The Urban Rural Divide is a Myth – But Not For the Reason You Think

On Sunday morning TVNZ’s Q+A reported on the so called rural/urban divide around the state of waterways. The story attempted to show another perspective to that portrayed by environmental groups. Surmising that the rural urban divide is a myth, and that they too want clean rivers, several Federated Farmer advocates spoke out in their defence claiming that urban rivers are just as dirty and that urban folk ought to look at their own back yard before pointing the finger. The same old rhetoric.

As a long time rural resident, I however concur with Q+A’s farmer advocates, that the rural urban divide is simply a myth perpetuated by the media. The divide instead lies within the rural community itself and is between large scale industrial agriculture and progressive small scale farming, two very different farming systems with two very different agendas.

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. They too, 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, who are blissfully unaware of the consequences of production.

There are many things at play here. The willingness of the banks to lend, government subsidies for irrigation, the massive appetite of international markets (which has increased since the Chinese Free Trade Agreement), rebates for fertiliser consumption, a relaxed approach to imported animal feed, and local environmental governance controlled by central government with an agenda to double agricultural exports by 2025. With such a big carrot dangling why wouldn’t you, as a farmer, jump on the band wagon? Especially when it will all increase land values, generating income that isn’t taxed. One thing springs to mind – Think Big.

As with all Think Big schemes, things are never what they seem. The community has woken up to the consequences of this fatal strategy. Mental and physical health issues are increasing. Water quality and quantity is in rapid decline, and ecosystems are crashing. Costs are borne by the community at large. And then there is debt, the elephant in the room. Community resistance is rising.

Despite constrained democracy in Canterbury, rules are tightening, but in the wrong place and consequently penalising the wrong people. In Selwyn, after seven years of the so called community collaborative Canterbury Water Management Strategy, a somewhat faceless entity called “Canterbury Water” is running a series of seminars explaining “How did we get here?”. This is damage control and despite a raft of worrying trends, paradoxically appears as simply an attempt to justify progressing irrigation schemes and subsequent land use intensification.

In a perfect world, the media would take a long hard look at industrial farming and its impacts on the rural landscape. Such an approach would go further than Federated Farmer advocates (and irrigation companies) and ask all people: rural families, artists, anglers, tour operators, retired folk, parents, kids, school teachers, visitors… What has happened? And why do they think this has happened? Who is actually benefitting and how many of them? Who and what is paying the price? Such an approach would present a far more realistic picture, dispelling the rural urban myth and highlighting the failings of current governance. It would reinforce the reality that the divide lays between the Government and its industrial agriculture mates, and those both rural and urban, who recognise what has been lost. And it is not simply rural versus urban.

The natural environment and the fabled kiwi way of life has reached tipping point. If either are to be retained for generations to come, a moratorium on land use intensification and a price on water and pollution is desperately needed. This is just the tip of the iceberg. We need to reform our democracy. We need a radical rethink about production and consumption. We need greater investment in Research & Development, to develop ideas that offer incentives to change behaviour that ultimately safeguards Aotearoa New Zealand, preserves our way of life in the long term, and to play our part as a global citizen.

In the words of scientist Shaun Hendy and the late Sir Paul Callaghan, we actually do need to “Get off the Grass” and recognise that Kiwis, rural and urban, are clever, innovative problem solvers, and are part of a global ecosystem. Opportunities abound, all these concepts are at the core of The Opportunities Party’s Democracy Reset, Environment, Water, and Climate Change Policies. Tell us what you think.