By Bruce Wills
You can say some weeks are better than others and this week has been far from vintage.
First was news of a major animal welfare incident on the West Coast, but as this is a live investigation by the Ministry for Primary Industries; I’ll have to choose my words carefully.
Then came that unexpected bolt of lightening out of the Environment Court called Horizons One Plan.
I will start with Horizons because an easy way for newspapers to frame this, is 'rivers before farmers'.
The reality is that no one wins under the One Plan decision.
To be green you need to be in the black may be a well-worn cliché, but BERL figures gives the argument substance. BERL ranks Horizons as having the lowest economic performance indicators in New Zealand. Out of 14 regions, Horizons was ranked 10th in 2010 but has now holds the wooden spoon.
Almost over the entire life of the One Plan debate, between 2006 and 2011, the region’s economy has been the worst performing in New Zealand.
This is in stark contrast with the top three performing regions; the West Coast, Bay of Plenty and Taranaki.
Framing this as being about water or farming, implies farmers don’t care about pollution and that we are the only polluters.
Farmers and our stock need access to clean water so we have a vested interest in getting things right.
Yet you cannot help suspect that the focus on farmers as a curative, may mask some major problems elsewhere.
Perhaps the biggest reason why farmers were shocked by the Environment Court, is that it reversed the decision of independent hearing’s commissioners.
These commissioners sat through months of detailed evidence. They saw assumptions crumble and found evidence severely wanting. They also tended towards the arguments of Federated Farmers and those in the primary industries, over that of the council.
This week, these years of evidence, millions of dollars of expenditure and months of mediation were cast aside.
The Environment Court effectively turned the clock back to May 2007.
It is disappointing because farming today is streets ahead of where we were, in 2007.
What this means for farmers in Horizons, is that if you use water in an intensive land use, you look set to be regulated for nitrogen loss limits determined by a Land Use Capability. This rates land in order of increasing degrees of limitation or hazard. This is not just a dairy issue; any intensive land use or any existing intensive land use in some places, will require a regional council consent to farm.
No doubt some will cheer that farming is being brought to heel. Already, I have seen a degree of crowing by some groups.
Aside from the cost of these consents, what happens if consent is set in a way that limits an existing farm’s ability to farm?
As a former banker, suddenly the risk profile escalates and radiates out to the towns and businesses within the region.
Bearing in mind the weak economic performance of Horizons over recent years, this could all have the unintended effect of striking the residential sector downstream.
Potentially reducing farm productivity means less economic activity in New Zealand’s weakest performing region.
As a counterpoint to Horizons is the welcome time extension for Commissioners in Canterbury.
This will give added time to deal with its equally massive Land and Water Regional Plan.
A key result from extra time, aside from tidying up some holes in the science, is to allow the NZIER to catch-up on modelling the Plan’s economic impacts. I say this as the Ecan plan was notified well before this vital economic modelling was due to finish. As any plan will mean sacrifice by farmers in some places, we want to ensure it delivers exactly what it ought to deliver.
Importantly, it also allows the wider community to consider and digest what impacts it will have upon them. The primary industries are a big part of the Canterbury economy, so this will affect everyone directly or indirectly.
The point we need to stress again about Horizons; economics matter because it goes to the commercial success or failure of any farm - something our West Coast province has been dealing with under our animal welfare Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI).
As Katie Milne said earlier in the week, “there is no way anyone can condone the maltreatment of livestock. Aside from an obvious and significant destruction of commercial value, it is ethically unacceptable.”
In large animal welfare cases, Federated Farmers provides expert farmers and resources to complement the Ministry’s professional team. Our sole combined aim is always the welfare of affected stock.
The one critical message we need to get out is whatever happens financially, you are a farmer first.
Failing at a business does not mean you have failed as a farmer but failing your stock does. The thing about our involvement in large animal welfare cases is that we don’t get a single dollar for doing it. We do it because this goes to the heart of why we farm and that is to work with animals. Irrespective of how long an animal may live for does not reduce or remove the ethical obligation we owe them.
I must make it clear there is no logic or reason to maltreat stock.
The only result will be loss; maltreated stock do not perform meaning good animal welfare is good for business.
And being in business and ensuring we all have a good standard of living, is why we must equally balance the environment with economic.control.