Guy Salmon's talk in Whanganui had as its title the rather biblical sounding The Coming Transformation of New Zealand Agriculture.

He was not pushing any religious agenda, but if or when this change comes to pass its effects will be seen as apocalyptic by many in New Zealand. On the other hand, its purpose is to be part of a world-wide effort to avoid the apocalypse predicted most recently by Sir David Attenborough.

It is important that I point out here that I am reporting the ideas of Guy Salmon and I may personally disagree with some of the content of this article. We do however agree totally that action on climate change is needed NOW.

From the 1970s and 1980s to the modern day, the questions around conservation have become much more complex.


In the early days of action to preserve native timbers the issues were simple with relatively small vested interests in terms of conservation and about 5000 jobs at stake. These days the vested interests affected by conservation and pollution issues comprise about half of our export earnings and have become very complex.

Because of the complexity, Guy sees the most important change necessary is away from confrontation and towards collaboration and the willingness to engage with and take responsibility for environmental issues.

He used the example of Katie Milne to illustrate these ideas. She is President of Federated Farmers and has a dairy farm in the catchment of Lake Brunner on the South Island. She leads a group trying to reverse a 17-year decline in the water quality of the lake. She has also built a herd home on the farm.

This has an immediate objective of better controlling effluent and reducing impact on the lake. It also looks to the possibility of a different future where dairying becomes too difficult due to agriculture being included in the emissions trading scheme. The herd home then becomes a building to set up some kind of horticultural venture.

In 1992 all regional councils consulted their publics and published policy statements on freshwater. The objectives were to maintain and improve their freshwaters. Many of these councils later passed rules allowing livestock access to waterways along with unlimited use of fertilisers. Since 1992 water quality has dropped in all regions.

Much of this deterioration was driven by expansion of dairying in the South Island and intensification of the industry in the North Island. This expansion happened without the setting of any environmental limits. The massive expansion of irrigation on thin soils has resulted in rapidly rising levels of nitrates in aquifers.

The handing out of these Canterbury Area water rights for 35 years with no charge but a consequent increase in land value has effectively transferred over $2.2 billion of public wealth to private assets. In a similar vein, Taupo farmers were paid $81.5 million of tax payers money to leave the catchment and replace their farms with pine trees.

Effectively, tax and rate payers are paying farmers to keep the contamination of Lake Taupo down.

We have seen something similar with climate policy.

What seems to be the problem is an issue of integrity. Councils consult their populations and set strong environmental objectives but do not deliver on the promises. Part of this is due to the power of agriculture at regional and national levels.

We have moved into a pattern where the monetary benefits of property and water rights have been privatised while the cost of maintaining those benefits is passed onto the population as a whole in taxation. This means that the quality of improvements in water and erosion control depend on the level of public funding rather than being the responsibility of the land user.

We have seen something similar with climate policy. In 1992 New Zealand signed the Rio Convention on climate change then used a spike in tree planting to offset the emissions in subsequent years. The actual emissions did not decrease.

This has simply pushed the problem into the 2020s when these trees will be harvested making the situation much worse. The Emissions Trading Scheme was eventually enacted with farmers largely exempt because the scheme was limited to carbon emissions and did not include methane.

There has been at least 38 years of research in New Zealand aimed at reducing the methane produced by ruminant animals. Although this was originally aimed at increasing profit by turning a greater percentage of the feedstock into saleable meat and less into valueless methane the reasons for the objective have now changed. However, there is still no magic bullet.

New Zealand has an impressive history of innovation which has resulted in high agricultural productivity and new land uses such as deer farming. But to help innovation and land use change, more is needed than just research and development.

A level playing field for investors is needed. Land prices that are inflated as a result of exemption from paying for water and livestock emissions are not a level playing field.

Some countries micromanage their farming sectors by close regulation of what can go into the system. This stifles innovation. Regulating output in terms of factors such as water quality and erosion control provides farmers with an envelope of possible operating modes.

This means that in a particular area, neighbouring land owners can cooperate by using a variety of farming methods and crops which, in combination, keep the area within regulations. Using cow manure from your neighbour's farm to fertilise your plant growing farm could benefit both.

The response of many people to environmental issues is to take personal action. Drive less or take your own shopping bag to the supermarket. These are important, but they are at the micro level.

You may agree or disagree with the ideas but what cannot be disagreed with is that we need to work on a united front both nationally and worldwide to avert or at least ameliorate what David Attenborough called the greatest threat to the planet in thousands of years.

Frank Gibson has been teaching physics and maths for 40 years to avoid growing up. He has taken on a mission of getting people to think and talk about science and adopt an evidence based approach to what they accept as true.