New Zealand is at risk of being so green that it is in the red, Federated Farmers president Bruce Wills is warning.
The country could be going too far in its pursuit of a clean, green environment, he will tell the federation's council in Auckland tomorrow.
His view is bound to anger many in Labour, the Greens and environmental organisations that have praised the farm lobby group's change over the past year in support of increased environmental standards for farmers.
But Mr Wills, a former farm environment award winner, says these groups are reading too much into the federation's stance.
"Yes, we do need to do better. We need to change our farming practices to manage their environmental impact.
"But what I'm not saying is that we should be capping production, or that it is either one or the other - productivity or sustainability.
"It's both. We can't be profitable without sustainability and we can't be sustainable without profitability."
Recent overseas trips have sharpened his views, he says.
In Rome last week for a World Farmers Organisation conference, he was shocked at the state of the River Tiber.
"It was more like treacle than water, covered in plastic bags and weeds. It's because the country has run out of money, so they're not going to be focusing on the environment till they return to growth and prosperity."
It is a reminder to New Zealand that the world is on the edge of an economic abyss.
"Of course we want a clean and beautiful country and of course farmers have to pull up their socks up. But we mustn't forget about growth."
He points out that dairy exports have grown from $5 billion in 2004 to $12b this year.
"If New Zealanders don't want that income they need to give farming a loud and clear message. My sense is they want the benefits of that, but they can't have it by locking up the environment and capping farming."
However, he believes agricultural growth can occur alongside an improved environmental footprint.
It comes through good management and new science.
Some of the science is with us now, such as nitrification inhibiters that in Lincoln University trials are reducing leaching even though more nitrogen is being applied.
And New Zealanders have to have faith that future scientists will come up with answers to problems we are creating today, he says.
"I'm stunned at the ability of the human race to adapt to challenge.
"We risk putting too many restrictions around our farming businesses based on today's science without having the confidence that current and future research won't come up with some answers."
He says he has seen evidence of this in his lifetime.
"The most important tool my father had was a bulldozer - the computer hadn't been invented. For me, the computer is now my most important tool. And it may be that in 20 years' time my children are talking about something that hasn't been invented yet."
Genetic modification is an option being talked about by other countries to manage farming's affect on the environment, he says.
Their main concern is food security, how to feed the million babies that are born each week.
"When I mention to our fellow exporters, that in New Zealand we have people talking about capping cow numbers, reducing agriculture, backing off our impact on the environment and perhaps closing down sensitive catchments, without exception everyone throws their hands up and says 'Why on earth are you doing that when the world is hungry'?"
He says the federation remains committed to the Land and Water Forum, supports Fonterra's moves to have waterways fenced off and is in favour of riparian strips beside streams, particularly for drystock farmers.
"We don't want to back off what's already in place, but we also don't want to be too heavy- handed."
He says he is hearing the same concerns from senior ministers who don't want the Government's growth plans to be at risk.
A good example is the proposed Ruataniwha Dam in Central Hawke's Bay.
"It is absolutely vital to provide jobs for Kiwis. I think we'll get it through, but the Greens are fighting hard to make it not happen."
He says the federation is discussing funding a public survey to discover what sacrifices people would be prepared to put up with to get the environment they want.
His suggestion is to phrase it in terms of classroom sizes, with the economic cost of a small classroom being related to export receipts and how tougher environmental conditions would affect farmers' ability to grow exports.
"It's a difficult balance," he says. "I don't want us to have the cleanest water in the world and the most pristine environment and then wake up one day and find everybody's left New Zealand because our economy cannot support new jobs and opportunities.
"We've got to continue to do better for the environment, but it costs money. There's a lot of people who aren't close enough to farming who have got carried away.
"It all sounds good but they forget it costs money and you need a growing economy.
"Otherwise you end up like Rome, with a filthy river and no money to clean it up." Fairfax
- © Fairfax NZ News
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