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Smart green agriculture

Smart green agriculture
 
Speech to Green Party North Island Policy Conference February 2013

Russel Norman
 
We New Zealanders love good food. We know that having enough good food is at the heart of a good life.
 
New Zealand farmers work hard to grow that food. Farmers get up early, work long hours in often unsure conditions and at the moment are looking up to the blue skies and down to the dry soil.
 
While we enjoy, and are proud of, the produce we grow here in New Zealand, the reality is that most of the food and fibre that our farmers produce goes offshore to other eaters, or builders, or manufacturers. Our economy relies to a significant extent on this trade and its the food trade that I want to talk about today.
 
There are two kinds of food traded in the world.
 
There are those anonymous shipping containers of anonymous products that enter the giant commodity pool, cheap products that get moved around the world with no focus on where they are from or their other qualities. They are industrial food commodities. Industrial food commodities are defined by their price, their cheapness. The producers of these ingredients get low prices and capture very little of the value chain – most of the value is added in the processing and retailing, and in this model that value is captured by others.
 
And then there are the high quality foods, products with good reputations that customers will pay more for. These are products that proudly state where they come from, how they were grown and processed. Real food grown by real people in a real country that stands behind its food exports. Real food is defined by its provenance. The producers of real food know their customers and capture much of the value from field to factory to shop.
 
We in New Zealand need to decide whether we want to produce industrial ingredients or real food with proud provenance.
 
As customers around the world increase their demand for clean, green and safe food, New Zealand has the opportunity to step in and provide real food to them. We have the opportunity to look after our environment, produce high quality food, and get paid handsomely for it.
 
But the track that this Government, and previous governments, have us on is a track for producing cheap industrial food ingredients. It is a track that will undermine our reputation for producing clean green and safe food. The nitrification inhibitor contamination of our milk was a warning to us of the dangers of the industrial agriculture model.
 
I want to talk to you today about why we need to change course in our agricultural sector, and how the Green Party is going to work towards achieving that.
 
Issue
 
So what is the issue?
 
Almost a decade ago, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment investigated the impact of intensification of dairy in New Zealand. He described New Zealand’s farming systems as ‘financially and environmentally brittle’. This has never been truer than it is today. Our current agricultural industries keep the environment and often farmers, at the brink, or over the brink, of disaster as they push the land further and further in an effort to get more and more out of it. Policies supported by this National government, the previous Labour Government and organisations like Federated Farmers, have pushed farmers into an ever increasing intensification model that we just can’t sustain.
 
The number of cows that this land of ours can sustainably carry has already been surpassed in many regions, even as we see more land converting to dairy. Just in the time since the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment described our farming systems as brittle, the total amount of land in dairying has increased by another 15 percent, and on each of those hectares we are squeezing in more cows than ever before.
 
For successive governments we have had nothing but a push for more and more intensive dairy as our route to success. This National Government says they plan to triple agri-food exports from $20b to $58b by 2025; they plan to do it by producing even more cheap industrial food commodities. That’s not value-adding, that’s blind allegiance to a failing economic strategy.
 
But is this sustainable?
 
One of the most fundamental indicators of sustainability, our waterways, are telling us about the impact of this huge growth in dairying. Fifty-two percent of our monitored waters have been classified as unsafe for swimming. That’s not the image that we portray to the world for selling our products or promoting tourism. And most crucially, that’s not the legacy that I want to give to my children. Lake Tutira, just north of here, is not meant to be closed for swimming because it is a health hazard. Dairy intensification is the number one driver of increasing water pollution in New Zealand. Our six million dairy cows produce as much effluent as 84 million people.
 
We are also facing the challenge of climate change. Climate change is already being felt profoundly by our farmers. The twin plagues of droughts and floods are affecting the way in which we can grow food and fibre in New Zealand, and they are certainly affecting the global markets. Other large producing nations, such as our neighbour Australia and the United States, are feeling the catastrophic effects of extreme weather on their ability to produce food in the same way. In the United States 80 percent of their agricultural land experienced drought last year.
 
So we have two challenges emerging from climate change for agriculture. Firstly, an immediate challenge to reduce emissions, to play our part in the fight to avoid runaway climate change. Secondly, a challenge to focus our agricultural techniques and strategy on producing within the new reality and New Zealand’s changing climate and weather conditions. The face of farming is changing with the climate. You know this first hand in this part of the country. It is dry, dry, dry and we are all hoping to see more rain up this way.
 
As well as having to adapt to a new climate, farmers in New Zealand are having to adapt to the new agribusiness focus. The Government's focus on ever increasing production of milk powder at whatever cost is putting that cost onto our environment, but it’s also putting that cost onto the farmers. Dairy farmers have to take on huge amounts of debt to convert to dairy and get the water they need, the feed they need, and the chemical inputs to increase production. That treadmill of debt and production is not sustainable. Land prices are being pushed up by overseas buyers and by the tax system that encourages farming for capital gains. And it’s why you see farmers going out of business, as you have seen here in the Hawke’s Bay. Workers on dairy farms are feeling the heat in the form of low wages and poor conditions.
 
Many New Zealanders want to turn that tide and give our farms some well needed stability and longevity. Next year is the International Year of Family Farming with a strap line, ‘Feeding The World, Caring For The Earth. Internationally it is recognised that family, food production and caring for the earth are connected. The Green Party recognises it too, but National seems to be on a different planet. Government owned Landcorp, New Zealand’s biggest dairy farmer, is setting a poor example of intensive corporate farming, relying on unsustainable chemical fertilisers and interventions, rather than a family farm model of biological and organic systems, more profitable for the family and caring for the earth. We’re not saying we against corporate farms per se, but we are saying we are strongly in favour of family farms.
 
We need a redesign of the farming system.
 
Value of agriculture
 
The turning around of this agricultural titanic is not a simple proposition. Agriculture contributes $30 billion to the New Zealand economy, and makes up 25% of our export revenue.
 
To establish how to get the most from our agricultural sector we need to ask: what is New Zealand’s agricultural value proposition? What do we offer to our markets around the world that is special and different?
 
First off I can tell you what it’s not.
 
It’s not industrial agriculture. It’s not pouring anonymous commodity ingredients into the global pot. It’s not producing the cheapest products at whatever cost.
Other agricultural production around the world can fill these markets. We have aspirations for environmental and labour standards that mean we can’t compete with those countries with lower standards.
 
What New Zealand can offer is clean, green, and safe food - the food that customers around the world want to feed to their kids. Food with provenance.
 
We can offer food that customers want – food with a story of environmental protection, animal welfare, safety, and traceability. We can use our expertise to develop modern agricultural methods and technology that can also be exported, helping other countries to reduce their environmental impact and ensure clean food.
 
That’s what we have to offer. And that’s what we have to offer.
 
We can no longer focus our growth on squeezing more and more cows on the same bit of land. New Zealand needs to do production smarter and do it loudly so that people know what we have to sell and want to buy it. We should be selling a diverse range of high quality, value-added products with our name plastered all over them so that customers can ask for them by name.
 
We are a small country that can actually plan our agricultural exports to get the highest price for high quality products and well trusted supply chain. The Riddet Institute, our agri-food centre of research excellence based at Massey Uni, released a report last year that said we only need 20 great international retail relationships to transform our whole industry.
 
We need to get to know our customers instead of the middle men.
 
The push for intensification
 
So why then, does the Government’s current strategy rely on a race to produce more and more milk powder at whatever cost? Here in the Hawkes Bay we have a prime example of how this race for intensification plays out.
 
The Hawke’s Bay Regional Council is focused on channelling $80 million of public subsidies into the proposed Ruataniwha reservoir and irrigation scheme to dam the Makaroro River. The Council locked in this huge expenditure before a feasibility study had even been completed to show the need for, and cost and benefits of, such a dam, let alone how you can intensify on such a massive scale without huge downstream environmental pollution.
 
What will this water be used for? A good proportion of it will be used to allow more milk powder to be produced off this land. Which means more cows on this land. Which means more dirty rivers.
 
We already have significant water quality problems in the Tukituki River without further intensification.
 
There will be a charge for this water. That charge will be able to be paid by dairy agribusiness corporations with huge debt, which will boost production through intensification, to service that debt. This dam will bring more large scale industrial dairy farms to the Hawke's Bay, driven by debt and shareholders to exploit the land, the rivers, the cows and the workers.
 
The Regional Council is meant to look after and manage our rivers, wetlands and aquifers. Instead they are subsidising pollution.
 
And this intensification also takes us away from the green grass fed dairy that our advertising campaigns will have us believe. Green Party agriculture spokesperson Steffan Browning has been looking into stock feed imports. He found that last year we imported 1.2 million tonnes of feed for stock. That was an increase of 10 percent  on the year before. The vast majority of that, more than 90 percent was palm kernel meal, which is inextricably linked to deforestation of our most precious rainforests. The other imports were from countries that use genetically engineered crops, such as the 12,000 tonnes of cotton seed meal from Australia. Our increased production of milk powder comes on the back of rainforest destruction, and GE feed. Not quite a 100 percent pure story.
 
Time for change
 
In 2009 I asked the Northland Dairy Development Trust at their Conference the following question: Is the aim of the dairy sector to maximise profits or to maximise milk production?
 
I still think that is the real choice facing the industry. Maximising profits and maximising production volumes have for a long time been seen as the same thing. I believe that these objectives are now actually in opposition. The impacts of dairy intensification are impacting our environment in ways that threaten our markets. Recently when comments from Massey Uni ecologist Dr Mike Joy questioning our environmental credentials were broadcast internationally, it sent shockwaves through our tourism and primary industries. The response of the Government and its allies in the PR industry was to try to intimidate him into silence, rather than addressing the real issues. They wanted a cover-up rather than a clean-up.
 
Last month two of our fertiliser companies had to withdraw their products from the shelf after traces of the chemical DCD were found in milk. It is difficult to overestimate the danger that these traces represent to our dairy exports.
 
This Government is holding our clean green brand up as a nice to have. Our Prime Minister, and he is the Minister of Tourism too let’s not forget, said of our 100 percent pure brand that it needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, and compared it to the McDonald’s slogan ‘I’m loving it’. But if our international markets conclude that the brand is a sham, it will all come falling down and we will lose our marketing advantage.
 
This is an accident waiting to happen.
 
There are many calling for a strategic change, and have been doing so for decades. A strategy for the agricultural sector is required. Implementation will be the challenge, but the will and the agreement for a strategic approach is there.
 
Many groups have talked about a vision for agriculture. Last year the Riddet Institute set out the ‘how’ of transforming our agri-food industry and we agree with much of the strategy in their four pillars.
1.         Being consumer driven. Looking to what the highest value markets want and providing them with that high quality, safe, green food.
2.         Investment in research and infrastructure.
3.         Investment in people and their skills development.
4.         Leadership from industry and government. We are planning on providing this leadership when we are a part of Government.
 
Green agriculture vision
 
A richer New Zealand won’t be achieved by blindly driving ever more tankers of milk around the country. The Green Party has a vision of New Zealand with a smart, green economy that protects our environment.
 
We don’t have an agricultural industry despite our environment, we have it because of our environment.
 
Our Green vision for agriculture has six key ingredients:
•           value adding,
•           innovation,
•           environmental protection,
•           building skills,
•           a genuine brand, and
•           working together. 
 
1. Value adding
 
Last year New Zealand sent 1.6 million tonnes of milk power to overseas markets. That milk powder was produced by our environment and was sold on the back of our brand. But its sale is sending jobs overseas for other workers to manufacture food products. We should be identifying those markets ourselves, manufacturing those products in New Zealand, and selling them proudly branded as Made in NZ. We need to capture as much of that value chain as we can for New Zealand.
 
The New Zealand Forest and Wood Products Industry have a vision to double their annual export earnings to $12 billion. They want to do this not by selling more of their equivalent of milk power, the raw commodity of logs, but by looking at innovative wood-based products, manufacturing these products including new biofuel technologies. They have a vision of being recognised as a world leader in wood-based building materials. They want to be selling products of a higher value than logs of wood.
 
That’s what the Green Party means by ‘value added’, passing that added value on to our manufacturers, our researchers, our exporters, our workers. Making and selling good, ethical products and ideas that are more than anonymous milk powder and logs. Really importantly, adding value in New Zealand means jobs stay in New Zealand. And that is what New Zealanders want and need.
 
And we need to diversify. New Zealand’s economy is more and more being reduced into two main commodities, milk powder and raw logs. We are very exposed. We know from the DCD shockwave that relying on dairying only is risky economics, and equally forestry, where in excess of 90% of our forest industry is radiata pine, mostly as logs, is a sitting duck for a pest and disease economic disaster. New Zealand needs to diversify to fresh, safe, sustainable and high value products.

2. Innovation
 
We all know what green technology looks like in other industries. It’s manufacturing wind turbines, it’s a second fibre optic cable to provide secure broadband supply. But what does innovation and green tech look like for the agricultural sector?
 
It’s technology that will allow us to farm within the ecological limits. Technology that will generate energy on farms, or from waste. It’s information communication technology that will allow us to practice the most precise farming through accurate application of inputs and monitoring of soil conditions across large parts of land. The manufacture and intellectual property of these technologies can also make up a part of our exports.
 
We should also be investing into researching better techniques of farming this island of ours, such as developing crop varieties and carbon sequestration techniques.
 
Research and development is a public good that should be funded accordingly. It requires investment as well as researchers and farmers working together.
 
Instead this Government is investing millions into huge levels of irrigation. The 2011 Budget allocated $35 million over five years to support the development of irrigation infrastructure proposals to the 'investment-ready' prospectus stage. This has the sole goal of increased dairy intensification, taking us directly to catastrophic outcomes for our environment. $400 million in subsidies to irrigation have been identified by the Government.
 
In contrast, we have a sustainable farming fund, which last year gave out $9 million in funds. $9 million compared to the Primary Growth Partnership’s $70 million.
 
And of the sustainable farming fund projects that are currently in progress, half of a percent are looking at organics. Half of one percent. As a proportion of the almost $80 million invested in agriculture last year that $140,000 doesn’t even register. This is in spite of the growth of the organic sector.
 
3. Environmental bottom lines
 
When farmers operate within the limits of their land, environmental impacts are reduced. When farmers don’t have a bank breathing down their neck pressuring for ever increasing outputs they don’t need to push the land beyond its limits.
 
We will make sure that farmers can afford their land, that rural land is valued for its agricultural potential rather than its potential for tax-free capital gains.
 
We will bring in a capital gains tax and limit the sale of our land to overseas owners so that farmers can afford to farm it, stay off the treadmill of debt and stay within the ecological limits of the land.
 
We will set targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and chemical use, and increasing organics. And we will focus on securing support to reach those targets.
 
We will set and enforce strong national standards for freshwater, to clean up our rivers.
 
We will bring one of our biggest sectors, agriculture, into the emissions trading scheme so that reducing greenhouse gas emissions will be incentivised and rewarded.
 
4. Building skills
 
We will support the skills development of our agricultural workforce to meet the new challenges. Our schools and universities have a huge part to play. Massey University’s brand new Institute of Agriculture and Environment is a perfect example of how the leaders in primary production can see the importance of developing an agricultural system that protects New Zealand’s precious natural resources. Those people working to produce high quality food and fibre while protecting our environment need to be highly skilled across the spectrum. Whether they are handling animals and monitoring their health and welfare, through to those scientists establishing the new technologies to monitor nutrient use on our farms.
 
5. A genuine brand
 
We will keep a strong eye on a 100 percent commitment to the 100 percent pure brand. It’s our ticket to getting higher global prices that reflect our higher quality products. That means we need a clean-up of our rivers not a cover-up of the evidence.
 
Here in the Hawke’s Bay, a group of local growers and producers - Pure Hawke’s Bay - has identified that their markets do not want genetically engineered foods and are committed to building this region’s reputation as a food producing region of world renown, famous for premium, high quality food, produced sustainably. Pure Hawke’s Bay recognizes the importance of the brand.
 
When we are in Government we will celebrate farmers, here at home and around the world. Urban people need to understand the challenges of farming, and that sustainable farming is a joint responsibility for all New Zealanders to contribute to and reap the benefits of.
 
6. Working together
 
The newly announced Wools of New Zealand farmer owned sales and marketing initiative, and the red meat sector collaboration between industry and government are examples of how sectors can work together to enhance the long-term profitability of New Zealand’s industries. We want more co-operative approaches and will work with all agricultural sectors on how to collaborate.
 
We can collaborate to protect the environment too. The Land and Water Forum brought together 62 stakeholders around the table to develop a common direction for the management of our freshwater. They were from across the spectrum and they reached a set of recommendations through consensus. We didn't necessarily agree with all of the recommendations and there were important missing elements. However, those recommendations that sought to introduce greater environmental protections were watered down or ignored by the Government. The Government needs to honour the blood sweat and tears of the Land and Water forum but instead it is cherry picking recommendations that suit its own plans, and watering down the ones that don’t. When we are in Government we will understand working together for consensus and respect the process.
 
Conclusion
 
Almost a decade ago the PCE said that we urgently need a vision for long-term sustainable agriculture. The Green Party has a vision for Agriculture in New Zealand. One that doesn’t rely on a polluting industry. One that doesn’t rely on farmers being stuck on the treadmill of huge debt and ever increasing production to service that debt. One that doesn’t rely on milk powder at all costs.
 
This is not a new call for action, but it is time for action.
 
Smart green agriculture is about looking after the land, the people and the animals because it is the right thing to do and because it is the economically sensible thing to do.
 
It’s about growing our knowledge so that we can lead the world in how to feed people sustainably.
 
It's about getting to know our customers so that we take our food of provenance from the field to the table.
 
Smart green agriculture means proudly getting our customers to know us, because we have nothing to hide.
 
It's about providing our farmers and food producers a good life and a fair income.
 
And making sure that New Zealand earns it way in the world.
 
That is the Green Party vision for agriculture in this country.
 
ENDS

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