The heated exchanges that occurred at a recent Ministry for the Environment meeting in Pukekohe are symptomatic of the pressures building on our growers and farmers.
They are becoming increasingly worried about the future and Government policies are the key reason.
They turned out in force to meet Ministry for the Environment officials and Freshwater Leaders Advisory Committee chair John Penno when they hosted a “roadshow” to get feedback on proposals under the National Environment Standard on Freshwater Management. Officials had the unenviable task of trying to sell the Government’s package to a highly informed and skeptical crowd of almost 300 people.
The proposals include restrictions on farmers beginning as early as June 2020. Stringent nitrate thresholds were the biggest concern for the crowd that turned out to give their views on the plans. Quite simply, vegetable growers say they won’t be able to reduce nitrogen levels by the required 80 per cent and still supply fresh vegetables in the depths of winter.
Everyone in the audience supported cleaning up waterways over time and the farmers and growers present already carefully monitor their runoff and nitrogen usage. But they say the targets need to be realistic and achievable.
To deliver vegetables during the winter months, crops need small and targeted amounts of nitrogen fertiliser. And despite significantly reducing their use of fertiliser in recent years, growers simply won’t be able to operate under an 80 per cent reduction. It could mean the fresh vegetables Kiwis eat during winter would need to be imported, substantially increasing prices and emissions.
The farmers and growers who attended the meeting are good environmentalists who wanted clarification on what these proposals will mean for them. They left disappointed and unclear about how they will meet the targets and still be able to grow good, healthy vegetables for New Zealand.
Adding insult to injury, the eight-week consultation period for them to consider the proposals and weigh up the impact on their farms, families and communities was far too short. And there appeared to be a woeful lack of lack of analysis of the proposals’ economic impact.
Ministry officials were repeatedly asked at the meeting what economic analysis had been done on the proposals but they were unable to give proper answers. In fact, Mr Penno said his Fresh Water Leaders Group was directed not to consider the economic impacts of the policy changes. That’s irresponsible given the highly dependent nature of regional towns like Pukekohe on the agriculture industry.
The short consultation period is just the latest in a long series of knocks the agricultural sector has taken since this Government came to power.
In the past, farmers would say they have three things they need to worry about: interest rates, farm gate prices and the weather.
Interest rates are at record lows, farm gate prices are above historical averages and the weather has been pretty good.
In many ways farmers should be optimistic but their confidence is at an all-time low instead. The recent Rabobank farmer confidence survey highlighted what was already clear to many.
Farmers’ confidence has taken a sharp drop with 68 per cent holding a negative outlook, citing the Government as the main reason.
That’s not surprising considering the continued onslaught of uncertainty and costs they have endured since this Government came to power, whether it be the Tax Working Group report and subsequent Capital Gains Tax campaign, a proposed water tax, a proposal for agriculture entering the Emissions Trading Scheme, onerous methane targets in the Zero Carbon Bill and now the freshwater proposals and the cynical consultation process surrounding them. It’s all having a tangible impact on farmers’ mental health and their businesses.
The primary sector accounts for about 60 per cent of New Zealand's goods exports. Running down the industry that supports our way of life is perverse and has a negative effect on everyone. Rather than demonising the rural sector - and by implication the farming families who create it - we should be celebrating them for the massive sustainability and environmental improvements they’ve made. In the past 30 years they’ve managed to produce more sheep meat from 32 per cent fewer sheep thanks to improvements with enhanced breeding mixes and enhanced lambing percentages.
Our dairy products are so much more sustainable that a litre of New Zealand milk shipped to Ireland – the next most efficient producer – would still have a lower emissions profile than milk produced in Ireland. Recently, the Prime Minister told the United Nations she was “determined to show that New Zealand can and will be the most sustainable food producer in the world” and then separately “we must lead on reducing our agriculture emissions”.
If the Government really wanted to stand up for our farmers, she should have been singing their praises as already being the most sustainable food producers in the world, as well as encouraging other nations to follow our lead in producing low emissions food.
Quite frankly, it’s this efficiency compared to every other nation that shows just how vital our food producers are to the world.
If we weren’t producing at the rate we are, then another less sustainable producer would simply take that market share and global emissions would rise while our export revenue dropped.
This crisis of confidence needs to turn around and the Government needs to wake up and put our primary sector at the forefront of its policy.
Andrew Bayly is the MP for Port Waikato, and National's Shadow Treasurer (Revenue).