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]