NZ Farmer - Farmers cast as water villains as water debate polarises New Zealanders

Beef + Lamb Chairman James Parsons writes:

English historian Thomas Fuller once said "We never know the worth of water until the well is dry". New Zealand's well isn't dry but the focus on water has reached a crescendo this election with water and farming practices emerging as a polarising issue.

Farmers are trying to understand parties' water policies and quantify the impact on their farms. These hardworking, once trusted people of the land are being painted as villains, and I won't deny that some farmers are feeling a bit bruised and battered by it all.

We're asking ourselves how we arrived at this position. Perhaps, we've taken for granted the trust New Zealanders have traditionally had in farmers. When I was growing up, everyone was connected to a farmer or visited and spent time on farms. That's changed, many Kiwis don't understand the journey of farmed produce from pasture to plate. Perhaps the issues around water have undermined that trust.

Let's add more reason to the water debate, says James Parsons.

But farmers have never taken water quantity and quality for granted. The water we drink, cook with and shower in is often captured from a spring on our farms, or piped from a nearby river, the same for our animals. If the water dries up or the quality is compromised – our family and our stock suffer.

There is no denying that New Zealand's water ways are under pressure from contaminants and quality has deteriorated in too many catchments. It's like the frog in boiling water, it's been slowly happening and we failed to recognise it. While New Zealand's rural water ways are still some of the best in the developed world, being the best, but declining isn't good enough, we need to do better.

As a sector, farmers are working together to take action on water. The recent Farming Leaders Pledge to make all rivers swimmable is an example of that. These leaders, of which I am one, are committed to this along with the thousands of farming families who are stewards of 40 per cent of New Zealand's land estate.

Farmers don't claim perfection, but they do have direction and are committed to playing their part alongside others. Beef + Lamb New Zealand is discussing five land and environment goals with farmers as part of a 2040 strategy. One of those is that surface water exiting our farms should leave purer than when it entered – this has got strong support from farmers.

Another goal is to be carbon neutral at the farm gate by 2040. The sheep and beef sector has made dramatic progress reducing total greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) by 19 per cent since 1990. We pioneered world investment into reducing livestock emissions in 2003 through the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium. We've increased investment this year, but it's long slow research and there's no silver bullets.

Farmers are less confident about this carbon neutral goal. With a lack of viable GHG reduction technologies, potential costs of entering the ETS, an inability to get credits for carbon fixing activities, and possible farming constraints, they see this as a real stretch.

They're also concerned about business viability and international competitiveness being eroded by some political parties' negative rhetoric about not pursuing trade deals such as TPP11. With over 90 per cent of our products exported, trade is the life blood of our industry and country. Reduced markets reduce farmers' ability to invest, in turn undermining the economic, cultural, social and environmental viability of rural communities.

However, there are two ways you can look at these challenges, either a problem or an opportunity. Many of New Zealand's farmers see today's environmental challenge as the latter, a wake-up call, but also an opportunity to turn the dial on the quality of our rivers, and lead the world in environmental stewardship.

We led the world as a result of the economic reforms of the mid 1980's. Now, as the world's most unsubsidised farming sector and one of the most progressive, we can do this again with the environment.

Englishman Simon Anholt, a nation branding strategist once said: "New Zealand shouldn't aim to be the best country in the world, but the best country for the world." With the Government's and the public's trust, support and partnership, farmers will find solutions to these problems and benefit the world. I invite you to join us.

James Parsons is a Northland sheep and beef farmer and chairman of farmer organisation Beef + Lamb New Zealand.