NZ Farmer - Speed up clean rivers - blunt Fieldays take home message

Written by Martin Taylor


OPINION: Fieldays at Mystery Creek is deservedly popular, packed by thousands eager to attend one of the rural calendar's highlights.

As well as the chance for a good yarn, there are also bargains to lure farmers into taking home a new ute or tractor.

This year, one of the big take homes wasn't a nice, shiny piece of equipment. It was a blunt message delivered by international audit firm KPMG during its Fieldays breakfast, where it unveiled its latest Agribusiness Agenda.

In it, there was a warning that agriculture needed to deliver on Kiwis' desire for swimmable rivers and lakes.

Agriculture was warned it needs to 'move with velocity' on that delivery. KPMG also noted that while many promises have been made before, they were piecemeal and full of gaps.

It urged the industry to adopt a more ambitious timetable, warning it now faces a significant challenge re-establishing its voice in the water debate.

KPMG's observations are timely. For too long, agriculture leaders have been in denial about their industry's impact on the environment and water quality.

After decades of this "denial at all costs" approach, agriculture is starting to realise the strategy is undermining its social licence.

Belatedly, it is trying to show it is doing something, with slick TV ads, celebrities and reports full of promises of action to address the problem.

And in recent weeks, we have seen the Action Plan for Water Quality from the Good Farming Practice Governance Group, whose members include Fonterra, Dairy NZ, Federated Farmers and Irrigation NZ.

It all sounds perfectly reasonable except for one glaring problem – it is voluntary. If a farmer doesn't want to be environmentally responsible and protect our waterways, they don't have to.

This failure to make a commitment to compulsory, clean environmental practises is starting to cost the primary sector dearly.

We know that many dairy companies now make it compulsory for suppliers to have Farm Environment Plans – FEPs – and some regional councils are also making them mandatory.  But who is scrutinising these plans to ensure they are nationally consistent and to the necessary high standard?

The industry needs to provide proper leadership on the issue by putting a line in the sand and saying to all farmers "this is the national minimum standard," it is compulsory and the more you can do to soar above it, the better for the industry and the environment.

And it isn't just urban dwellers who are fed up. Recently, I had a discussion with a group of farmers - dairy and beef and lamb - about water quality and how to reduce farming's impact on our rivers, lakes and streams.

These farmers are progressive, in tune with their communities and take their environmental responsibilities seriously. They know they must perform and told me how they are creating wetlands, fencing off waterways and building cow pads.

When I pointed out that their lobby groups and industry leaders are campaigning against compulsory environmental rules and bottom lines, I was quickly reminded they too aren't impressed.

"They don't represent us," one dairy farmer told me, pointing to her environmental record. It's time dairy and farming leaders started listening to these farmers.

But there is increasing frustration among farmers like these about the standard of leadership they are getting from higher up, from the likes of Fonterra, Dairy NZ, and Federated Farmers.

If those industry leaders really want to stop polluting our waterways and make them safe for our kids, they must provide leadership and support mandatory regulations.

Until we abandon the idea that protecting the environment is only voluntary, then agriculture's reliance on water pollution as a form of corporate welfare will continue.

The time for talking is over. We need action and 'Big Agriculture' must heed KPMG's advice to 'move with velocity.' Not next month, nor next year. Now.