Opinion: Farmers have been mollycoddled long enough

OPINION: The way the Federated Farmers have been speaking recently I can't help but wonder if a few of their lobbyists have been sneaking into meetings of Extinction Rebellion.

Trading their gumboots for sandals and pinching some of the future-orientated "think of the children" messaging, Andrew Hoggard from the Feds has been pondering whether the next generation will have a future (in farming).

While it's good to hear industrial dairy farmers thinking about a succession plan, let's get a few things straight. The climate crisis is the top card here. By miles. It trumps all of those personal and business concerns, however heartfelt they may be, because unless we get cracking in the next ten years then the mid-century will be a harder place to live, let alone farm.

The plane is going down and there's no point in complaining about not getting nuts with your drink. (Or not being able to farm the way you always have)

It's been fascinating to track the dairy farming lobby's messaging on climate change - not too far removed from its rhetoric on dirty rivers. Up until last week, they'd been riding the horse called "Don't worry - we've got this".

Fonterra, DairyNZ and the Feds putting out glossy reassurances on how they were all playing their part in tackling the existential challenge of the climate crisis.

Then last week someone came up with some actual targets. That someone, being James Shaw and the Zero Carbon Bill (ZCB). And suddenly the dairy industry swapped horses, mounting one named "farming's going to hell in a handbasket because of the ZCB." Admittedly a long name for a horse.

Never mind that the ZCB sounds like a regional radio station - (more easy listening than hard rock) and has targets which are legally unenforceable and there are no policies to achieve the targets (especially in agriculture).

Mr Hoggard called the targets "frustratingly cruel". Soothsaying a hastily worked up doomsday scenario of the dairy industry having to cut production in half which was supposed to shock us into opposing these constraints on them. Quelle horreur.

As if farmers were suffering under the yoke of some oppressive regime. Instead of the Zero Carbon Bill signalling real-world realities to a subsidised, privileged and protected part of society that's been mollycoddled for the last 20 years.

This is an industry which under successive Labour and National Governments has had its own way for two decades. They've got everything they've asked for. Whether it's irrigation subsidies, subservient regional councils, or not having to pay for their climate pollution under the emissions trading scheme. Forever playing their get out of jail card that they are too important to constrain. Leaving taxpayers to pick up the bill for their environmental destruction.

Conservative dairy interests might say they were just doing what previous administrations wanted. Hurtling down the low value, high production bulk milk powder superhighway. But they weren't forced to produce this ghastly model.

It's what their lobbyists demanded - an industry based on cheap as chips, bulk commodity exports with accompanying environmental devastation. All the while trading on a clean green image (built, paradoxically, by the conservation movement saving some native forests). They got the policies and the industry model they asked for.

Now we have in Fonterra one of the worst performing dairy companies in the world in terms of added value - 18th out of 20. Danone does four times better in terms of turning milk into money.

Despite everything the industry may profess about corporate responsibility, and being the guardians of the countryside, they cannot be trusted to halt the harm they are doing to biodiversity, waterways and the atmosphere. Our dairy industry has shown itself incapable of producing an environmentally responsible model.

Left to their own devices business often kills the golden goose (think fishing industry for example). Only smart targeted regulation and government constraints will steer big business in a genuinely ethical direction that focuses on the long term. And if there is one issue where we cannot allow big business to self regulate it's the climate emergency. This is too important.

Despite the corporate propaganda about how individuals taking individual action will save us, it is becoming clear to most of us, even the children, that no amount of planting trees in the backyard or taking shorter showers, laudable though it might be, that will keep us under 1.5 degrees.

It is only immediate action by companies and industries, directed by Governments controlled by people power, which will bring us back from the brink. New Zealand has some of the highest emissions per capita in the world. Agriculture is responsible for 48 per cent of our emissions. That is largely down to methane and burping cows.

The ZCB suggests moderate constraints being placed on methane - a 10 percent reduction by 2030 and 24-47 per cent by 2050. Internationally the UN wants agricultural methane reduced 23-69 per cent by 2050.

The farming lobby has done its best to devalue methane as a threat, to argue that methane and farming are special cases and should be treated differently.

Methane is a pressing problem for all of us. Globally methane levels that have been stable for some time are showing a marked increase and no-one knows why. One suggestion is that a feedback mechanism from climate change is degrading the process which breaks down methane in the atmosphere.

Rather than railing against the ZCB It would be refreshing to hear them say instead - as many progressive farmers already do - that I am in a great place to help my community and humankind by reducing methane emissions on my farm - and that's exactly what I'm going to do. Constraint can be the mother of invention.

Reduction of the herd is going to have to happen. That would involve switching from a bulk milk powder model to much more value-added approach. The sort of economics which would allow us to have fewer cows (and emissions) for the same amount of return.

As the Tirau recipient of a farming environmental award for halving emissions since 2003 was quoted saying -  maybe it's time for the industry to drop its ego and arrogance.

"It's us, letting ourselves down."

Russel Norman is the Executive Director of Greenpeace New Zealand.

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