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Wednesday, 05 August 2015 11:14

Strong economy is good for environment

Written by 
William Rolleston. William Rolleston.

If agriculture is to keep contributing to New Zealand’s economy we must address the issues of productivity and environmental impact. 

We must continue to enhance our economic benefit by increasing productivity, adding value to current products and developing new high value products.  We must address the risks which exist in the market, in our social licence to operate, in biosecurity (including pests) and in our climate.

It is not axiomatic that economic progress means environmental deterioration.  As a farming leader I have looked for solutions which enable economic progress while supporting a healthy environment. 

In this way the incentives line up and the need for punitive resource rentals, taxes and similar instruments is obviated.  Let me give you some examples:

Nitrogen, whether in chemical fertiliser, organic fertiliser or fixed by legumes, is a significant expense on many farms.  It always shocks me just how little is actually utilised in product which moves off-farm and how much is lost to the atmosphere and beyond the root zone.

These losses contribute to adverse water quality and greenhouse gases.  Interventions which increase the utilisation of nitrogen will result in better environmental outcomes and reduce expenses for farmers.

It is a myth that water is free.  Farmers pay big dollars to have water reticulated to their farms via their own or other schemes.  The proposed Ruataniwha dam is a good example. In Canterbury we have seen significant increases in water efficiency through spray irrigation and now precision irrigation.  Research is continuing to improve drought tolerance and water efficiency in the very plants themselves.

Soil erosion is a loss of capital from the farming system.  It is not new and it occupied the minds of my farming grandparents on our property for as long as I could remember.  New techniques such as no-till agriculture, where paddocks are sprayed with herbicide and direct drilled, not only increases productivity but retains soil structure, helping to preserve this valuable resource from wind and water erosion that ploughing would leave it vulnerable to.

Even without putting biological emissions into the Emissions Trading Scheme, farmers have improved their carbon efficiency by 1.2% per year for the past decade through improved productivity.  Not only that though, New Zealand farmers are amongst the most carbon efficient animal protein producers in the world.  In the absence of mitigation tools and any charges on our competitors, penalising farmers to the extent it would reduce biological emissions would mean a movement of production to less efficient producers offshore and an increase in global biological emissions.

We live in a global world whose population continues to expand.  The FAO predicts we will need to increase world food production by 60% by 2050 to meet demand.  

New Zealand cannot feed the world, but we must play our part.  It would be irresponsible of us to squander or underutilise our resources.   

Three potential answers lie in resource expansion, science to increase efficient use, and collaboration.

Water storage is a good example of resource expansion and remains at the top of Federated Farmers’ agenda.  Water storage builds resilience – the trifecta of economic resilience, community resilience and environmental resilience.  It also creates headroom to dissipate the issue of constraint.  The rationale however is still governed by cost.

Farmers are willing to pay for the benefit they receive from water storage.  But as I have mentioned, water storage also provides the opportunity to improve habitat, increase environmental flows and provide recreation.  Both local and central government should also consider their financial contribution to reflect the public good.

If we are to truly make economic gain while supporting a healthy environment, decision makers need to ensure they get the science right.   So our challenge is to ensure regulators, politicians and the judiciary make decisions in line with the science, and reflect the uncertainty of the time but are not paralysed by it.

The use of caution in the decision making process is essential, but the standpoint taken by activists, i.e. the ‘Precautionary Principle’ which in essence says ‘do nothing until all risk is eliminated’, is an example of the paralysis which we should avoid.

Decision makers need to distinguish between disagreement between parties and scientific uncertainty.  They need to understand what drives the certainty of any one party and put the uncertainty of experts in context. 

We have some evidence that councils and other decision makers are starting to get it right. In the discourse on fluoridation, immunisation and 1080 we are seeing the public and decision makers starting to back science and reject the worn out and unsupported rhetoric of the anti-campaigners.

It is my experience that farmers are environmentalists; why else would they dedicate their life to the land and spend over $1 billion on the environment in five years? They are also problem solvers.  

But they need to understand the problem before buying in.

A growing economy can support a healthy environment but a shrinking one doesn’t stand much chance.  

The best way to achieve a growing economy while supporting a healthy environment requires sound judgements by councils, with the appropriate use of science, engaging not enraging farmers, providing them with the tools of modern technology and seeking solutions which align economic and environmental outcomes.

These are all requirements to grow sustainably.

• This is an edited speech by Dr William Rolleston, Federated Farmers president to the recent Local Government New Zealand Conference.

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