Opinion: Abuse of farmers only strengthens corporate agriculture's hand

"Condemning agriculture and tarring all farmers with the same brush does nothing to further environmentalists’ cause."
"Condemning agriculture and tarring all farmers with the same brush does nothing to further environmentalists’ cause." Photo credit: Getty

Adam Currie for The Spinoff

OPINION: Are there simply too many cows in our country? Or are urbanites just aggressively exacerbating the farming crisis from their sterile offices?

The inconvenient truth is that both are true.

We urgently need to change our approach to land use and kai production - or our environment will experience irrevocable collapse. But this urgency needs to be communicated in a new way, because the current paradigm not only unhelpfully condemns all farmers as bad; the pressure it puts on farmers also only serves to stir up hatred and division. If nothing else, framing the debate in such an antagonistic way puts a damper on political support for any environmental measure deemed to be 'anti-farming'.

The current state of play is untenable. Anti-agriculture campaigners piously wash their hands of 'dirty dairy', while farmers consider themselves to be getting on with the real work, providing food so technocrats can continue to pen-push to their hearts' content. Meanwhile, the status quo continues, advantageous to nobody but politicians and corporate execs.

Environmentalists loudly casting blame on the entire agriculture sector only exacerbates this division, and ignores the many farmers moving towards sustainable farming practices: decreasing irrigation and fertiliser use, planting acres of riparian planting and fencing to keep livestock out of waterways. 'Blame the farmers' not only silences the voices of these environmentally-minded farmers; it empowers corporates and so-called 'co-operatives' to discredit and stigmatise sustainability.

It's time to accept that the problem of agriculture cannot be dealt with the same way environmentalists have targeted the oil industry: through the creation of an 'us vs them' narrative that launches a full frontal attack on fossil fuel conglomerates, in the hope of dialing up the pressure until they give in.

As long as workers in the industries are offered quality job alternatives, attempts to take oil corporates down with an aggressive 'single story' narrative can be successful. But this aggressive, zero sum approach has failed utterly when it comes to agriculture. Unlike oil workers, everyday farmers often own and live on their farms. They can never detach themselves from their businesses, and will fight to the end for their homes and livelihoods.

This fight is not only driving farmers to suicide, it is totally unnecessary.

There are many ways to empower farmers to thrive in a changing world, and none of them involve politicians perpetuating false 'us vs them' dichotomies that only exploit despairing farmers and funnel anger towards those calling for more sustainable agriculture.

It's time for decades of misdirection from politicians, Federated Farmers and Fonterra to stop - misdirection that incentivises intensive dairy conversions and silences farmers who want regulatory regimes to make sustainable farming more competitive.

There is a better way. The future could look like a true partnership where all of Aotearoa, urban and rural, works collectively in the effort to transform land use and food production. A partnership where each side can speak genuinely without feeling the need to retreat to their corner whenever modest criticism is offered. A partnership based on trust and deep respect for those who live different lives to their own.

It is regularly claimed that giving farmers a say will simply delay urgent changes to the way we do agriculture, and it is undeniable that current farming collectives and corporates are heavily entrenched in unsustainable agriculture. But by listening to sustainable farmers on the ground - not just the bureaucrats and executives of large collectives who so often ignore the wishes of everyday farmers - we could commit to sustainability initiatives in ways that real farming experts know are effective and achievable. We could share positive stories of sustainable farming, and focus on the possibilities and opportunities, not the drawbacks. Stories of farmers putting up 26,000 kilometres of fencing to protect waterways. Stories of everyday farmers standing up to mass dairy intensifications in dry, stony ground.

For better or worse, New Zealand is seen by internationally as a testing ground for the future of agriculture. If the environmental movement fails to engage with farmers in favour of separatism, and thus fails to move towards sustainable agriculture, we'll send a clear signal to the world that it can't be done. Is this really the climate legacy we want to leave?

Instead, farmers could be empowered to view environmentalism as something they have ownership of; not a narrative that represses and isolates them. If this can be achieved, we will truly be able to adopt the principles of climate justice and just transitions, in a way that brings New Zealanders together, rather than driving them apart.

We all want the same thing; a decent future. Let's fight for it together.

Adam Currie is Generation Zero's Dunedin Zero Carbon Act convener, a Sir Peter Blake Ambassador, and the New Zealand mobiliser for the global movement 'Youth for our Planet'.

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