Alison McCulloch: Townies and farmers at odds

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The urban-rural divide surely widened a few more metres this month with the news from the Environment Ministry that 45 per cent of the freshwater beaches it monitors are unsafe for swimming because of faecal contamination risks.

Sure, it's not just farm run-off that's causing the problem, but as a Regional Council expert told the Bay of Plenty Times, if there's farm activity near a bathing site there's likely to be a higher risk. (In the Bay of Plenty, around 40 per cent of the 44 monitored freshwater recreation spots were graded unsuitable for swimming.)

The divide was put under a bit more stress a few days later when a select committee confirmed that New Zealand's proposed Emissions Trading Scheme would exempt agriculture indefinitely.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment took the Government to task for that one - and for giving big polluters an easy ride - pointing out that the agricultural sector is responsible for about half the country's greenhouse gas emissions.

I used to be firmly planted on the rural side of the urban-rural divide.

I grew up on a farm and later worked as a farming reporter - in what other job do you get to interview people about pizzle rot in rams (don't ask!) or cover the World Possum Skinning Champs?

Back then, being called a "townie" was a bit of an insult, conjuring up someone who didn't know one end of a sheep from the other and was scared of stepping in something dark green and smelly.

Well, I'm one of those townies now, along with around 85 per cent of the rest of New Zealand - a demographic divide that's only going to get wider as more family farms give way to corporates.

Farming's impact on the environment is an undeniably complicated issue, with no simple solution and no lone guilty party.

But cases like these sure make farming look like the bad guy in the eyes of a lot of urban dwellers who are, as the advisory firm KPMG pointed out in its 2012 Agribusiness Agenda report, "the majority of voters" with "the most influence on policy decisions taken by politicians".

Since its 2011 report, KPMG says, the gap between urban and rural has kept on widening, pointing to an increased need for farming to "engage with the urban population".

That engagement isn't going so well in the Manawatu-Whanganui region, where the regional council's One Plan, which includes curbs on farm nutrient run-off, is headed to an appeal at the hands of the farming lobby.

Their continued opposition to the plan prompted commentator and businessman Gareth Morgan to round on Federated Farmers, and what he called the "ignorant rump" of the farming fraternity "who arrogantly think they have some sort of birthright to generate wealth for themselves off the back of environmental destruction".

Federated Farmers insists it's committed to environmentally sustainable farming, just so long as it isn't achieved through what president Bruce Wills calls "heavy-handed regulation".

As with so many industries that fight environmental rules, the farming lobby is also good at playing the economy and jobs card.

We'll all be unemployed and the nation will be flushed promptly down the gurgler if farmers have to live under the yoke of a few "heavy-handed" regulations.

It's perhaps paradoxical, then, to also discover in that KPMG report just how important agribusiness leaders think New Zealand's clean-green image is to their industry: They ranked protecting it (with "robust standards") as their No. 2 priority after biosecurity.

In his comments, Gareth Morgan took pains to highlight the clean-green work being done by lots of progressive farmers, and that's an important point.

But without those robust standards, as KPMG itself says, "we are only ever 'one rogue producer away' from immeasurable market damage".

Or from a day at the swimming hole turning into a night at the hospital.

- Bay of Plenty Times

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