By David Hughes

THE SOCIAL contract between farmers and the community is broken.

New Zealand is one of the most urbanised countries in the world, with over 86 per cent of the population living in urban areas. The population has been shaped by mass migration from the country to towns and cities since World War II. Coupled with this, the large numbers of immigrants arriving from overseas have predominantly settled in urban areas. It therefore should be hardly surprising that a significant proportion of the population is largely disconnected from agriculture and the source of its food.

Even if this phenomenon is not unique to New Zealand, it should be of concern with the nation relying so heavily on export income from sales of agricultural products. New Zealand's identity in the wider world since the early days of European settlement has been largely defined by agriculture.


Not only is there this disconnect, there is also vigorous opposition to the environmental damage caused by modern farming practices. Many view New Zealand's "clean and green" claims as little more than hollow PR spin.

This situation is quite different from just a couple of generations ago. Then, most Kiwis would have connections to the land, either directly or through close family members. However, in 2016, just 6.5 per cent of the working population were engaged in agriculture, a threefold decline from the almost 20 per cent who worked in agriculture in 1951. Then, Kiwis' first jobs would often have been helping out on family, neighbour or friends' farms with tasks such as haymaking or fruit picking. They would grow up with a basic understanding of the challenges that farmers faced. The rite-of-passage farming jobs of yesterday have either disappeared or are now taken up by migrants and working holiday backpackers more willing to put up with the low pay and back-breaking work typically on offer.

Farmers and workers are highly skilled, have a strong work ethic, work long hours and have to be tenacious and resilient to the multitude of challenges they constantly face. These traits alone would normally be sufficient to command our respect, but they don't. The respect farmers once commanded automatically is no longer there. There is general suspicion and distrust of farming and its practices. The social contract with the wider community has been broken.

As farming has evolved and intensified with the introduction of significant external inputs such as synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, the result has been wide-scale pollution. Rivers and waterways that were once pristine have become unfit for swimming. Native habitats are under threat. Although the causes are multiple, there can be little doubt agriculture is the single most important contributing factor to this state of affairs. Most of the impact of this environmental degradation is an externalised cost that has to be borne by society generally and future generations. There is increasing clamour for this to stop.

Farmers' organisations have tended to adopt a defensive attitude to the wider concerns of society about environmental degradation caused by farming practices. This has only served to further polarise farmers and the wider community. This unhealthy state of affairs cannot continue if farmers want to maintain -- or regain -- this community support.

Today there are few restrictions placed on landowners as to how they manage their land. This will have to change. In future we are likely to see increased scrutiny by society of farming practices and the impact these have on the land, waterways and the environment. Farming will require a stronger social contract between the farmer and the wider community. Landownership -- and this applies not just to farmers -- will be bound by greater obligations such as legally enshrined stewardship contracts for its management on a sustainable basis. Landowners will revert to being guardians that hold land on trust for the wider community and for future generations.

David Hughes moved to Whanganui after working for 35 years in England, Australia, New Caledonia, France and other countries. He works as a translator from French into English and is involved in a project growing heritage wheat varieties.