By Simon Edwards
Alison Stewart has no time for those who think New Zealand’s agri-sector has few environmental faults but also slams the current approach of trying to solve them with an across-the-board set of policies and procedures.
“It frustrates the hell out of me,” the Foundation for Arable Research CEO told last month’s Primary Industries NZ Summit.
The government’s thinking seems to be “we’re going to make everybody jump through every bloody hoop because we can’t quite get our heads around the subtleties and complexities of the site specific, sector specific problems that we’ve got”.
As with the 2021 Summit, organisers slotted in Alison as the final speaker on the final day as a way to keep delegates from drifting off early, knowing that she doesn’t pull her punches but injects plenty of humour too. And like last year, she didn’t disappoint.
Team ag and the nation’s farmers needed to own – and deal with – problems where they exist, Alison said.
“There are sensitive catchments where intensive dairying is not the best option. There are some erosion-prone hillsides where sheep and cattle shouldn’t be grazing and there are areas of cropping where we’re probably over-cultivating, or we’re putting too many pesticides on.”
Environmentalists highlight the issues – “and I say good on them; their job is to keep us honest”. But then politicians get on board and use some of the more over-blown rhetoric as a platform. Vested interest groups climb in, “and then you get perhaps well-intentioned TV personalities and social media people who jump on the bandwagon”.
Communities express concern about where the debate is heading, the media get hold of it and create a bit of exaggerated commentary “and it all creates a rather toxic, binary argument”.
Various factions take to their trenches and put up solutions as a cure for all – plants not animals; going organic; regenerative agriculture. Regen is a solution in some areas but it’s not a panacea for all the problems we’ve got, Alison said.
Others frame the future of New Zealand agriculture around indigenous knowledge systems and everyone embracing Matauranga Maori “because we’ve recognised that it is a unique point of difference for New Zealand and it could give us a competitive advantage”.
She had two problems with that.
“Firstly – and I might be the only person in New Zealand that thinks this – but it just seems like the ultimate form of modern day colonialism. It’s like Maori have struggled for hundreds of years to keep their culture going and now New Zealand has worked out, ‘my God, we can market that culture and make some money out of it.
“I think that if you are Maori, and you want to commercialise around an indigenous framework and get a premium for it, we should absolutely 100% support that. If you are non-Maori, you should stay the hell out of it. You don’t have the right to appropriate someone else’s culture for marketing gain.”
Her second issue about the current rhetoric – “and I can say this because I’m Scottish” – is that if we frame everything around Maori culture, we’re negating the value of all the other cultures that make up New Zealand.
“It’s like saying if you’re not Maori, you’re an amorphous lump of westernized thinking. And we’re not. We’ve got the most amazing mixed, diverse English, Scottish, Irish, European, South American, Polynesian, South African, Asian culture.”
Alison believes it’s to our advantage that we’re not shackled to hundreds and hundreds of years of history and tradition but embrace the best of the thinking and innovations of all sorts of immigrants who come here.
“Let’s be careful that we don’t try and box everyone into following one ethos or one track.
“The reason New Zealand agriculture has been successful is because we haven’t followed any one ethos…we’re not 50 Shades of Grey, but 50 shades of blue, green, red and everything else.
Right now, dairy is king. Before then it was wool. “And heaven forbid, if dairy collapsed, kiwifruit might be the next king or viticulture… I don’t know. It could be saffron. It could be quinoa. It could be anything.
“The framework of New Zealand success is that we just allow anybody to come through to be successful. So yes, we can have vertical farming. Yes, we can have plant-based foods and milk. Yes, we can have indigenous agriculture. We can have whatever we want. Because we’re not shackled by the history and the way it’s got to be done.”
Alison’s closing message – an echo of other speakers at the Summit – was to not focus on the negative.
“There is so much good about what we do in New Zealand agriculture. We’ve got to sort out some red flags; it will take time but we will do it because we’ve jumped over all the barriers in the past.”
If we are going to have a go at anybody, pick on those people in agriculture dragging their heels on looking after animals and waterways to a good standard, she said.
“Don’t have a go at a couple [featured on Country Calendar’s programme on Lake Hawea Station] playing classical music to their sheep. They’re not negatively impacting on NZ agriculture but we will be undermined by those farmers who are not operating at good practice, getting their cows knee-deep in mud for months of the year and we don’t call them out.”