Fear and loathing in Morrinsville: the corporates hiding behind our farmers

Six hundred farmers and supporters protested in Morrinsville today against Labour and the Greens’ proposed water and pollution charges. Initially it was claimed that it was an apolitical rally, but the organisers put paid to that. Furthermore they claimed it was an opportunity to rebut accusations they felt had been leveled against them. I assume those accusations include the following:

  • the agricultural industry is the major cause of poor water quality in our waterways;
  • high volumes of cow urine from dairy and beef farms has directly contributed to high levels of nitrogen in our waterways, killing aquatic life and encouraging pest growth;
  • E. Coli from animal faeces is the major reason that so many of our waterways are unswimmable;
  • New Zealand has amongst the highest levels of deforestation in the world, so run off, particularly from drystock farms, contributes high levels of sediment to our waterways;
  • New Zealand’s forestry industry also contributes significant amounts of sediment and wood waste into our waterways;
  • some particular industries, such as the Tasman Pulp and Paper Mill, are also significant polluters in their region.

Their rebuttal is that farmers care and will deal with pollution and water quality in their part of the system because it benefits them as well. Dairy NZ waves the $1 billion it has spent on combating river pollution and science-based regulations. One billion sounds like a lot until you realise their annual export revenue was about $19 billion and the $1 billion is not annual; it’s their total spend so far. The problem is that water quality and pollution have not improved one whit, and anyone who says they have is relying on Nick Smith’s laughable water “standards.”

For the last few weeks all I have heard is a few farmers yelling at us that there’s an urban/rural divide and  they’re being picked on so Jacinda can get the urban vote. Convenient messaging, but untrue. Everyone in Aotearoa New Zealand understands that agri-industry is enormously important to our economy. We all know that our farmers are very good at farming. We are all people who depend on us being very good at it, whether we live in Auckland or Morrinsville. We also understand that corporates like Fonterra are making all the money, and farmers are living on borrowed time with large debts, worrying about the next downturn.

But being recognised as an essential sector is not the equivalent of a coronation. Agri-industries are not and cannot be immune to criticism. Nor are our agri-industries above the challenges that are here and that are coming to our communities, namely deplorable water quality, unacceptable pollution and the impacts of climate change. You don’t get a free pass because you wear gumboots. So water, pollution and carbon emissions charges are going to be tools to ensuring we all contribute to those challenges. Yet the 600 farmers and supporters who protested today show the idea of shared responsibility is unpalatable to those who have locked up the golden goose.

For farmers who are against any charges, the most effective protest is to appeal to our idealised historical identity as New Zealanders. Corporates like Fonterra play on our heart strings with a series of compelling New Zealand myths:

  • the man alone, a resilient, isolated, grim essential figure who bears up under the challenge of our natural environment, often against the backdrop of our mountains;
  • the no. 8 wire mindset, a refusal to be constrained, a belief in our innovation and subversive challenge of the status quo;
  • the kiwi battler, triumphing against the powers that be, working for the good of other New Zealanders; and
  • of course the very symbol of the gentleman farmer, in harmony with the cycles of nature, a point of stability and predictability in our society.

Farmers are mythical; the essence of all that is good and right in New Zealand.

The manufactured consent that operates between our media and agri-industries means that Labour and the Greens are portrayed as attacking those people who represent the very heart of New Zealand identity. This is the ultimate guilt trip, meant to cause us all an existential crisis; how can we place a further burden on the very image of what is good and right in our nation? Upholding this myth is why farmers would never refer to themselves as production managers, why Fonterra calls itself a co-operative not a corporate, and why we call it the primary sector rather than agri-industry. This is deliberate corporate languaging to project an image that we are comforted by.

So we ignore that farming is first and foremost an industry, not a symbiotic relationship between farmer and the environment. The environment is an input for farmers; the environment is not Papatūānuku to farmers, it is not a living being, it is a resource. So the level of water quality and pollution that is acceptable to farmers is directly related to their impact on outcomes, not on altruism. New Zealanders can tend to a rose-tinted view in which farmers are melded with the landscape, a Pākehā equivalent of whakapapa; farming in New Zealand has never been about guardianship. Domination of the environment is the key. From the time of confiscation and land sales, the European vision of rolling plains and ordered agriculture meant wide ranging deforestation and the extinction of species. Where the environment has placed restrictions on what we can do, we have used science to overcome it and place a new strain on the system, like irrigation, extensive fertiliser use, and palm kernel.

There are individual farmers who buck this trend. They are leaders in sustainable practice and are encouraging their industry to embrace innovation and change. Precious few of them would have protested in Morrinsville today. As a whole, New Zealand’s agri-industries cannot be relied on to clean up rivers or reduce pollution without a financial incentive to do so because their calculation to date has clearly been that reduced water quality and pollution is acceptable on balance with the profits that can be made through their current practice. When that calculation changes so will the practice. With an election on a knife edge, maybe that calculation won’t change. Those 600 farmers and supporters would be happy with that.

[The header image is from Radio New Zealand, showing cattle on Waiotu River in Northland]

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3 thoughts on “Fear and loathing in Morrinsville: the corporates hiding behind our farmers

  1. Sorry dairy farmers, time for a reality check. NZers have been subsidising your businesses for too long.
    We have been paying the price for pollution, water quality, and a premium for dairy products at the supermarket that overseas consumers would never pay and enough is enough!
    You have had your unsustainable farming practices supported for way too long!

  2. The trouble with this whole debate is we only hear from people on the extremes. This is a good example. Its all their fault and none of ours. Our local river is suitable for full immersion swimming until the local towns sewage outlet. The local saw mill had arsenic running into the river ever time it rained until a local farmer got it tested. They had no consent and so far no fine or prosecution. The bacterial level in the Waikato jumps significant at Cambridge and Hamilton. Just a couple of examples to show we all need to act. I agree some farmers have their heads in the sand but a lot of us are quietly planting trees and finding ways of reducing our impact.. It makes economic sense to do so but also takes time and money. Personally i don’t have an issue with an irrigation tax but expect to pay a lot more for your veges. I can also see the benefits on a nitrate tax but it should be applied to all outflows of nitrates including those that go to sea such as sewage schemes. And i don’t agree with the Morrinsville protest and I can see how it makes it easy for the writer of this article to lump us together. But they have the right to protest.This article is about hate and all its ugly glory. I’m a Fonterra shareholder and supplier. It is a cooperative and is owned 100% by suppliers. Any profit goes to farmer shareholders. The difference we can make in the short term is always over estimated but the difference we can make long term is always under estimated. Science and research will get us there, there is some very promising research recently that can help farmers reduce waste because that is what it is. If we can minimize losses of nutrients we can put less in. But we all need to do this not just one section of this country.

    1. Kia ora Murray, and thanks the time and thought you’ve put into your reply. I agree with you that we all need to act; I was in the Regional Council in Wellington when Waiwhetu Marae were trying to clean up the industrial run off into their stream which had given the nickname, the ‘toxic avenger.’ Urban waterways need a lot of work. Our own Waimapu wetlands and river is an ongoing project. I also know there is riparian management going on, and you and I can clearly agree more of this is needed and it needs financial support, perhaps from central government. The last independent review of the reported figures had about 43% of waterways on farms fenced, so more work to do.

      I fundamentally disagree that my critique of the messaging in our agri-industries is hateful. Saying the messaging doesn’t fit the reality is a legitimate and not a unique criticism. What happens in all parts of our agri-industries matters and impacts on my whānau as much as your whānau no matter where we live. Farming is not necessarily an environmentally friendly activity; for sustainability to become the norm takes effort and pressure. Absolutely the same in urban centres; better management of grey water, sewerage, rubbish, industrial outflows, etc. is required here.

      In the end, I don’t mind paying more for my veges and meat if it means less sediment, more days where it is safe to swim, and more eels in our rivers in our area. For that to happen, we need real action, not status quo activities with some promising research.

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