by Steffan Browning
I have just had an opinion piece printed in Farmers Weekly.
Here is what I wrote:
As the list of regions being declared drought areas grows it’s distressing to see land and animals suffering from the lack of water.
This summer’s drought has cost the country $1 billion and counting and might even take us back into recession.
Farmers need relief and the short-term support offered to get through this drought goes part of the way. Rather than ad hoc measures to move feed up from the well-stocked South to the farmers who need it the government needs to play a part in securing a systematic approach to transporting the feed.
We shouldn’t make struggling farmers have to rely on importing more and more costly and unsustainable palm kernel. We also need to get real about debt relief and the impact huge levels of debt have on farmers at times like these.
But that’s just the short term. Droughts are not new – we have seen them time and time again.
Farmers and government know how to get through them. Taxpayers, in the most part, are happy to support our agricultural sector in these times. But what has changed is these droughts are happening more often. Farmers are getting hit with extremes of weather conditions, which follow on the heels of another drought, or another flood, giving farmers no wriggle room to recover. The “worst in 100 years” label comes almost every year as previous records are surpassed.
Despite what government ministers might think, the severe droughts wringing the life out of much of the country are part of an expected pattern of climate change. The National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) warned droughts would become more frequent and more intense under climate change.
The mainstream media, which usually don’t understand the real struggles for farmers, are covering the news of the drought but they are missing this key issue. The coverage does not deal with climate change.
And nowhere to be found is a plan from the National government to deal with climate change. That’s because it doesn’t have a plan. The government has plans to help farmers with relief from this short-term problem but it doesn’t understand the ongoing struggle our farming systems are facing.
In fact, the National government is ignoring climate change and is instead downgrading measures to tackle it, while also failing to future-proof key New Zealand industries.
The face of farming is changing with the climate. We have two challenges emerging from climate change for agriculture. The first is a challenge to reduce emissions, to play our part in the fight to avoid runaway climate change. The second is a challenge to focus our agricultural techniques and strategy on producing within the new reality and NZ’s changing climate and weather conditions.
The government will give farmers limited relief to alleviate the impact of droughts but it won’t act to control the increase of unsustainable intensive dairying or take other measures to protect increasingly scarce water resources.
We are as vulnerable as every other country but this government has given up. It has gutted the Emissions Trading Scheme and is not signing up to further binding commitments under the Kyoto Protocol.
It’s not good enough for this National government to leave it up to other countries or future governments to pick up the slack. NZ needs to do its fair share on climate change if it wants anyone else to.
What we need is some long-term, focused action. What we have under the National government is a lack of strategy, a head-in-the-sand approach. As climate change worsens we will have more sand for it to do that in.
So what sort of farming can we do in a future that will have more frequent and more severe weather? Now is the time to look at which types of farming systems are holding up to the drought well and which aren’t.
My money is on farming systems that embrace diversity, that focus on resilience rather than highly geared systems that balance on a knife’s edge. Our agriculture sector needs to be moving to more diverse farming systems, with low external inputs, and certifiable (such as organics) sustainability measures – sustainable, resilient and valued.
Farm forestry, mixed swards, the use of fallows, crop and animal rotations, stand-off pads, and the use of measurable, sustainable soil carbon sequestration through nutrient cycling farming systems that use biological rather than synthetic fertiliser-based systems.
These are the sorts of tools that will contribute to resilient agricultural systems for the more frequent drought-or-drench weather patterns.
The twin plagues of droughts and floods affecting the way in which we can grow food and fibre in NZ are affecting the global markets. Other large producing nations, such as Australia and the United States, are feeling the effects of extreme weather on their ability to produce food in the same way. Drought struck 80% of agricultural land in the US last year.
NZ needs to start preparing for climate change. The effects are hitting now and we’re not ready because this National government wants to ignore the problem. The solution it is pushing is to rely on irrigation for the long-term, to build giant dams at huge cost.
The Green Party will continue to back better solutions, which work in the new reality of our environment and provide support to farmers without the debt. The future for NZ is not more and more intensive dairy.
A richer NZ won’t be achieved by lurching from drought to drought, flood to flood, but by having a long-term vision for the country about what we want to grow.
We don’t have an agricultural industry despite our environment, we have it because of our environment. This government is failing to lead and is intentionally turning its gaze away from the biggest problems we face.
Government must show the leadership that the “new normal” requires and take on these challenges.