Pure. Perfect. Poppycock

Federated Farmers needs to work harder to protect the environment.
Federated Farmers needs to work harder to protect the environment.

An open letter to Federated Farmers national president Bruce Wills.

Dear Bruce,

I started my fortnightly column writing about you, but then it occurred to me I should just write directly to you.

I hope addressing you as just Bruce is OK. I realise it's informal but I figure you're just a regular farming bloke, and that my previous 10 years of service with Federated Farmers affords me some latitude on that front.

I don't recall meeting you at FF conferences or meetings but I have been eyeing your progress since your election to national president last year. You've started well but after your predecessors - Don Nicolson and Charlie Pedersen - how could you not?

I cringingly observed them systematically take apart any shred of 'greenness' previous FF leaders had attempted to build up. They attacked anyone they perceived to be remotely environmental and were cartoon- like characters in the eyes of many.

You Bruce, on the other hand, are saying some very sensible things. In the face of two recent damning reports into dairy farming's effects on freshwater, and heightened awareness of the issues by 'townies', you will need to keep it up.

The World Wildlife Fund's Beyond Rio report outlines the dire environmental predicament this country now finds itself in, and records our failure to deliver on any of the promises made since the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro 20 years ago.

WWF-New Zealand executive director Chris Howe said rather than "the land of the long white cloud, [New Zealand] is now a land of polluted rivers and lakes".

The second report from the Land & Water Forum, of which FF is a member, is equally strident. Titled Setting Limits for Water Quality and Quantity, it too makes the case that something must be done and now. Whether the Government implements even one of the recommendations is uncertain given their record of wilful denial on freshwater issues.

Figures obtained by Fairfax NZ from 17 regional councils and unitary authorities reveal that since July 1, 2008, there have been 151 prosecutions involving more than 300 charges against 198 companies or individuals for unlawful discharges of dairy effluent affecting land or water.

Prosecutions are taken only in the most serious cases, after regional councils have weighed various factors, including the actual and potential effects of the discharge, whether it was deliberate, the attitude of the offender, profits made from the offending and the efforts made to clean up or remedy after the discharge. New figures showing 35 per cent of councillors are involved in farming means that offenders are often their mates too.

So Bruce, they do prosecute breaches on occasion, but you and I both know this is the tip of the iceberg - and a red herring. Effluent problems via the dairy shed are comparatively minor compared with the cumulative negative effects of high cow numbers on soil and water.

Nonetheless, your subsequent comment to Fairfax NZ about having to "front-foot this issue and we need to lift our game" was reassuring.

Further, if you'll indulge me, can I offer some tips.

1. Always make positive statements without ever adding a 'but'. For example, saying "the dairy industry is a big polluter but urban dwellers are doing just as much damage" or "we need to lift our game but we are being unfairly singled out" is not helpful. It looks like whinging and, remember, if you're explaining you're losing.

2. Pass this on to your provincial presidents and section heads. Some of them talk to the media with no restraint or communications training and it shows. They successfully undermine your efforts to make Feds appear reasonable.

3. Sort out your head office tweet-meister and fast. He/she is seriously nobbling your good work and succeeding in making you look insincere. Arguing the toss with well-intentioned FF followers via the twitterverse is never a good look.

4. Stop sending in the lawyers to fight limits on water quality. It makes a mockery of FF's seat at the Land & Water Forum table. As you know, FF is fighting it out in the Environment Court (alongside Fonterra) to dilute any attempt at regulation aimed at limiting the amount of nutrients from intensive land use leaching into some catchments in the Horizons region. Nothing undercuts your stated commitment to doing the right thing better than this.

5. Be aware that most Kiwis know 'greenwash' when they see it - like Fonterra's latest ploy of using Richie McCaw as their new "ambassador". Don't follow their cynical example.

Finally Bruce, if I thought there was a hope in hell that Fonterra could see beyond its profit motive, and stop pushing farmers ever harder to increase production, I would have addressed this missive to them.

Bottom line, New Zealanders' patience is wearing thin around the overwhelming loss of our clean rivers and lakes, primarily due to intensive dairy farming. Our hearts are breaking out here.

Now is not the time for blame, doublespeak or equivocation. Nor is it time to jabber on about the economy and jobs.

Now, more than ever, is the time to lead.

Taranaki Daily News