By Jonathan Underhill
Two leading luminaries appeared in the New York Times this month – the top farm lobbyist and an environmental scientist. It was bad publicity for New Zealand, basically saying our clear, green image is a fraud.
The timing in the run-up to the release of the new Peter Jackson movie The Hobbit wasn’t coincidental. The NYT recalled the huge shot in the arm tourism in New Zealand got from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It poked a stick at Tourism New Zealand’s 100% Pure branding.
The article cited a report in PLOS ONE, an international, peer-reviewed, open-access, online publication that “welcomes reports on primary research from any scientific discipline.” That report, ‘Evaluating the Relative Environmental Impact of Countries’, has a table that puts New Zealand 18th worst in the world by proportional composite environmental rank, which looks at everything from carbon emissions to threatened species to loss of natural forest.
Mike Joy, an environmental scientist at Massey University, told the NYT the reality of New Zealand is not the “picture postcard” view promoted overseas. Bruce Wills, president of Federated Farmers, said visitors to New Zealand would come away thinking the countryside and waterways were free of the “detritus of modern life.”
Joy and Wills have squared off before, if you could call it squaring off. ON TVNZ’s Q+A programme in August, Joy said the “clean, green thing” is New Zealand’s one competitive advantage. Wills said there’s a mood among farmers to balance profits with environmental obligations. Good progress is being made, he said. Things are getting worse, Joy said.
It looks like both are partly right. The latest progress snapshot under the Clean Streams Accord, from December last year, says nationally the level of significant non-compliance with the CLA targets dropped to 11 percent from 16 percent.
But in some regions things got worse. In Marlborough, non-compliance jumped to 23 percent from 5 percent, mainly reflecting “the inability of marginal effluent management systems to accommodate increasing herd sizes, as well as a particularly wet season.” In Southland, significant non-compliance rose to 18 percent from 13 percent, with poor farm management blamed.
Wills is a relatively new face for the Feds and he repeated on the Q+A programme that under him the lobby group is trying to show leadership on environmentally sustainable farming. He also said don’t just blame the farmers since some town sewerage systems discharge into waterways.
It is an awkward position for a lobbyist. The tobacco industry would fudge, back-pedal, delay, do anything to slow the inevitable noose tightening around its neck, driven by the fatal consequences of using the products.
The Feds have put some of their biggest efforts into battling Horizons Regional Council’s One Plan under which the Manawatu-Wanganui region aims to tackle declining water quality, increasing demand for water, unsustainable hill country land use and threatened native habitats.
Farmers in the region are hardest hit by these changes. And the Feds have a great fear that the clamour for more controls on farming practices are spreading. Around Lake Taupo there’s pressure to cut back the intensity of dairy farming to reduce nitrogen run-off.
What struck me hardest about the NYT article was the reference to a Ministry for the Environment survey showing more than half of the country’s freshwater recreational sites were unsafe to swim in because of faecal contamination caused by dairy cows.
Growing up in Canterbury I probably swam in most of that region’s braided rivers. I wouldn’t willingly venture into the Whanganui River near the mouth though I’ve swum nearer the headwaters. I’d probably avoid the Manawatu River.
The NYT article concludes with some context on the 100% Pure brand, citing a tourism official saying New Zealand isn’t pretending to be a pristine environment “but we are better than most.”
As anyone who has lived overseas in a major urban centre – Tokyo, Beijing and Hong Kong come to mind – returning to New Zealand you are struck by how green it appears. How undeveloped. That’s a relative rather than an absolute advantage but relativity will still sell NZ product overseas. It is the comparative advantage that needs to be retained.