No clarity in call to farmers

RACHEL STEWART
Last updated 06:15 03/04/2014

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OPINION: A recent Rural News editorial has left many astonished.

These days nothing really surprises me but when I read it my own tight jaw dropped fractionally, too.

It said: "We are calling on all New Zealand farmers to refuse any further access to or across their land by fishers and hunters. It is clear that their governing body, Fish & Game, has no respect or regard for the dairy farming sector, and therefore do not want to be associated with the farming sector - including hunting and fishing on their land."

It then goes on to do what it accuses Fish & Game of doing - asking loaded questions. This one takes the cake.

"Is Fish & Game playing a constructive role in helping to improve New Zealand's freshwater quality by continually bagging dairy farmers to score cheap political points?"

The editor's infantile approach was in direct response to the Fish & Game-commissioned survey on New Zealand's water quality issues around dairy intensification.

Let's just say that the findings were not in line with what the dairy sector wanted to hear - that is a public majority is wanting faster and more meaningful action on dairy's massive environmental footprint.

This is not exactly news. It's been obvious to all but a troll living in a cave that the public's tolerance for bad water quality continues to wear wafer thin.

Yet, despite this, the dairy industry (and its gatekeepers) keep on using the same rhetoric.

It doesn't appear to occur to them that this negative public sentiment is not going away. The current deflection tactic being flogged is to keep hammering the line that townies are responsible for bad water quality, too.

Which is true to a point. Research does show that stormwater runoff and sewerage problems in our towns and cities account for a small percentage of it.

The more transparently dumb argument trotted out ad nauseam is that dairy is our economic backbone.

Yeah, like that precludes anyone ever criticising or questioning anything about it.

Another quite recent ploy is to say that a massive amount of money is being spent by the industry to improve water quality.

Federated Farmers chief executive Conor English recently stood on camera and plucked a huge number out of thin air. This figure has not, that I've ever seen, been backed up with anything resembling evidence.

Here's what he said. "There's a lot of stuff happening on farms right now, there's an enormous amount of money being spent.

"Farmers are spending $3 billion on water quality."

There may be some truth to that claim with advanced effluent systems, more riparian planting, and improved fertiliser management occurring in pockets around the country.

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Indeed there are individuals doing great work to tidy up their businesses; it's the collective that needs a rocket.

But it's not $3b worth.

For Federated Farmers to say such unsubstantiated rubbish, and for the Rural News to call on farmers to lock the gates to hunters and fishers, it's clear we've entered the desperate, childish phase of the debate.

The battle for the hearts and minds of New Zealanders by the dairy industry has already been lost. Every bit of evidence is reflecting that.

Rather than boxing shadows, the industry mouthpieces should just get on with the job of changing the narrative.

Less blaming of others and more taking responsibility for their own part in this big mess.

For instance, what's so incredibly stupid about the Rural News editorial is their inability to understand that their plea for farmers to lock their gates against fishers and hunters will only backfire.

Aren't our rural communities filled with fishers and hunters who are also farmers?

Don't farmers have best mates who fish and hunt?

The two are not natural enemies and never will be.

Both factions have an innate understanding of the circle of life. They both prefer being outdoors, are pragmatic and practical.

Pitting them against each other was a bad, bad call. It simply won't stick.

The Rural News would have had much more luck suggesting farmers lock the gate on Teva-wearing academics.

It may well be time for all media, including me, to take a sharp intake of breath and think about how we want to move forward from here.

The issues are on the table, the evidence is in and the way forward is clear.

We have an undeniably serious water-quality issue and dairy is the main culprit.

We either work together on solving this or we all die in a ditch.

An extremely dirty one.

* Rachel Stewart comes from a farming background in Taranaki, been involved in Federated Farmers and is now focused on environmental issues.

- Manawatu Standard

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