I have just spent an interesting morning listening and engaging with a presentation from Agribusiness Professor Jacqueline Rowarth. I was invited to attend the presentation by the local Federated Farmers and listened to some heavy attacks on the Greens, some strong criticisms of regulations and environment councils and some arguments (heartily supported by the farmers present) about why we shouldn't be too hung up about the quality of our rivers. Prof Rowarth made much of the fact that food production is probably the most important industry in New Zealand and how badly treated our highly innovative and efficient farmers are.
You can imagine how well received this presentation was to the farmers present, the fact that she was a vegetarian was immediately forgiven because she could also milk cows like the best of them and her message in their minds was spot on. The professor was an agricultural angel sent from heaven and the farmers present were extremely pleased that I, as a Green, was there to hear it.
Before I had attended the presentation I had done a little background research on the professor through Youtube and was prepared for the general content of the presentation and, I must admit, I supported the core elements. There were a number of areas where our views would obviously differ but there was a lot that resonated with Green policy and my own thinking:
- Producing food will become increasingly important with a growing world population and will always be a strong contributor to our economy. Farming and farmers should be valued more than they are.
- New Zealand farmers are highly competitive in efficiency and innovation despite getting less support than in other countries in terms of subsidies and protected markets.
- Good, healthy food is as cheap, relatively speaking, as it ever was but there are just extra demands on family incomes. Many consumers do not make informed food purchases (milk is a useful form of nourishment, Coco Cola is not). Complaints about the price of food are ill-informed.
- Supermarkets have a huge influence on local and international markets that often does not serve the best interests of farmers or consumers.
- We cannot deal with the demands for increased productivity and meet those demands in an environmentally and economically sustainable way without investment in research and development.
- New Zealand spends invests less on R+D than most other OECD countries and our expenditure (as a % of GDP) currently ranks us with the likes of Mexico.
- Much research funding goes to commercial interests and we need much more invested in independent research. There was much frustration expressed from the audience regarding the lack of independent pasture research and monitoring (as an example), the industry had captured this for their own ends and pasture performance was mixed.
- Our education system is not producing enough people with qualifications that will support our farming industry and we are losing many of our best graduates overseas (25% of graduates leave NZ) because their career opportunities are limited if they remain.
- Throughout the education system there needs to be a stronger focus on science and technology. The Professor agreed with me that the over emphasis on literacy and numeracy and National Standards was counter productive to a well rounded education.
- We needed to give greater value to teachers. Prof Rowarth made the interesting observation that jobs that were perceived as being of a lower value tended to be dominated by women and this is especially true of our early childhood and primary sectors.
- If we are going to attack greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture we should be dealing with transport emissions with greater vigour. The professor thought it ironic that urbanites (86% of New Zealanders) could criticize farming's absence from the ETS while they constantly use their cars for nonessential purposes. Transport emissions are increasing at a faster rate than in farming.
- Our dairy industry is a successful and profitable exporter only because of the strength of Fonterra. We can't have greater diversity in our farming and move to stronger agricultural biodiversity until other agricultural sectors can be supported in a similar way.
- There would be greater risk to our economy in losing New Zealand ownership and control of our important companies, especially Fonterra, than overseas ownership of our land.
Prof Rowarth is a plain speaker and feisty lady who is prepared to speak out in the defense of farming, farmers and most especially science. I enjoyed her presentation and the discussions with the farmers and her over lunch. I do find it interesting that the Greens are often perceived as the main political threat to farmers and yet most of the issues presented were the result of current governance. To use a topical analogy, if things aren't going well down the mine, do you blame the canary? It is important that farmers see the Greens as pragmatic and solution focussed and our concern for the environment may not actually be the biggest impediment to the sustainability and success of their industry?