Our land 2018, a recent report released by the Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ, has found we are damaging and losing our soils and our native plants and animals.
This should come as no surprise to anyone. In recent years we have watched the quality of our environment, our rivers and lakes, our native forests and wetlands be systematically decimated, not just from farming, but from urban development and even natural disasters. Irrespective of who we choose to blame, the degradation has been inexorable it seems, we are falling to halt it.
While caring for the environment has often been considered a luxury of being Left, an indulgence only for Greenies and Hippies, that point of view is as ignorant and outdated as the view of those who choose to ignore the balance of scientific evidence and instead “believe” that global warming is not human-induced. Land-based primary production’s share of gross domestic product was 3.7 percent in 2016, while tourism’s share was a larger 5.7 percent. Surveys tell us why these tourists are coming here - our biggest export is intrinsically linked to something we seem hell bent on destroying for certain economic advantage. Yet sustaining economic growth in New Zealand is dependent on reaping a dividend from our environment (or natural capital), not wrecking it.
Against this reality, the continued impotence of policymakers, councils, famers, and everyday Kiwis to protect and enhance our natural capital contradicts any commitment to sustained economic prosperity, we are a living breathing example of Dr Seuss’s The Lorax, prioritising environmentally destructive economic growth and production over all other forms. Economist Shamubeel Eaqub recently said “we don't tend to deal with things until they are well and truly broken”. He was talking about superannuation, but it could just as easily be applied to our natural environment. Unfortunately, restoring our waterways and wetlands is not a problem that can be addressed by just throwing money at it sometime in the future. Reconstructing nature is not a skill humankind has yet acquired, it needs protection before it’s destroyed – not just for the sake of the environment, but for the sake of our economy.
Who is to blame?
In terms of water quality, the worst damage is often concentrated in urban areas, but in terms of sheer scale, farming (livestock, cereals, horticulture and forestry) has a greater impact – by far.
However it’s unfair to point the finger directly at the famers themselves; progressive farmers do want clean rivers too. Many have lived on and off the land for generations. They too, want safe drinking water, healthy ecosystems and a sustainable income and they despair at the media coverage that tarnishes all agriculture with the same brush. They, like many of us who live rurally, have watched industrial agriculture march across the rural landscape, capitalising on opportunities for large scale intensification and exploitation of once abundant natural resources. Industrial agriculture is capitalising on the fabled rural New Zealand landscape to sell product to international markets blissfully unconcerned about the consequences of production. Our PR machine meanwhile, keeps selling the dream of a clean green New Zealand.
When we point the finger at farming, it is not wagging so much at those who tend the fields, but agriculture’s regulatory, tax, and commercial structure that incentivises volume maximisation, rather than profit maximisation. The reason it’s able to do that is the full costs of environmental depletion are not borne by the farmer, society picks up a substantial portion of the tab. It does this by either allowing the environmental degradation to go unanswered, or funding Regional Councils and others to mitigate the damage.
It should not be unreasonable to expected businesses to pay the full cost of their operations, including the costs they impose on the rest of society. If still profitable once all costs are accounted for, production continues and the business is sustainable.
At the moment, there are no incentives to reduce these costs to society. Industrial agriculture is effectively privatising the profits while the costs ( the damage to our environment)are socialised. The previous government went all in on this agenda, with a plan to double agricultural exports by 2025. Credit is due to the new government for canning the massive irrigation subsidies required to drive this growth. However, any attempt at meaningful change ended there. Nether Labour’s tax panic nor its refusal to adequately price fresh water and pollution will lead to anything apart from ongoing environmental destruction.
If we want to promote smarter land use and corporate responsibility, we need to ensure the total costs of production are accounted for, creating actual incentives to be cleaner, and allowing us to shift up the value chain. Smart regulation and corrective taxes enable this, and if managed correctly, do not come at the expense of growth: The best of both worlds.
New Zealand has a such a competitive advantage when it comes to high quality, primarily pasture-fed meat and milk, yet we continue to compete with American and Chinese feedlots at the world price. Surely our focus should be on leveraging our natural advantage, selling on the basis of higher quality, rather than the highest quantity of goods. Our inability to extract a price premium – despite the success of the likes of Lewis Road, Synlait, and Tatua finding higher margin niches – is the rule rather than the exception of our dairy sector. If profit maximisation subject to the full cost of production became the norm that would force change.
The approach to fresh water and environmental issues of recent governments has been limp and still we have a government hamstrung by an electorate fixated with the status quo, seemingly happy with continued environmental degradation least it hit them in the back pocket. Will the tipping point be when all our rivers are no longer swimmable? The lack of pre-emptive action from policymakers continues alongside more environmental degradation and higher intensity farming. In the absence of the political will the circuit breaker remains as elusive as ever – that is not the politicians fault, it is the responsibility of the voters who put them there.