Former Federated Farmers spokesperson Ian Mackenzie says it’s time for green NGOs to stop blaming the agricultural sector for the current state of the environment and instead start focussing on how both urban and rural communities can come together to build a greener New Zealand future.
Mackenzie points to the unreasonable ‘anti-dairy’ attitude of environmentalists in particular as an example of their being more of a hindrance to cultivating environmentally sustainable practises, than a help:
“Here in Ashburton we as a community have discussed how to achieve the targets for nitrates set by the policy statement for national water. The local community has said “we don’t want to get rid of the dairy industry because it is far too good for the local economy, but we accept that we need to do something about the water quality issue”. So, rather than get all of the dairy farmers to shut down their operations (which is what the green NGOs would like on a national level) we’ve come up with a community plan to address the nitrate issue, and if this plan is successful (and the trial period shows it has the potential to be highly successful) then we will have achieved the outcome without having to take a single cow off the Canterbury plains. The local community is extremely happy with this, but where we struggle is when the environmental community comes along and says ‘oh that’s no good, the dairy industry is still thriving, we want to break the back of the dairy industry’, because at the end of the day a lot of people - mainly the green NGOs - are less concerned with saving the environment than with destroying that industry.”
The community plan Mackenzie refers to here is predominantly based around managed aquifer recharge, and in tests has reportedly reduced nitrate levels from fourteen parts per million to as little as two to three parts per million, an incredible achievement considering the minimum national standard of 6.9. The initiative will hugely benefit areas of the Canterbury plains where the switch from the Rangitata Irrigation Scheme to centre pivot irrigation has greatly increased nitrate levels in shallow aquifers, and reduced water levels in the region’s spring-fed creeks.
The community has also adopted a scheme which involves putting clean water into some of the spring fed water bodies in Ashburton that have been deemed a high priority to sort out in terms of water flow and quality.
Mackenzie is confident that through these practises, the communities water quality aspirations can be achieved, and as a result- “beneficiaries will have greater reliability for groundwater abstraction for irrigation and industry, water quality will improve so people will have less concerns about the water they’re taking up to their houses for consumption, and the environment in the lower catchment should improve for native fish, aquatic birds and general biodiversity.”
What stands in the way of success for projects like these, according to Mackenzie, is the pessimistic attitude of environmentalist groups, who’s criticism of the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management introduced in 2014 showed, in his view, a complete lack of integrity on their behalf:
“What was particularly disappointing from the likes of Forest and Bird and Fish and Game was that they criticized the government on its national policy statement for freshwater because it was allowing water quality to go down to the minimum standard… For me, I think it’s a really tough ask. Our set minimum standard (6.9 ppm, half the minimum standard for drinkability) is a lot higher than a lot of others places around the world, and still, agriculture embraced it. The govt got widely crucified by every NGO in the country, led by Mike Joy who wasn’t part of the land and water forum, for introducing this legislation, which I could never understand. It seems to me that if environmentalists are serious about sorting out our water quality issues, then they should’ve welcomed this policy with open arms.
They played what I felt were gutter politics with the future of New Zealand’s environment, and showed a complete lack of integrity. I was hugely disappointed. I think that’s where Alastair Bisley, as he mentioned, felt the forum fell to pieces. It wasn’t because farmers views had changed, it was because the green NGOs were playing politics and the urban authorities realised that actually there wasn’t a hope in hell of them ever being able to comply with the national policy statement for freshwater, because they can’t bring their urban rivers up to the minimum standard.”
Mackenzie feels that the ‘social license to operate’ is a concept used by green NGOs as a means to justify this constant criticism of the agricultural sector, and that ‘political capital’ would be a more accurate term. He stated that those using the term ‘social license’ were attempting to “urbanise agriculture”, and likely had a “fairly limited knowledge of the countryside”.
He pointed to the water quality issues at Auckland beaches as an example of how notions of social license quickly disintegrate when money is brought into the issue:
“I think the urban view on social license is something you can dream up when you live in a smart area of Wellington and never have to literally work for a living like a farmer does. When it comes to people on the ground, in rural areas and in urban areas, people tend to vote with their wallets. That’s why there’s a problem with swimming standards in Auckland beaches, because the ratepayers in Auckland are reluctant to stomach a 20% increase in rate bonuses to sort out their stormwater and sewage systems. At the end of the day it all comes down to money; people are happy to support schemes to benefit the environment if the money is coming out of someone else’s wallet. That debate before the election about whether farmers should pay a water tax was nasty; people were all very happy to say ‘yes of course farmers should pay a water tax’, but when it came to them paying for water use they were suddenly far less enthusiastic about the idea.”
Mackenzie used his own farm as an example of the extent to which those in the agricultural industry are making an invested effort to maintain and sustain the natural environment, something that is given little attention by the NGOs and urban communities who discuss social license:
“If the general public and the NGOs think they have the right to give us social license then they have to show integrity and a degree of honesty and proactivity that they are not showing at the moment, otherwise they’ll just get ignored. Farmers are spending significant amounts of money looking after things on their own. We, for example, have the world’s largest population of mudfish on our property, and that’s all been off our own back. We’ve put irrigation into the waterways when there was no water to sustain the mudfish population, and we’ve prevented trout (the dominant predator of mudfish) from entering their waterbody. Yet, we get no credit for it.
Mackenzie feels that rather than trying to get rid of dairy farming, we should be thinking about the areas of New Zealand that are most suited to it:
“The Canterbury plains is where we should have the dairy industry because in fact the environmental effects are far less down here. If we can address the issue with nitrates, then this is where the industry should be. You need to be thinking about the effects of the dairy industry in the high rainfall areas where it is much harder to manage the effects of the dairy industry. So the Waikato, for example, is probably less suitable for the dairy industry than Canterbury, because it gets muddy and they cant control their floods, and they don’t have irrigation. If you have irrigation and you live in a dry area there’s a whole lot of stuff you can control.
If you accept that we need some sort of dairy industry in New Zealand, which lets face it, we do, then you’ve got to think about where is the most beneficial place to have it, and in many ways it’s the Canterbury plains. Many of the green NGOs are saying “no, you should never allow a cow into the Canterbury plains in the first place”, but I think that’s misguided. It’s allowing rhetoric to get in the way of science and general analysis.”
The bottom line for Mackenzie it that it is time for the rest of New Zealand to match the level of commitment already shown by the agriculture industry in improving the natural environment:
“If New Zealand is serious about its water quality issues, it’s got to look at it on a holistic basis, not just dairy farming, not just agriculture, but everything that contributes to the issue. Environmentalists have to show some integrity, show that they can come up with solutions, and when the government comes up with plans like the policy statement for freshwater, they must embrace them rather than criticising them. There’s a huge degree of stupidity and a lack of integrity around this whole process which desperately needs to be addressed.”