By Bruce Wills
While some environmentalists point fingers at farmers as the sole reason for why water ‘isn’t what it used to be,’ I have never seen farmers treating water more seriously and with more respect than they do today.
As 2012 draws to a close there is no such thing as the ‘good old days’ when it comes to water use in town or country.
As the President of Federated Farmers, this got me thinking about the two things I would dearly want for Christmas and the New Year.
One is an end to the ‘farmer v. environmentalist’ stoush and the second is a trade liberalising Trans Pacific Partnership.
One gets us focussed on solutions instead of bickering while the other takes those solutions and increases our collective wealth.
In New Zealand, we have a tendency to lump good and bad farmers in the same bucket. Few stop to find out that many farmers are themselves passionate about the environment.
A farm is after all our home and our workplace. If there is a small minority of poor performers and there is, why not focus on the vast majority doing a good job and tell their story?
Perhaps the reason why we struggle to make this leap is down to the cold reality that wherever humans go, water quality tends to suffer.
We saw this in the Ministry for the Environment’s latest bathing quality results. Sure farming had an affect upon water quality but that does not explain the very poor sites found at camp grounds and around small rural settlements.
Or for that matter, poor quality water found in many of our urban centres.
The Manawatu River has either had the biggest comeback since Lazarus to be cleaner than Wellington’s Hutt River, or there is a human dimension to water quality as well.
While history will be the ultimate judge, I firmly believe Federated Farmers efforts on the Land and Water Forum (LAWF) may be the end of the beginning for this finger pointing. Federated Farmers happily hosted many LAWF meetings in Wellington and what emerged in its third and final report was agreement.
Agriculture, councils and even those organisations we occasionally rub up against found common ground.
I am not pretending this was easy or that LAWF’s recommendations will be any less so, but the goalposts have subtly shifted.
Instead of acrimony we got agreement. Instead of conflict we got collaboration.
The big change is that we were central because our members give a damn about water and wanted positive action.
While agriculture had been on the policy back foot ever since someone put two words together to coin an unhelpful slogan, LAWF changes everything. Decisions about how we farm with water are better made by affected communities than some distant judge.
The focus on LAWF was not to blame farmers but to look closely at all human effects on water. There will be those who will continue to throw stones or use primary school taunts, but they are on the fringe now and not farmers.
Federated Farmers has consistently said that farming must remain profitable and be allowed to grow so long as our environmental impacts don’t.
With LAWF moving beyond the ‘blame farming hypothesis’ there is a quantum shift in thinking. My sincere hope is that the media will start to follow in 2013.
Another thing we look forward to in 2013 will be the signing of the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).
This year, Canada and Mexico joined the TPP so we are talking about is a deal covering them, Australia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei, Vietnam, Chile, Peru, the United States and of course, us. These economies generate a staggering US$21 trillion each year and Europe would need another Germany to match it.
Trade generates jobs and wealth and the TPP was established to eliminate all tariffs while bringing a new level of discipline to what are called ‘non-tariff trade barriers’ – things like import health standards. We, along with our colleagues from Canada and Australia, were clear that negotiators needed to stick like glue to these objectives.
TPP negotiators without exception must eliminate tariffs on all products. There must also be liberal rules of origin within the TPP region while regulations must abide by international science based standards.
This ensures enforceable and consistent customs procedures that facilitate trade.
Establishing a high standard at the beginning ensures there is no room for future entrants to water it down.
As the President of the National Farmers’ Federation of Australia, Jock Laurie, rightly noted, “We need to bring these negotiations to a timely close [in 2013] ... Negotiators need to demonstrate real progress on difficult issues and express their commitment to this timeframe.”
If we can pull that one off it will be one of the two biggest New Year gifts, ever. The other being a respectful and informed national discussion around water. Wouldn’t that would be great to find under my Christmas tree.