Relevance in a modern World

Speech – Federated Farmers

Members of National Council, Ladies and Gentlemen. It gives me great pleasure to be delivering this presidents address to you.
3 July 2015

Relevance in a modern World
Dr William Rolleston’s address to Federated Farmers National Council, 3 July 2015, Wellington.

Members of National Council, Ladies and Gentlemen. It gives me great pleasure to be delivering this president’s address to you.

2015 has not been an easy year – Droughts, floods, dairy prices and health and safety to name a few.

However when I look back to the address I gave at the November Council meeting it is surprising just how much we have achieved. This is thanks to an increasingly well-oiled team and an engaged National Council and membership.

Federated Farmers’ actions and coordinating role during the floods in the North Island, and the drought now centred on North Canterbury, has been central and pivotal to the response to these challenges. Federated Farmers has strong networks and a can do attitude which we can utilise during adverse events. This was most readily exemplified in the Farmy Army during the Christchurch earthquake. It is my intension that we strengthen and develop our adverse events network to ensure our response is measured, predictable and reliable. An adverse events network also strengthens us as an organisation, gives our members a concrete reason to belong and a means of local connection which has been a struggle in the modern age.

As the future unfolds farmers will need to respond to many more adverse events, be they climatic, biological, economic or geologic in nature. I want to personally record my thanks to the dedicated teams consisting of both electeds and staff within the Federation, who have worked long hours to support our fellow farmers in what has been a troubled year. Only two days ago I received an email sent at three o’clock in the morning from a staff member. I was jet lagged and in Singapore on my way back here, so immediately sent firm instructions to get some sleep. I’m sorry Graham, instructing your staff in such a way is surely crossing the Rubicon from governance to management.

Dairy prices have continued to weaken. With the prospect of a low payout for a second year we need to ensure the banks understand the cyclical nature of this industry and stick with their clients where it is possible. We also need a public who understand that we can make good environmental progress when times are good and that while it is not acceptable to go backwards, when times are hard progress is going to be slower. The easing of interest rates has provided some relief for farmers in both interest payments and a falling New Zealand dollar, with its lifting effect on farm gate prices – lamb beef and wool prices all strengthening. Of course we shouldn’t forget that a lower dollar means, as a nation we are all poorer. Fair value for our currency is all we ask and it has been generally regarded for some time that our dollar has been well above that fair value.

As an open and trading nation we are vulnerable to international events. The Greek debt default is a fast moving feast and there is plenty to play out. Falling stock markets in Shanghai in response could have a chilling effect on confidence in China and poses a potential risk to our exports. Panic in world affairs has never been a winning strategy so we look to the leaders involved to play it cool and settle the situation.

Two other international events will take our attention this year – the Rugby World Cup notwithstanding. They are the TPP negotiations and the climate change summit in Paris in November.

President Obama signed the Trade Promotion Agreement on Wednesday despite the negative commentary that it wouldn’t get through. This is a major step forward in the TPP process but time is running short to reach any conclusions before political lockdown in the United States. I said in my last address and I say it again today, that agriculture is an essential element of any agreement. Last week, I heard my Japanese counterpart, at the World Farmers Organisation’s General Assembly in Milan, argue that TPP would reduce his nation’s local production and in his mind food security. He also worried that if Japan was producing less they would have to buy food from nations who could hardly feed themselves let alone Japan. There was no consideration that Japan would be providing those nations with an income which could help lift them out of poverty and that food self-sufficiency does not equal food security. Building good and mutually beneficial relations with your trading partners leads to food security, not to mention international security. But this reflects what we are up against.

I also heard from our French counterparts that non-tariff barriers should be imposed on other nations who don’t meet French standards of practice because they wanted a level playing field. No mention that those farmers he was referring to had to get their product to international markets over dirt tracks rather than a six lane motorway and use hoes instead of tractors. It seems level playing fields are in the eye of the beholder. Or indeed the French Canadians who argued for supply management, so Canadians could have the choice to buy Canadian dairy products. It seemed unreasonable to them that Canadians would buy uncontrolled Canadian product if they wanted it.

We need our New Zealand government to stand strong in the TPP negotiations. Agriculture is still our strength and it is not for sacrificial slaughter on the table of compromise. If nations cannot tolerate free trade including in agriculture they need to step aside from the TPP negotiations and let those who are willing finish the deal.

While we do have differences with some of our fellow farmers on the world stage there are also issues which unite us such as the vagaries of the climate, the requirement to feed a growing population while reducing our environmental footprint, the struggle to remain profitable in light of international and local regulation as well as ensuring we have access to modern technology.

As we move toward climate change negotiations in Paris the rhetoric will become stronger. Bear in mind that the real negotiations are being done now and the substantial decisions will be made ahead of Paris. COP21 as the meeting is called is just the last step. We have been pushing for a separate conversation around agriculture and as one delegate put it – a cow is not a car. I agree but it doesn’t mean we are absolved of responsibility. It is time for Federated Farmers to agree on a sound policy on climate change. One which recognises our opportunity to play our part while continuing to take agriculture forward through improved productivity and profitability.

New Zealand’s leadership in the formation of the Global Research Alliance has been recognised internationally including the World Farmers Organisation who has joined as a support member. Later this year, farmers Doug Avery and Zac Mounsey will join other farmers from around the world for a week in Argentina in the context of climate change. This is a chance for them to learn from other farmers but also to impart some of the lessons that have made New Zealand such a strong farming nation. Federated Farmers is proud to be a part of this process.

Access to modern technologies and reducing government investment in agricultural science were common themes from many nations. We share these concerns. While for some lack of access to technologies is a problem of scale and finance, for us it is regulatory. New Zealand farmers should have access to modern technologies such as nanotechnology, genetic modification and pesticides when they are shown to be safe. Around the world new molecular techniques have not only left our regulatory systems wanting but their predictability, utility and low cost provide the opportunity to democratise this powerful genetic science. Do we need regulation? Of course we do but it should be based on risk rather than process.

Almost two decades of safe use and new approvals of applications which directly benefit the consumer, such as the Artic Apple; which benefit the environment, such as faster growing carbon dense eucalypts; as well as the development of aphid resistant wheat in the UK have changed the international conversation on genetic modification. Our head of Treasury, Gabriel Makhlouf, is right to call for a debate on this technology. In line with our long held policy this is about providing choice for farmers. It is about balancing the right to farm, be you an organic farmer, a conventional farmer or a farmer using biotechnology. It is about being good neighbours to each other.

Fourteen years ago the Royal Commission on Genetic Modification said we should proceed with caution while preserving opportunities. There has been plenty of caution but very little proceeding.

People often accuse me of being pro GE. I am not. Being pro GE in my view is like being pro fire. Having just had a forest burn down I know that fire is not always good. What I am passionate about is science and the contribution it has and will make to our lives. The toxic GM climate at the time of the Royal Commission has in my view robbed this country of fourteen years of good science and opportunity. A more balanced political outcome would have given us a science community in this space with more confidence and world leading competence – even if we were still sitting on one approved release.

As we move into a new debate on genetic modification we must be sensitive to the diverse range of views held by our members. Remember that the second part of the Royal Commission’s major conclusion was to “preserve opportunities” and I agree. Our Federated Farmer’s policy on GM, written before the Royal Commission, agrees. But we also need scientists to engage.

So our challenge is to ensure regulators, politicians and the judiciary make decisions which are in line with the science, which reflect the uncertainty of the time but are not paralysed by it.

These are valuable lessons which can be applied to the water debate.

To make progress in these areas we need a more science literate and savvy public who understand the nature of science and uncertainty. A scientist said to me recently when we were talking about just how certain some activists are, “certain people are right sometimes”.

Bertrand Russell put it less kindly when he said, “the whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are so certain of themselves but wiser people so full of doubt”.

But we are seeing signs of hope. In the public discourse on fluoridation, immunisation and 1080 we are seeing the public starting to back science and reject the worn out and unsupported rhetoric of the anti-campaigners.

The certainty of the forces who railed against farming in the water debate will also struggle to stand up to the test of time and evidence, but it is not an easy battle. We need to recognise that they will be right sometimes and it would be hubris of us to think we are always right too.

A final note on the World Farmers Organisation General Assembly is that it elected its first woman farmer president, Evelyn Nguleka from Zambia. For the next year I have the privilege of being her deputy. More women farm on this planet than men. As I look out on a mostly male audience I am reminded what a pivotal role women play in New Zealand agriculture. Not only are many women farmers in their own right but they are essential and equal partners in many farming businesses. In that context I am pleased that Katie Milne has agreed to serve another year on the board. Katie has been in the thick of it this year and her energy, sound judgement, humour and excellent communication have been invaluable.

Anyone visiting the Fieldays this year would have been struck by the technology on offer. Farming is a smart and exciting business. Two days ago I profiled New Zealand’s embryonic use of drones in pastoral agriculture at a UAV conference in Singapore. The conference demonstrated to me the disruptive change that technology is continuing to have on our farming systems. In the Singapore Straits Times yesterday, Japanese SoftBank Group Chairman, Masayoshi Son, predicted robots will outnumber humans within thirty years. This is something we as farmers need to prepare for and it is a reminder to the government that technology investment in agriculture, where we have strength and scale, is a no brainer. Paul Reid, CEO of Figured, told us last night that technology will also be disruptive to our product supply chains and the relationship we have with our consumers. Our newly formed Science Team and Science Advisory Group are designed to help us meet these challenges.

Water and the environment remain at the top of our agenda as we move in to the Land and Water Forum part two. It is appropriate for me to once again acknowledge the leadership shown by retiring board member, Ian Mackenzie. Ian has worked long hours and attended dozens and dozens and dozens of meetings on water over the last four years. What you see is what you get with Ian. He has been a valuable board member, not because he always agrees but because his thinking is often disruptive. Sometimes we will agree sometimes we won’t but there is value in having your ideas challenged. Ian we will miss your laconic wit and colourful and irreverent descriptors – cutting but disarming at the same time. We will miss your leadership within what has been an outstanding board. Farmers, water stakeholders and the environment is the better for your intervention over the last four years. The strength of Federated Farmers, just like the All Blacks, is that it has depth.

I started on a pessimistic note, but out of adversity comes opportunity. The theme yesterday was Resilient Agribusiness. The transformation to resilience is made by people and that, in my view, is the strength of Federated Farmers. Our staff and the elected office bearers are passionate about agriculture and it shows. The capability of our staff excites me and that capability is growing under sound leadership. The strategic refresh has been hard work but a worthwhile exercise, moving us to a better place in the political landscape. As I went around many of the provinces during the AGM season I saw many people engaged. This is good for farming. We cannot achieve what we achieve without the hard work and dedication of each and every one of you and I thank you all for that.

Thank you.


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