Speech to BlueGreens Forum

William Rolleston
President, Federated Farmers
19 November 2016

I would like to thank you for the opportunity to speak to you today.  I had hoped to prepare a pithy presentation for you. Ten minutes is not a lot of time to lay before you the breadth of issues in the nexus between agriculture and the environment but the North Canterbury earthquake has got in the way. Yesterday I flew around North Canterbury with Minister Guy to see first-hand the destruction Nature's forces can bring.

I know many of the farmers in that part of the world personally.  Most of those are multi-generational farmers.  They care about the land, they care about the future and they care about the next generation.

I also come from a multi-generational farming family and would like to think that our family culture reflects those of the farmers who we flew over yesterday.

My grandparents were farmers, environmentalists, scientists and historians.  They cared about the past, the present and the future of our farming property.

The environment, the land and science were constant conversations in their household.  Solutions for the environment were run through the filter of science to ensure they were workable.  We had a stream of scientists visiting to consider the land, the fauna and the flora.  Our property was the first on the Hunters Hills to stop burning as a means of pasture renewal and we have preserved numerous bush gullies, cataloguing with cuttings the myriad of plants that survived there as well as on the open hills and pastures. In the days of land clearance subsidies our North Island friends wondered why they had deliberately preserved an area of Kanuka – they thought we were mad.

My father was a keen and able climber, serving on the National Parks Authority until it was abolished by Denis Marshall and replaced by DOC.

This is the stuff of my childhood.

Following Brexit and the Trump victory you will be aware of the expression ‘post-truth politics’.

In fact post-truth is the Oxford dictionary word of the year.

Post Normal Science is an expression coined in the nineties to describe the challenge for science when the “facts are uncertain, values are in dispute, stakes are high and decisions are urgent”.

This describes many of the issues you have been grappling with today.  

But I also want you to think about how post-truth politics is used to exploit uncertainties, values and urgency.  

Use the tactics of post-truth politics to increase the perception of uncertainty and urgency and frame that in a set of values which may or may not be appropriate or real and you have the argument for applying the uncertainty principle – a one sided principle devised to limit progress or indeed stop it in its tracks.

As you think about formulating policy in the environmental space you need to be aware of this risk. I refer you to comments made by Sir Peter Gluckman, who warned that decisions made without the proper application of science may entrench policies which have little value and are not easily reversible because there may be a popular public perception that they are effective when they are not.

Bad news travels fast and fear sells.  This is why the expressions Dirty Dairying and Frankenfoods have been so powerful and effective.

Federated Farmers made a conscious decision five years ago to engage collaboratively and constructively in the conversations on water quality, climate change and other areas.
We have been up to the challenge where the science shows there are issues.

Farmers have been doing plenty and many have become frustrated and disillusioned that the rhetoric from the other side has changed little - Fish and Game walking from the Land and Water Forum, Forest and Bird and the EDS taking Horizons to court, for example.
High Country farmers are progressively being disenfranchised, with tenure review, the Mackenzie Forum, plan change 13, and constant court challenges against their every move to improve their lives and the land on which they depend. They chose to live in that beautiful country, many of their opponents do not.  At the outset of the Mackenzie Forum farmers were cynical and said to me “no matter how much we give them they still want more”.  I can see their point.

There has understandably been a focus of attention on the lowland country where animal numbers are concentrated but attention is now moving up into hills.  In response to signals from Wellington and activist groups, the same rules are being applied where their implementation is impractical and of little, no or even a negative impact on the environment.  Fencing all waterways in the hill country where stock numbers are low and the terrain challenging, as has been proposed in the Healthy Rivers plan in the Waikato, is a good example.  Our work has shown this may cost some farmers the fat end of $1 million dollars and farmers tell me that it will send them broke and create erosion risk on fragile country.

The water debate has been bitter and we can only combat emotion with the constant application of the evidence. Our necessity to correct the public comments on the Aotearoa report is a case in point.

 I have often said that if you want to have real outcomes you need to find solutions which take both sides in the direction they want to go.  In this case a better environment and a better economy.

The Land and Water Forum has not been perfect but we ask that policy does not overstretch its outcomes.

We also ask that policy is enabling and provides farmers with options rather than limiting them.  For example, destocking may work to improve profit in some areas of the Waikato but it is not a solution for all farmers as it has been touted to be.  
Water and nutrient trading, in our view, is fraught with difficulty and does not result in retaining optionality for farmers.  Water trading also has the added complication of the implications it might have on definitions of ownership and iwi rights.  Rhetoric from iwi relating to the Kermedecs and the principle which seemed to be promulgated that while others could have their rights curtailed in the interests of the environment, iwi should not, would have serious implications for non-Maori farmers if such a precedent were set.

Swimmability is the current contention and here we share the aspiration.  But as I flew up this morning I saw no rivers in quake affected North Canterbury which were swimmable – they were all grey and in flood.  While some are suggesting the default be 100% swimmability we suggest that places and times for swimmability should be determined by the community who use those bodies of water and I understand some progress has been made in this regard.  It is about where you place the burden of proof.  We should not be guilty until proved innocent.

The Opuha Dam remains the example that water storage has multiple positive outcomes for our environment, our economy, recreation and for drinking water supplies yet the Ruataniwha is bogged down in legal tricks.

We were disappointed but not surprised to see the Hastings water contamination exploited against the dam – a good example, in my view,  of post truth politics.

You are aware of our aspirations in the area of climate change.  We have thought long and hard about this and it is clear that we are highly carbon efficient animal protein producers.  We are also against trade-distorting subsidies as well as trade-distorting penalties.  Penalising our farmers through a mechanism such as the ETS would simply drive production offshore to less efficient producers, worsening the world’s emissions profile.  It also suffers in creating no incentive at the individual farmer level.

The World Farmers’ Organisation shares Federated Farmers’ view that to meet the Paris Agreement aspirations of producing more food and mitigating and adapting to climate change, farmers should be encouraged to improve productivity and build resilience.  This means greater investment in science.

At the Cairns group meeting in Geneva last week we heard how developing countries were reducing their export penalties because they have recognised the negative effect it has had for them.  It would be wrong for New Zealand to start to implement them making our farmers less competitive and damaging the income stream we need to address the matters that we all care about.  This not only applies to the ETS but also to resources taxes and resource rentals.

Some time ago the National Government developed a Biodiversity National Policy Statement.  This NPS has sat on the shelf partly because farmers saw it as another stick which would be exploited through the courts.  Federated Farmers has agreed with Minister Smith to have another go at getting the Biodiversity NPS right.  We are doing this in a collaborative process with Forest and Bird and others who have spoken here today.  

Yesterday when I flew over parts of North Canterbury we could see the fantastic work farmers had been doing off their own bat in preserving and protecting areas of native bush.  But you could also see where they had had to deal with bush which was regenerating on pasture at the margins.  A weed is in the eye of the beholder but a handy working definition is a plant in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Farmers need to have freedom to get that balance right without draconian interference from councils and without their efforts penalising them. I mention here Forest and Bird’s court application in Taranaki to force the council to place rules on areas including those that farmers had voluntarily preserved.

It is my personal view that we should split the fish licence fee of Fish and Game - a compulsory part to cover management of the resource as they are charged to do and a voluntary part to cover advocacy.  It galls many farmers that they are made to fund advocacy campaigns which they don't agree with, may be directed at them personally or at least their farming operations, and in some cases are plain wrong.  A voluntary advocacy portion would provide a true measure of the support they have for these activities.

The last area I want to touch on is genetic modification.  This is a topic on its own which cannot be given justice here but it is clear the legislation is out of date.  It needs to be based on risk not on technology.  Councils who don’t have the capability to address such Post Normal Science issues without being unduly influenced by Post Truth Politics should not be making decisions on this technology.  Federated Farmers supports farmer choice and we consider such revisions urgent.  Gene editing, which could be used for predator elimination and which holds considerable benefit for agriculture, is stuck in this regulatory quagmire.  It is not comfortable political territory for politicians but we can’t be dictated to by fear and superstition if we are to keep ahead of the pack while benefiting our environment.

Can I remind you that farmers are custodians of around 50 per cent of New Zealand’s land. They take that responsibility seriously but that doesn't mean they are all perfect. They represent the breadth of society as you would expect. And it is those outliers who provide the ammunition which is gold for those wanting to vilify agriculture in general or a least exploit those examples or images to push their own agendas. And why not? It’s a free world. As farmers we just have to be better at playing that game.   

You are labelled as politicians in gumboots. Show it or the regionally focused opportunism of Winston Peters will drive you down. Work with the farmers and support and recognise their efforts.

Remember the rules you make will be exploited to the hilt by those intent on limiting farmers’ options, controlling their lives and income and in the extreme driving them off their land.

Get this right and we all benefit – the economy, our people and the environment.

Thank you.