Address to FFNZ National Council – Dr William Rolleston

Speech – Federated Farmers

Members of National Council, ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to be delivering this presidents address to you.
Federated Farmers AGM, June 2016

Address to FFNZ National Council – Dr William Rolleston, President

Members of National Council, ladies and gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to be delivering this president’s address to you.

If the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom has taught us anything it is that life is full of the unexpected; that no matter how carefully we plan, circumstances can change in an instant; it has taught us that discontent and powerlessness can translate into seemingly irrational decisions, even for the decision makers.

Britain’s vote to leave the European Union has sent shock waves around the world. Both Britain and the European Union are less powerful players today than they were a week ago.

Some commentators have unkindly said the UK has gone from Great Britain to Little Britain.

The European Parliament also has a dilemma on its hands – they want a quick exit, but punish Britain too hard and they risk a recession for both parties; let them off too lightly and it may encourage others to follow suit. Frexit (France) and Swexit (Sweden) are already being talked about.

Will Britain turn her head to New Zealand? Only time will tell, but we must give her every chance.

Brexit, in my view has taken us one step further away from the biggest trading block in the world – The European Union. Britain’s membership of the EU over the past four decades has given us increased access to a continent which can be difficult to penetrate; it has given us the opportunity to build relationships. The strength of those relationships will now be put to the test.

We have lost an Anglo-centric, rational, free market voice in the European Parliament just as we are starting our trade talks. We know that to trade with Europe, Norway has adopted 5,000 EU laws and 70% of the EU Directives – rules which they, as a non-member, have no democratic ability to influence. Is this what the new Europeans will be pushing for in our negotiations?

Earlier this year, and contrary to scientific advice, the European States failed to approve the ongoing use of glyphosate in agriculture. When it comes to the regulation of agricultural science is Europe sinking into the abyss?

Will glyphosate be a sacrificial lamb on the table of a trade deal? While anti TPP protesters fret about a deal which they say restricts law making, we have to be careful a European trade deal doesn’t do the opposite.

Will the European parliament learn from Brexit that good decisions must have their base in science, not in the opinion of the lobby group?

I had the opportunity to speak with Tony Blair when he visited New Zealand as British Prime Minister. He revealed to me his frustration at the stranglehold NGOs, particularly those environmental groups who ignored science when it suited them, had on the European Parliament.

Britain voted Brexit in part because of rules they saw as interfering and irrational – single issue lobby groups should take some responsibility.

Many voters chose Brexit because, rightly or wrongly, they felt disenfranchised and powerless against big business and a globalised world. Do we, as farmers, have lessons to learn here? I think we do.

As a small economy the trade-game in an isolationist and protectionist world is one we will surely lose.

The world is a less certain place and we must ensure we find our way in it.

The week before Brexit I was interviewed by Kim Hill to put across the farmer’s side of the water debate. My message was simple: We all contribute to a greater or lesser extent to the issue of water quality and we need to work together across society if we are to make meaningful progress.

I have seen time and time again that, when you get farmers engaged, solutions to hard problems start to emerge.

Four years ago Federated Farmers stood up and said agriculture does have an effect on water quantity and quality. I am saying now, that we are up for the challenge to address these issues but we need to work with the rest of society, who in turn need to understand that the answers are not just linear, nor are there quick fixes. We must be informed by the science, not slogans and unsubstantiated rhetoric.

Farmers have come a long way since the conversation on water quality began. We have been committed members of the Land and Water Forum simply because we recognised that it was time to stop talking past each other. We recognised that in talking directly with others to find solutions you can often be surprised at how much you agree on. It is only that last 10-20% which is hard.

Farmers across the country have spent hundreds of millions of dollars to improve the environment. They have fenced off 20,000km of rivers. They are changing their farming practices to reduce runoff, reduce sediment and reduce nitrogen leaching. Farmers are engaging with councils, with zone committees, and in water-groups right down to catchment level. For it is through working together as local communities, focusing on the problem areas and taking ownership of the outcomes that we can reach our economic and environmental aspirations.

Increasingly agriculture relies on its social licence to operate – the unwritten agreement between industry and society – balancing benefit and impact. To work effectively the social licence to operate needs to have its base in evidence. This is why science is a priority for Federated Farmers. This is why we are disappointed to see environmental groups distorting or using selective evidence in the water debate to undermine what farmer’s are doing.

We need to realise that these tactics not only undermine our licence to operate, they reduce our ability to trade up our products and earn our way in the world. In a world of uncertainty, with the risk of increasing protectionism and other external forces, those who really care about the future of New Zealand should take heed before pushing their narrow agenda in order to fill their donation coffers.

We live in a multi-faceted world. Economic outcomes and good environmental outcomes are both important but they do not always go in the same direction. We need to move past the blame game I have just described and seek meaningful and lasting solutions which take the economy and the environment on the same journey. It is not simply a matter of reducing cow numbers, although there will be areas where that may be the best option. It is about using science and technology to help us reduce our environmental footprint while increasing our output.

This is what I see as increasing productivity or, if you like, making more efficient and effective use of resources – be those resources water, nutrients, land or energy.

We have looked hard at the issue of climate change. The scientific consensus is that climate change is happening and that humanity including agriculture is having an effect.

We farmers must play our part and we do. Already over the past two decades we have reduced our carbon intensity by 1.2% year on year. Farmers have planted trees for shelter, erosion control, amenity, and water protection.

We have invested in science to accelerate our productivity gains and reduce biological emissions. All of these things take both the economy and the environment in the same direction. But we have done more – we have also told our story to developing-country farmers so they can improve their own carbon efficiency and their own economic situation.

Later this year Federated Farmers with the World Farmers Organisation and the Global Research Alliance will be hosting a group of farmers for this very purpose.

It would be unrealistic to think we could achieve zero emissions from animals but we must aim for unprecedented levels of carbon efficiency in our food production – it is good for us economically and environmentally. We must strive to be the best in this space and to be the best we need access to all the technology tools in the toolbox.

The digital revolution is upon us and we stand on the dawn of the genetic revolution.

Science is offering us new ways to manage our farms and improve our productivity while reducing our environmental footprint. This is not a matter of going back in time to a mythical nirvana where all was good with the world. Our reality is very different and science is changing that dynamic.

Science and technology is changing the economies of scale and how we do business:

-3D printers may mean that delivery of that spare tractor part is only an email away.

-robotics and driverless vehicles will no longer mean a single driver on an ever larger machine but rather swarms of smaller autonomous machines with a lighter footprint and greater precision.

-The internet has the potential to bring producer and consumer closer together, bypassing the supermarket.

Science and technology is accelerating animal and plant breeding too, be that through marker assisted selection or gene editing. The price to sequence a genome has dropped from several billion to a few thousand dollars in only a decade. Genetic modification, through gene editing is more accurate, more accessible and cheaper than it has ever been. It will soon overtake conventional breeding in cost, speed and safety and we need to be prepared for it.

Technologies already exist to place nitrogen fixing bacteria into the leaves of domesticated plants, providing free and valuable nutrient right at the place it is needed, minimising nitrogen leaching. We heard last year from AgResearch who had used biotechnology to modify ryegrass. Laboratory trials indicate an increase in productivity and palatability of 40%, reduction in methane emissions and water demand of 25% and nitrate leaching by 30%. Trials of this system are being carried out in the USA in alfalfa and soybeans because our regulations are too hard. I’m told American farmers can’t wait to get their hands on it. The GM free premium will have to be pretty high to make rejecting this technology worth it.

Control are also being developed using new genetic technologies for pest mammals, which are devastating our birds, spreading disease and competing for pasture, and for wilding pines, which are marching across our high country,

So we will soon be faced with a moral dilemma – use GM because it will assist us to reach our environmental and economic aspirations or reject it because we are scared of the market. If there were one place New Zealand could show environmental leadership it is here.

Of course in a global market we need to be cognisant of consumer views but we should not be paralysed by fear when we know through science and evidence that our intervention is better for the environment.

Federated Farmers wants to work with those who have a positive contribution to make in the environmental debate. That is why I propose to establish the Land and Water Stewardship Initiative – a forward looking think-tank of primary industry players with iwi and environmental representation, who are willing to work together to propose solutions which take both the economy and the environment forward. A group not confined by political agendas or lobby group pressures; a group who can assist and advise us on engaging with all parts of society in the pursuit of a common goal.

Last week I attended the Balance Farm Environmental Awards. The winners, Richard and Dianne Kidd on the Auckland City boundary, are perfectly placed to engage with the Auckland urban community.

The awards were just a small taste of the incredibly good work that farmers are doing across the country. Farmers care about their environment, that’s why they live and work in it. They are the custodians of 50% of our land area. It is important that our story is told honestly and positively. It is important that we as a society work together to tackle the issues of water, climate change and the environment within the context of an increasing world population.

The world is an uncertain place and we must find our way in it. I am looking forward to the challenge amidst this uncertainty because out of challenge comes opportunity. The theme of our conference was looking forward to 2025. If the past decade is anything to go by the world will be a very different place by then. If we work together it will also be a much better place.


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