According to Irrigation New Zealand chairperson, Nicky Hislop, the so called “rural-urban divide” is as much a product of media exaggeration as it is a genuine national concern:
“I think the media played a big part in creating this idea of a divide, and have exaggerated it beyond reality. The reality is that most people are actually really willing to sit around a table and carry out these discussions around the effects of agricultural projects in a reasoned, democratic manner.”
Hislop referred to a report released by the Ministry for Primary Industries in October of 2017, which explored rural and urban New Zealanders’ views of rural New Zealand and the primary sector. The report found that views held by the two sections of New Zealand society on issues like pollution caused by farming, animal welfare, and the importance of the primary sector to the economy were very similar. Respondents said the most significant environmental issue facing NZ was water quality (rural 53% and urban 47%), but also agreed that expansion of the primary sector in the future was good for New Zealand (rural 71%, urban 69%). Additionally, nearly two-thirds (64%) of urban respondents agreed that if the rural sector was doing well, then the urban sector would be well off.
Hislop pointed to the recent election as the catalyst for bringing the notion of a rural/urban divide into the spotlight, saying it was an ideology played upon for political aims. Many others have echoed this viewpoint, like Simon Wilson, who wrote in a September piece for “The Spinoff” that National was “using the election to create a deep rift between urban and rural New Zealand” and “setting out to persuade the rural community that urban liberals [were] their enemy”.
However, Hislop was quick to point out that though the issue has been greatly exaggerated, there is still a significant general concern from the New Zealand public over how the exploits of the agricultural sector can negatively impact the environment:
“I feel there is a genuine concern felt by the public in relation to what we in the agricultural/rural community are doing. That can become a very heated debate because the topic of water quality and conservation is so very emotive. That is where the idea of social license comes into the discussion; it is our responsibility to make sure the public are satisfied we are taking every measure to ensure we are taking the issue seriously and doing everything to ensure that water is not wasted, abused or contaminated as a result of our practises.”
For Hislop, the term ‘social license’ relates directly to the public placing their trust in agriculturalists as “stewards of the land”. In order to maintain that license, farmers and horticulturalists must place their emphasis on conserving the nations precious natural resources, the key one currently being water:
“Ultimately the focus at the moment is on water quality and on managing our precious water carefully. We are fixed on making sure it is only used when needed, and is meeting standards for water quality. That’s what we in the agricultural community are preoccupied with right now.
There is public worry that we are taking water from rivers in the middle of summer and therefore impacting on the health of the river by reducing water flow. That’s a big concern. What people don’t understand is that there is a minimum flow in nearly all national rivers and streams, and when those minimums are reached irrigation must stop. There are two parts to that. Firstly, the public understanding that notion, and secondly, the public trusting irrigators will behave in that way.
At the end of the day, the important thing to understand is that measures are being taken to alleviate these concerns and work towards a future where it is possible for both economic and environmental needs to be met. Collaborative frameworks (such as the Land and Water Forum) are integral in moving forward in the right direction, but people need to realise they take time. We must understand that in the long term, those solutions found through a collaborative process will, I think, prove to be so much more enduring.”
Hislop cited water storage as one of the biggest strategies currently employed to benefit the environment whilst allowing agriculture to thrive:
“Water storage is a huge focus, because that ensures a couple of things. It means we improve irrigator reliability, which in itself tends to ensure that farmers are using water more efficiently. Also, by storing water during winter and then using it during the summer, that means we have less reliance on takes from rivers during the summer. It’s just a really smart, simple way of using water.”
Hislop has herself had heavy involvement in the Opuha Dam in South Canterbury, a project that for her shows the great potential of the agricultural sector for having profoundly positive effects on local communities and the environment:
“Well I might be a tad biased on this issue, but yes there have been huge benefits, not just economic. The priority for water release from the Opua damn is the environment. More than 50% of the lake storage over the last 20 years has been used for the environment. It augments the Opua river during the summer to ensure it always has water, which significantly benefits its health. That has just been huge.
The 2nd priority for release is for domestic industry stock water supply. Timaru can have its share of droughts and Timaru District City’s back up water supplies have come under pressure and they know that that’s there. That is so important.
The social impacts are also huge. Our local primary school has seen pupil numbers increase from 200 to 300 in ten years, and there is a vibrancy throughout South Canterbury that was never there before. In the 70s and 80s, Timaru had little going for it, it’s a completely different town now. It’s seen huge growth in food processing, manufacturing and servicing which is absolutely on the back of reliable water.”
Projects like the Opuha dam are the way forward for Hislop, and she believes that, despite popular opinion, farmers around the country are attuned to the idea that attention must be paid to the betterment of the environment as well as the productivity of their farms:
“We had a field day on our farm back in November and we were supposed to talk about growth rates and plant species but basically the whole time we talked about environmental issues and how we were addressing those and how we were grazing our paddocks in the winter to reduce our environmental footprint. That was a beef and lamb field day.
So I do think farmers are more attuned. We do have our laggers, and I think it is our responsibility to drag them up by the scruff of their necks. Or, we let regulation deal to them with a heavy hand, an example of which I saw last week when an irrigation scheme turned off somebody’s water because their farm-management practise rating was sitting at a D and they had made no effort to improve that. So schemes are really taking the lead here. Regional councils are currently working their way through how they deal with those audits. I would really encourage councils to follow up on instances of a breach of consent that negatively impact the environment. If they can do that, we will begin to see significant environmental benefits nationwide.”