Rural round-up

July 1, 2015

Dr Rolleston new vice-president of the World Farmers Organisation:

Federated Farmers President, Dr William Rolleston has been elected Vice President of the World Farmers Organisation (WFO) while attending its General Assembly in Milan.

The WFO aims to bring together all the national producers and farm cooperative organisations with the objective of developing policies which favour and support farmers’ causes in developed and developing countries around the world.

“I am delighted and incredibly humbled to be elected into this role,” says Dr Rolleston. .  .

 

Sheep shipment should have been handled better – Jon Morgan:

 I recall once being told that the Prime Minister gets more calls and letters about animal welfare than any other issue.

No-one likes to see an animal suffer and it appears we’re more vigilant about this than we are about anything else, including child cruelty.

The authorities act quickly and severely when cases of animal cruelty occur. Hardly a week goes by when we’re not reading of a case before the courts. Unfortunately, each year several of these are farmers and involve multiple animals.

And so the outcry over the recent shipment of 50,000 sheep (actually 45,000) to Mexico quickly escalated to hysterical levels. . .

Gisborne bull breeders on a high after $100,000 sale  – Kate Taylor:

Angus breeders Charlie and Susie Dowding are buzzing at the sale of one of their bulls for $100,000 – a record price for an on-farm bull sale in New Zealand.

The Gisborne stud’s Rangatira 13-38 sold to the Bayly family’s Cricklewood Angus, Wairoa, which will use the rising two-year-old bull itself initially and make semen available for sale in the future.

“I don’t think I’ve stopped smiling yet,” Susie Dowding said.

“We had no idea at all he would be so sought after. We had moved him up the catalogue but obviously he should have been up further. I’m not sure how many were bidding to start with but it ended up with two studs who wanted him badly.” . .

Focus on support networks – Sally Rae:

A gathering of rural professionals is being held in Oamaru next week to highlight the support networks available to farmers.

It has been organised by the Rural Support Trust, Federated Farmers, Beef and Lamb New Zealand and DairyNZ.

The organisations all had concerns for farmers, particularly in North Otago but also other areas, over the next three to four months, as they faced the effects of drought and also the low dairy payout, Otago Rural Support Trust co ordinator Dave Mellish said. . .

ECan’s future direction – Conan Young:

After five years without a democratically elected regional council, warnings are being sounded that Canterbury’s stock of capable leaders is in danger of being hollowed out.

As Insight investigated the plan for ECan to make a partial return to democracy, it was told the region is getting used to having decisions made for it by government appointed commissioners.

Environment Canterbury’s councillors were sacked by the government amidst claims they were dysfunctional and had failed to introduce a water plan for the region, allowing it to make the most of its alpine water and reap the economic rewards of large scale irrigation.

Now there’s a proposal for a partial return to democracy with a mix of elected members and appointed commissioners.

According to the government, there’s still too much at stake to risk a return to fully elected councillors.

But the head of the Politics Department at Canterbury University, Bronwyn Hayward, takes issue with that position. . .

 

Cashflow crucial for Taranaki demonstration farms – Sue O’Dowd:

Demonstration farms near Stratford and Manaia are closely monitoring their cashflow, focusing on pasture management and deferring some expenditure as they plan for the season ahead.

The Stratford Demonstration Farm, operated by an incorporated society, and the Waimate West Demonstration Farm, owned by a trust, were both established in 1917 by local farmers who wanted a model dairy farm in their area to develop and promote better farming methods. Both farms are managed by the Taratahi Agricultural Training Centre. 

Waimate West Demonstration Farm chairman John Fischer says cashflow will be crucial if dairy farmers are to manage their finances in the wake of two seasons of low payout forecasts. . .

Auditing just futile bureaucracy –  Lynda Murchison:

So much time and energy is spent managing land and water at present, with decisions around rules only the first step.

What those rules look like and how much they will cost farmers and the community to implement also needs close scrutiny. Take a couple of examples from Canterbury.

Overseer; like it or hate it, Canterbury farmers are required to record an estimate of their nitrogen losses using Overseer. Personally I don’t have an issue with that. . .


Rural round-up

June 27, 2015

Lincoln University’s VIce-Chancellor Resigns:

Dr Andrew West today resigned as Vice-Chancellor of Lincoln University.

“I am proud of what the University has achieved under my leadership. It has been a fabulous three years and Lincoln is on track to become one of the world’s truly great land-based universities”, said Dr West.

 “However my commitment of time, energy and focus has been so great that it is now appropriate that I refocus on my family that live in the Waikato and on my very elderly parents that live in England”, Dr West added.

Farm Environment Award goes to Rotorua couple – Gerard Hutching:

ROTORUA couple John and Catherine Ford have won New Zealand’s pre-eminent farming prize, the Ballance Farm Environment Award for 2015.

It is the first time in the five years since the award was established that a North Island farming business has won.

The Fords were presented with the Gordon Stephenson trophy by Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy at a Parliamentary function.

The judges said the sheep and beef property had the “wow” factor and had been chosen from out of 10 regional supreme winners. It stood out in terms of environmental sustainability and impressive production and performance figures, they said. . .

Taupō farmer warned over nitrogen cap breaches:

A sheep & beef farmer has been formally warned for breaching the Resource Management Act by exceeding a nitrogen discharge cap on properties in the Lake Taupō catchment over a two year period.

It is the first warning issued by Waikato Regional Council under the new Variation 5 consenting regime designed to protect the lake’s health from nitrogen, which can leach into waterways and cause nuisance algae.

The warning came after it was discovered more than a tonne of excess nitrogen could eventually leach into the lake as a result of the farmer’s operations over the two years. By themselves the breaches are not expected to have a major detrimental effect on the lake’s future health. . .

Look at it as a challenge – Bryan Gibson:

The line painted on Rob Craig’s haybarn, marked 2004, is a reminder of the devastating floods of a decade ago. 

But heavy rain is often enough to jog Craig’s memory, as it did last weekend.

“I didn’t sleep well on Friday night, to be honest. It was bucketing down with rain. Ever since ’04 it’s always in the back of your mind when it’s raining heavily. It just kept raining and raining and I got a pretty bad feeling then that it was going to be bad.” . . .

Lake Opuha reaps the winter harvest – Tim Cronshaw:

A rich snow harvest in the Fairlie basin is providing an unexpected windfall for lowland farmers needing Lake Opuha to fully recharge for the next irrigation season.

After being closed to irrigating in February the lake reached “zero storage” for the first time in 17 years and had been slow to return to its normal levels over autumn.

The lake will be boosted by the initial snow melt in the lower basin with lake levels expected to continue rising as deeper snow in the Two Thumb Range thaws in spring, but more water is needed for it to totally refill. . .

 NZ finishes 2014/15 wool season with smallest volume sold at auction in at least 7 years: – Tina Morrison:

(BusinessDesk) – New Zealand’s 2014/15 wool season ended this week with what is expected to be the smallest percentage of the clip sold through auctions in at least seven years, as more farmers were attracted to the premium prices and protection from commodity price volatility offered in private sales.

The auction system’s share of wool is expected to continue to shrink. An estimated 464,000 bales are expected to come up for auction in the 2015/16 year, down from 480,000 bales in 2014/15 and 493,000 bales in 2013/14, according to Wool Services International executive Malcolm Ching, who is on the roster committee which estimates wool bale supply for the auctions. Ching said the committee has been forced to revise down its estimates in recent years to reflect declining sheep numbers and an increased amount of wool circumventing the auction system. . .


Rural round-up

June 23, 2015

Water presents high risk to agribusiness:

Whether it’s growing crops, generating electricity or entertaining tourists, water is a key ingredient for the success of the New Zealand economy, yet this also makes it a key risk.

PwC’s latest publication, Preserving water through collaboration that works, considers how New Zealand within a global context, has responded to water risks and the potential to improve water management in the future. New Zealand faces its own risks which differ from those in other parts of the world, and these risks, are increasing.

PwC Director and Local Government expert David Walker says, “A usable supply of water is fundamental to the New Zealand economy and permeates across all industries – and notably farming, forestry, electricity generation and public sectors. However continued effective water management is becoming more complex and costly. . .

ASB Farmshed Economics Report Cash is king for farmers

• Despite a better milk price forecast, farm cashflows will remain weak this season.

• But falling interest rates are putting cash back in farmers’ pockets.

• Meanwhile, the hot air has been let out of the NZ dollar.

Despite Fonterra’s better opening season milk price forecast, farm cashflows will still face pressure this season, according to the latest ASB Farmshed Economics Report. . .

 

TPP dairy deal ‘not at a level we would currently like’, says Key – Pattrick Smellie:

(BusinessDesk) – The Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact does not yet include an acceptable deal on access for New Zealand’s most important exports, dairy products, with little more than a month to go before the controversial 12 nation trade deal could be concluded.

“I think the way I would describe it is there’s a deal. It’s probably not at the level that we would currently like,” said Prime Minister John Key at his post-Cabinet press conference in Wellington. He was referring to comments last week by Trade Minister Tim Groser that negotiations on dairy access to the heavily protected US, Canadian and Japanese markets had “barely started.” . . .

A2 shareholder Freedom Foods in consortium to take over milk marketer – Fiona Rotherham:

(BusinessDesk) – A2 Milk Co’s cornerstone shareholder, Freedom Foods Group, is part of a consortium with an international dairy group that’s eyeing a takeover of the dual-listed milk marketer.

Freedom Foods, which owns about 19 percent of A2 Milk with a related entity, is mulling a takeover of A2 Milk, making an indicative non-binding and conditional expression of interest to buy the shares it doesn’t already own. A deal would be contingent on the consortium, which includes an “unnamed leading international liquid dairy milk company”, undertaking due diligence. It also has a restriction on A2 Milk changing the number of shares on issue, effectively scotching a planned equity raising. . .

LIC seeks $125M debt facilities this year, targets $140M equity over decade – Jonathan Underhill:

Livestock Improvement Corp, which aims to lift annual revenue to $1 billion by 2025, says it plans to establish $125 million of debt facilities this year and is likely to require $140 million in equity capital over the next 10 years to meet its growth goals.

Details of its capital requirements are included in a presentation the bull semen and dairy genetics database manager is taking around the country to explain to its shareholders how its changing focus, with increased capital spending and new product development, is changing its financial profile. Previously it has only required seasonal debt funding, typically for three months, the presentation shows. .

Upper South Island Butchers Battle It Out:

The best young butchers in the Upper South Island have been announced following the Alto Young Butcher and Competenz Butcher Apprentice of the Year regional final on Saturday.

Rowan Lee from Peter Timbs in Bishopdale was the winner of the Alto Young Butcher category, while Matthew Clemens from New World Ilam topped the Competenz Butcher Apprentice category, both highly sought after titles. . .

 

Tractor and Machinery Association elects new President:

Mark Hamilton-Manns, New Zealand Sales Manager for John Deere, has been elected President of the Tractor and Machinery Association (TAMA).

Formerly Vice President of the organisation, he takes over from Ian Massicks, New Zealand Kubota Manager for CB Norwood Distributors, who had been President for six years.

Roger Nehoff, General Manager New Zealand Retail for Landpower New Zealand, was elected Vice-President. . .


Rural round-up

June 20, 2015

Environment Commissioner warns water quality is “not out of the woods yet”:

Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, today released two reports on water quality, calling for further steps to safeguard the quality of New Zealand’s fresh water.

“To its credit, the Government has invested heavily in developing policy to improve the management of fresh water,” said Dr Wright. “The 2014 National Policy Statement is a major step forward. Some regional councils have already begun to act and there is a real sense of momentum.”

“But we are not out of the woods yet. Some lakes and streams are below bottom lines and many others are not far above them. And in many places, water quality continues to decline.” . .

PCE report constructively points to next steps in water reform:

The Government has welcomed the two reports released today from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment on managing New Zealand’s freshwater reforms.

“This report acknowledges the step change in improving freshwater management through the National Policy Statement in 2011 and the addition of the National Standards in 2014, but it also challenges the Government on the next steps. The report is timely in that it can feed into the work we are doing with iwi leaders and the reinvigorated Land and Water Forum. Our plan is to have a discussion document out on the next steps in freshwater reform early in 2016,” Dr Smith says.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment has recommended six improvements to the Freshwater National Policy Statement. The recommendations are: . . .

 Federated Farmers supports PCE report:

Federated Farmers welcomes the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s report on Managing Water Quality which supports our long held position that the National Policy Statement (NPS) is a major step forward for water management in New Zealand.

Dr Jan Wright has reflected on what has been an effective couple of years since her last report, with a sense of significant momentum in the regions. She has made six recommendations which overall we agree with excluding concerns around the exceptions policy.

Ian MacKenzie, Federated Farmers Environment Spokesperson, says “We agree with the Commissioner’s recommendation for a more strategic approach in prioritising the more vulnerable catchments. To date some councils have spread their efforts too far and thin when they needed to prioritise and make some real progress on the ones that are under the most pressure.” . . .

Landcorp says 2015 earnings ‘on track’ despite weaker dairy prices – Tina Morrison:

(BusinessDesk) – Landcorp Farming, New Zealand’s largest corporate farmer, said it doesn’t need to downgrade its earnings outlook in the wake of falling dairy prices remain weak, as it sheltered from volatility by locking in a guaranteed price at the start of the season.

Dairy product prices slipped in this week’s GlobalDairyTrade auction to the weakest level in almost six years. State-owned Landcorp in October cut its forecast for this year’s operating profit to a range of $1 million to $6 million, from a previous forecast range of $8 million-$12 million, citing weaker milk prices. However the company said it is protected from some of the recent weakness by taking up Fonterra Cooperative Group’s guaranteed milk price. . .

Grass-fed infant formula venture for Synlait:

Canterbury dairy company Synlait is going into partnership with United States company Munchkin to create a new infant formula.

California-based Munchkin has seven offices around the world, and is a leading manufacturer of infant and toddler products.

Synlait’s managing director Doctor John Penno said the unique aspect of this agreement was the product will be grass-fed.

“We’re differentiating inside the farm gate and in a way that really epitomises the very good things about the New Zealand grazing system. . .

Fonterra debate on the wrong track – Andrew Hoggard:

The argument about how well Fonterra is performing is gathering pace. People are claiming there is a bloated management.  We have politicians calling for the CEO to take a pay-cut.  That CEO has just indicated possible redundancies as an outcome of an internal review.

The view seems to be that a number of support roles in New Zealand need to go and be replaced by people in the market.

Pub talk fixes on how many are earning more than what amount, and then assumes that if the pay is slashed the problem is sorted.

I think we sometimes forget how big Fonterra is.  You don’t pay small wages to top people to run a business like that. A far more sensible discussion for us to be having would be on what Fonterra pays in wages as a percentage of turnover. And then break that down by division.  Then compare with other successful dairy co-ops from around the world and see what lessons we can take. . .

Waikato Seasonal Outlook: A new drought and rainy period forecasting system is giving farmers and other primary producer a chance to adjust schedules to improve production and protect investments and livelihoods.

When it comes to climate risks in New Zealand, the bluster and rage of tropical storms can steal the stage. But what has really garnered attention over the last ten years are the recurring droughts some of which have affected not just regional New Zealand but the whole country. These events can flare up quickly, and can cause considerable economic damage and stress to farmers and the ecosystems under their stewardship.

Drought is often insidious and creeping, intensifying over many months, stunting or killing crops and limiting grass growth and quality as it develops, reducing groundwater levels and river flow and drying out water supplies. It represents a more frequently occurring and persistent climate hazards faced by New Zealand. Conversely, extended rainy periods and the occasional extreme rainfall event characterised by excessively high rainfall totals over a short duration and typically covering small geographical areas can lead to their own set of problems for the country. . .

 


Rural round-up

June 16, 2015

Federated Farmers water team ‘Reclaiming choice’:

Federated Farmers has launched its very own ‘Water Team’ in response to the growing challenges farmers face in securing a profitable and sustainable future. The Federation hopes to empower the provinces to negotiate their need for the natural resource which is threatened by the lack of choices and missed opportunities through ‘false dichotomies’.

Dr William Rolleston, Federated Farmers President, says “When we deny ourselves choices of how much risk we want to take we are limiting ourselves and our ability to move forward. Our challenge is to ensure regulators, politicians and the judiciary make decisions which are in line with the science, which reflect the uncertainty of the time but are not paralysed by it.

“That’s why Federated Farmers has been developing its very own specialist water team as well as science and innovation teams to help develop our policies and inform public debate.” . . .

 

Agribusiness Agenda poses challenges – Allan Barber:

KPMG’s Agribusiness Agenda for 2015 is a comprehensive analysis of the challenges faced by New Zealand agriculture in meeting the government’s target of doubling exports by 2025. In the light of dramatically falling dairy prices with little sign of recovery, what was always a big ask has suddenly become a whole lot harder.

The Agenda was prepared following a series of Roundtable discussions with a number of leading agricultural personalities from which the views of the participants have been distilled into a number of conclusions. The key finding is that there is a compelling need to add value to our agricultural output which the report admits is pretty obvious and easier to say than do. . .

Bay sheep make the news in New York – Patrick O’Sullivan:

A photo of a Hawke’s Bay flock of sheep has featured in New York Times Magazine.

It was taken by photographer and book publisher Grant Sheehan for a soon-to-be-released book on a sheep station west of Hastings, Kereru Station – Two Sisters’ Legacy.

The New York Times Magazine story was on Dronestagram, a website featuring aerial drone photography, where Mr Sheehan’s photo was featured.

Mr Sheehan, who grew up on a farm near Nelson, said sheep were very difficult to photograph. . .

Spring Sheep Dairy Takes First Step:

Spring Sheep Dairy has taken its first step, with joint venture owners Landcorp Farming Limited and SLC Group agreeing on the focus for its consumer-led marketing business.

Spring Sheep Dairy Chief Executive and Director Scottie Chapman says SSD’s long term goal is to export high value high quality sheep milk products to Asian consumers.

“We’re still to milk our first sheep so obviously there’s a long way to go and we will take a very careful and considered approach, but we are very excited about the potential opportunities this joint venture offers,” Mr Chapman says. . .

 

Auckland Signs Up For Farm Environment Competition:

Farmers in the Auckland region can now enter the prestigious Ballance Farm Environment Awards.

Awards-facilitator, the New Zealand Farm Environment (NZFE) Trust, has formed a partnership with Auckland Council to bring the highly successful competition to Auckland. The agreement means Auckland farmers and horticulturists are eligible to enter the 2016 Awards.

NZFE chair Simon Saunders says the trust is delighted to deliver the Ballance Farm Environment Awards to the region. . .

Partnership puts spotlight on dairy feed efficiency:

Feed supplier GrainCorp Feeds has teamed up with independent research and technical specialists Dairy Club to help New Zealand dairy farmers using supplementary feed to achieve maximum profit this season.

Farmers working with GrainCorp Feeds will have access to Dairy Club’s online milk prediction tool, Tracker™, which measures current milk production and shows how they can achieve maximum gain.

Dairy Club research shows that about $200,000 of efficiency and productivity gains for the average farm can be achieved using Tracker™, which is the equivalent to adding over $1.50 to the milk price. . .

 

Elders Primary Wool announce name change to CP Wool:

Elders Primary Wool has today announced they will change their brand name to CP Wool from September 2015. The brand name change follows the 50 per cent acquisition of the Elders New Zealand business by South Island based Carr Group.

The business will be identified as CP Wool in the market and will be underpinned by Carrfields Primary Wool, a play on the Carr Group transition to Carrfields which will roll out from July 2015. Primary Wool Cooperative, the other 50 per cent shareholder in the Elders Primary Wool business is represented by the Primary Wool reference. . .


HaSNO needs review

June 16, 2015

Treasury secretary Gabriel Makhlouf’s call for another look at New Zealand’s attitude to GMOs is being supported by NZBio.

In a speech at Fieldays last week on making informed decisions about natural resources, Makhlouf said when new technologies come along, both genetically modified and non-genetically modified, New Zealand’s current system denies choice over whether the country should have them. “Meanwhile, our international competitors do have this option,” he said.

Will Barker, chief executive of the biotech industry organisation NZBio, said the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act needs to be urgently revised so new organisms are covered by better-conceived legislation.

“Attempts to interpret the current legislation have shown it to be highly restrictive, yet there are considerable benefits that new genetic technologies can offer New Zealanders,” Barker said in a statement today. . . .

Barker said decisions on biotechnology, including GM, should be subject to an appropriate risk-based assessment.

“Much of what is being said about GM here in New Zealand is simply inaccurate. Millions of people around the world have accepted GMOs into their environment and their food supply, because under appropriate legislation, they are recognised as having no substantial difference in risk profile to any other agriculture practice.”

Anti-GM rhetoric is largely based on fear and emotion.

HaSNO legislation should balance the opportunities and risks which come with any new technology and it must be based on science.

Makhlouf ‘s speech is here.

 


Challenge of Maintaining Social Licence to Farm

June 15, 2015

Federated Farmers’ president Dr William Rolleston discusses the challenge of maintaining the social licence to farm in New Zealand in the 21st century:

The concept of a social licence to operate is the complex mix of philanthropic, ethical, legal and economic expectations that a community and stakeholders may have which enables an operation, in this case farming, to continue in a local community.

The social licence to operate was born in the mining industry where local communities may have been at odds with the disruption and effects that mining  activities were having on those communities.  In essence a social licence to operate occurs where the values of the local community and the industry align.  At the very least the social licence to operate is where a community (in the broadest sense) recognises that there is a positive balance between the benefits they receive and the disruption that may take place.

New Zealand was born on the sheep’s back.  We are a nation of farmers.  The alignment of the values between farming and the community has been implicit for the last 150 years.  Our farmers fought our wars – General Russell, who commanded our troops in the Great War and Charles Upham, our most decorated soldier were both farmers and personified our notion and pride in our rural heritage from those times.  Still today we see advertisements which reflect our rural cultural roots, although they are less common than they used to be.

So it is a surprise to many farmers today that this alignment has come unhinged and that we should even be considering farming’s social licence to operate.

I think there are two main drivers to this unhinging.  The first is the continued urbanisation of New Zealand.  The majority of our young have not grown up on a farm – some, so the urban myth goes, have no concept of milk beyond the supermarket. The second is the continued development and intensification of agriculture itself and that we are pushing up against environmental constraints.

In a sense we are victims of our own success.   New Zealanders have a concept of the heartland farmer striding out across the hills.   The longstanding success of dairying on the Waikato not with-standing, the conversion of many traditional sheep and beef farms to dairy has disrupted this traditional view.

While the original concept of the social licence to operate centred around the local community, these days in agriculture the community is wider New Zealand, not just the village down the road or the immediate neighbours.

NGOs grasped this concept some time ago.  Their campaigns are targeted not only at the public but use uncertainty, fear, opinion and often public outrage to influence the gatekeepers of our goods, namely the supermarkets, as well as our politicians.  The fear of losing market share or votes often magnifies public views in their eyes and is seldom compatible with swimming against the populist tide.

While NGOs are legitimately part of the community we have seen them erode the trust between agriculture and the national community through campaigns such as the highly effective “dirty dairying” campaign of the last ten years.  Poor performers in the industry have been held up as the typical examples and all that is wrong.  Fear and negative publicity sells.  Oscar Wild’s quip that there is one thing worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about is not always true.  Negative stories and fear get into the psyche of the public and can be hard to root out even when the facts are on the other side.

The response from agriculture has not always been helpful either.  Deep sectorial interests have often meant that our responses have been mixed giving the impression of uncertainty or even worse evasion.  Those of you at the KPMG breakfast yesterday would have heard Volker Kuntzsch the CEO of Sandfords say that in response to the negative messages from the NGOs the fishing industry said nothing which gave the impression they had something to hide. I think he has a point.

Federated Farmers took the view four years ago that fighting back against every issue was getting us nowhere and was losing us credibility and therefore influence.  My predecessor Bruce Wills stood up in the water debate and said that farmers are part of the problem but we are also part of the solution.  We said that we should work together with other parties through collaboration for better outcomes.  In parallel we also rallied the primary industries together so that we could speak with a common voice where it counted while still preserving our individual objectives.

These were lessons I learnt through the debate on genetic modification, and in particular through the Royal Commission process.  As head of the biotechnology industry organisation and then the Life Sciences Network we rallied the science and industry organisations together, coordinated our story and engaged through the preliminary meetings of the Royal Commission process in a collaborative way.  Fear and uncertainty was the currency of the day but engagement exposed the vulnerabilities and fundamentalism of the opposition view -to the Royal Commissioners at least.  The public would take more time and a track record of safety which is now emerging.

The genetic modification debate is starkly illustrative of the power of a social licence to operate.

Create enough fear about food and environmental safety in the GMO space, limit sciences social licence to operate, and pretty soon what was fear will be morphed into ethics.  We are left with a religious view and the science of safety then no longer matters.

How true that is: We are left with a religious view and the science of safety then no longer matters. Emotion, bolstered by fear, ignorance and propaganda, is very difficult to counter  no matter what the facts might be.

Water is more subtle but the use of fear and uncertainty to reduce the social licence to operate for farming is the same.

If we get this wrong then the outrage factor will trump science and translate into regulation, even legislation – the formal curtailment of our social licence to operate.

The Prime Minister’s Science Advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, has recognised this risk.  On his website he says:

“Democratic societies make decisions and policy based on many inputs, including fiscal considerations, societal values, prevailing public views, and the ideals and vision of the government of the day.

“But democratic governments want to make good decisions and at the base of such decision making should be the use of high quality information and evidence, both in developing new policies and in evaluating current policies. Decisions made in the absence of such informed background material are, by definition, less likely to be effective or efficient and can entrench policies which may be of little value.

Thus governments can become constrained by earlier policy decisions that are not easily reversible because there may be a popular or political perception that they are effective when in fact they are not.”

So our challenge is to ensure regulators, politicians and the judiciary make decisions which are in line with the science, which reflect the uncertainty of the time but are not paralysed by it.

To achieve this we need a more science literate and savvy public who understand the nature of science and uncertainty.  A scientist said to me recently when we were talking about just how certain some activists are.  He said “certain people are right sometimes”.

Bertrand Russell put it less kindly when he said: ““the whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so certain of themselves but wiser people so full of doubt”.

But we are seeing signs of hope.  In the public discourse on fluoridation, immunisation and 1080 we are seeing the public starting to back science and reject the worn out and unsupported rhetoric of the anti-campaigners.

The certainty of the those forces railed against farming in the water debate will also struggle to stand up to the test of time and evidence, but it is not an easy battle and we need to recognise that they will be right sometimes and it would be hubris of us to think we are always right too.

We hear a lot about our markets and what they think of New Zealand.  In my view this is an extension of the battle to restrict our social licence to operate.  “New Zealand should be 100% organic” we hear “our customers are demanding it” they say.

We need to resist these constraints.  New Zealand has operated successfully in an open economy.  There are many forms of farming.  At one end there is organics but there is also integrated pest management, conventional agriculture, no-till farming, conservation agriculture and modern biotechnology including genetic modification and precision gene editing.  It is my view that farmers should have the choice to use those approved techniques and technologies how they see fit.

Our overriding goal should be to produce products which contain enduring value propositions such as safety, integrity, value and quality.   Clean and green (in other words our environmental credentials) represent a bottom line, a ticket to the club if you like, but research shows they are not the values shoppers have at the front of their minds when making purchasing choices.

If rightly or wrongly our social licence to operate is determined by the public view we have two choices.  We can either accept whatever the public, or those who claim to represent the public, are saying, and simply work within those constraints no matter how painful they may be or we can seek to understand the public point of view and how they got to that point of view.  We can engage to ensure our view is persuasive.  We can also repackage our message to fit the expectation.  In other words we can either follow public opinion or seek to mould it.

Other players have done the latter with great effect.

At a time when the Greens were chastising farmers for growing biofuels because it took up valuable food producing land, wine production, was left alone.  A glib message of sustainability helped but the fact so many enjoy the indulgence of a good wine not infrequently represents one benefit in the social licence to operate equation.  If you like we can all be hypocrites when it suits us.

Air New Zealand has also flagged a message of sustainability to maintain its social licence to operate.

Scandinavian scientists are using new precision gene editing techniques – the successors to genetic modification – to “rewild” food crops with beneficial heritage traits.

And we heard yesterday that Sanfords are wanting to rebrand their image from an extractive company to a food company.

Agriculture can learn from these examples.

Our challenge into the 21st century is to recognise that our changing demographic means our social licence to operate as farmers must be earned.  We must seek to ensure that licence is as broad as reasonably possible within the bounds of our scientific knowledge.  We must meet the challenge through engagement, understanding, honesty and clarity with the backing of sound evidence.

We must cultivate a public who understand that the environmental effects of the last hundred years cannot simply be reversed in half a generation. We must cultivate a public who understand that we can make good progress when times are good and that while it is not acceptable to go backwards, when times are hard progress is going to be slower.

Agriculture has a good story to tell and a great part to play in New Zealand’s future.  The rules which constrain us must be reasonable and sound.  The outcome is in our hands.

The social licence to operate  can’t be taken for granted.

Agriculture does have a good story to tell and  a great part to play.

The challenge is to ensure the  story is heard and that farming’s ability to play that great part isn’t handicapped by unreasonable and unsound rules based on emotion rather than science.

 


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