threats, geopolitics, alternative proteins, robotics, disruptors, food and environment sustainability…there’s no shortage of challenges and change confronting us. 

But you should also know - especially if you’ve been fortunate enough to catch some of the keynote addresses and panel discussions of the inaugural Primary Industries Summit that Federated Farmers organised and has hosted Monday and Tuesday – that New Zealand also has a wealth of ideas, talent and drive to deal with these big issues coming at us.

A common theme I picked up from a number of the speakers is the value of collaboration and sharing ideas and resources.  We’re a small nation Down Under, trying to tell our producer story to those higher-end “conscious consumers” all over the globe.   As Kiwi producers, we shouldn’t be competing with each other when our real task is to break-through against bigger and better resourced international competitors.  Right in the middle of several of the panel discussions in the last two days, such as on how to reduce plastic packaging, participants found common ground and said, in effect, “let’s work together on that”.   It’s about the people and talent.

We should be very wary of underplaying the progress and successes we’ve already made as food producers and custodians of the land.  If we pay too much attention to the critics, it saps motivation and puts more stress on the shoulders of farmers and their families.  As the Prime minister said - we can be too hard on ourselves.

We’re all tying ourselves in knots as we try and thrash out workable, science-based and affordable Zero Carbon legislation.  It’s easy to forget that New Zealand farmers are among the very best in the world at producing meat and milk with the lowest per kilogram greenhouse gas emissions.  

Some countries have committed to reduce their agricultural GHG emissions by up to 30% in the next 30 years - a little known fact is that that will bring them down to the current levels our farmers have already achieved. 

Remember also, farmers in many of the nations we compete with on international markets have a cushion of subsidies to prop them up.

One of the biggest things New Zealand farmers can do to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, is to show developing nations how to utilise our knowledge of farming systems and technology that have enabled us to achieve these levels.  

Our food producers have been and can be outstanding in meeting some of the top line commitments of the Paris climate change agreement. Those being “Recognize the fundamental priority of safeguarding food security and ending hunger, and the particular vulnerabilities of food production systems to the adverse impacts of climate change” and “taking full account of the specific needs and special situations of the least developed countries with regard to funding and transfer of technology”.  

 The other one of huge importance to our food producers is “Recognising the need for an effective and progressive response to the urgent threat of climate change on the basis of the best available scientific knowledge”. This scientific knowledge is changing and growing constantly and there is a danger of introducing policy based on science and metrics that may provide perverse outcomes.

Federated Farmers is working hard to get our politicians and others to recognise that the methane targets currently envisaged are unnecessarily harsh if the aim is no additional warming impact by 2050.  We don’t want to cause a huge hit on our standard of living before some of the technology that is being worked on arrives.  

Meanwhile, those who want to lay blame at the foot of agriculture are oblivious to – or wilfully ignore – the irrefutable fact that carbon dioxide is the real climate change culprit.  They tend to look the other way when asked if they’ve abandoned even their second car for a bike or an EV yet.  Methane is distracting everyone from that big game.  

We all need to do our bit as Kiwis but we shouldn’t expect our individual food producing families to do most of the heavy lifting for NZ while we work towards meeting international climate change goals and grapple with how to deal Co2.

The underrating of the importance of trade to all Kiwis and our way of life is a bit of a bug bear with me.  Our standard of living matches that of bigger and better resourced developed nations largely because of the export dollars coming in from meat, wool, dairy, horticulture, forestry and, yes, tourism.  That’s how we can afford to pay for the latest imported goods – the ultra-high definition TVs, the smart phones, the surgical equipment and so on.

Our total population is equal to a medium sized city in many other parts of the world.   Bigger cities and nations have a critical mass that produces enough commerce to sustain first world comforts.  In New Zealand a big part of that economic burden falls on primary producers.

Our farmers may be feeling a bit flat and “got at” in the current climate, but they should never forget there is massive opportunity – and a great source of pride - in growing safe, sustainable, efficient and healthy food that is needed to feed a growing global population.

The point of the summit held this week was to bring practical farmers, academics, government officials, scientists, thought leaders and agribusinesses together in Wellington to help increase knowledge across the board on many levels, be they social, economic, environmental, and building future thinking.  It’s another way that Federated Farmers pursues its mission to “empower farmers to excel”.

In my Annual Report, you can find my thoughts on some of the issues and legislation we’ve been grappling with since our last annual general meeting.  I won’t go over the same ground now, but I’ll highlight just a couple of key points.

We didn’t quite get everything we wanted with the new firearms legislation, but it’s easy to understand the desire for urgent action in the wake of the tragic shootings in Christchurch.   The buy-back locations have now been announced, and there’s a reasonable geographic spread.  It will be very interesting to see if enough resources have been allocated to cater for the inevitable argy-bargy over what level of compensation should be paid as people front up to hand over their firearms.  All this isn’t helped by the fact there’s still a great deal of confusion out there over what is now banned, and what isn’t.

Federated Farmers leaders, policy experts and members fronted the Select Committee and left its members in no doubt it would be counter-productive to pest control and animal welfare to go too far banning semi-automatic weapons. The unfortunate consequence of the final decisions – an aspect we are still working on – is that if a mob of 40 goats of pigs arrive on your property, you won’t have the most suitable weapons in your gun safe.  How long does a farmer have to wait for an approved contractor to be available?  Once these pest animals get gun shy, and you yourself can’t be the contractor of choice on your own property, farmers’ ability to keep on top of the damage done to pasture and native bush is curtailed.

You’d have to be living under a rock not to have picked up the growing concern around the amount of productive sheep and beef land being gobbled up by forestry.

No-one has a problem with trees on marginal and erosion-prone land, for shade and shelter and being incorporated for harvest as part of a farm’s income diversification, but the evidence from districts such as the Wairarapa, Tararua, Wairoa, central North Island, Gisborne and Nelson-Marlborough is that it’s far more than marginal land where pasture will be replaced by pine.  It just shows that when you have subsidies interfering  - in this case, in the form of One Billion trees grants, with the added incentive of carbon unit revenue under the ETS  - you can get perverse outcomes. And of course there is the irony of the under budgeting of the work needed to deal with wilding pines in the high country.

On the other side of the ledger, if you’re a farmer looking to retire, it’s your right to sell to the highest bidder. 

We need to watch this one carefully, and farmer calls for a halt and a review of the government’s policy settings in this space sounds very wise.  

I thank you all for taking the time away from your families and businesses to attend this important meeting.  We really appreciate what you do each and every day for Federated Farmers, for your local members, and for the good of your industry.