Gordon Campbell on why the public is losing patience with the farming sector’s persecution complex

This column includes references to the suicide rate in rural communities

beef-imageThe narrative that our farmers are ‘doing it tough’ plays into a number of wellworn stereotypes: of hardworking farmers under siege from (a) desk-bound bureaucrats and (b) regulations created by urban idealists who lack understanding of what life on the land involves, or what farming contributes to the national economy. Allegedly, the proposed freshwater reform package is a case in point:

Dairy NZ predicts Southland’s economy may be “significantly harmed” if the Government’s Essential Freshwater package is implemented….Dairy NZ’s own economic assessment, authored by  impact of the package, predicts by 2050 there could be a fall in the country’s overall GDP of $6 billion.

Wow. Yet before one takes this as gospel truth about the potential damage to us all from the regulatory shackling of New Zealand farmers, it is worth looking more closely – as the NZ Institute of Economic Research has done – at just how DairyNZ arrived at that $6 billion price tag. Fish and Game CEO Martin Taylor says this about the NZIER analysis:

Under DairyNZ’s modelling; the New Zealand economy will grow at 2.06 per cent each year on average accounting for the ‘worst-case’ impact of the Government’s freshwater reform proposals, compared with 2.10 per cent under the business as usual scenario – a difference of just 0.04 per cent. DairyNZ then added up this 0.04 per cent over the next 30 years, which leads them to claim the proposals will see New Zealand’s GDP lower by 1.1 per cent ($6 billion).

As Taylor indicates, you could actually frame this ‘worst case’ scenario is far less apocalyptic terms. Or even as a good news story:

Put another way, [NZIER’s] economic modelling shows that the New Zealand economy will be 192 per cent larger than today’s with the Government’s action for healthy waterways package. This means that New Zealand’s economy will grow from $242 billion to $466 billion by 2050 – an increase of $223 billion – meanwhile the environment will have been protected so future Kiwis can continue to swim, fish and gather food from their rivers, lakes and streams.

Clearly then, the proposed freshwater reforms will not do much to impede this country’s economic growth. Moreover, even that alleged $6 billion price tag over 30 years would need certain unlikely modelling conditions to be met. For example: [DairyNZ’s] negative conclusions rely on dairy farms always staying as dairy farms and that land taken out of dairy production would not be offset through a land-use change. Those conclusions, as NZIER noted, have “no basis in reality, as any good farmer would offset land retired from intensive dairy farming with trees, crops or other less nitrate intensive land uses.” Moreover, the DairyNZ modelling chose to assume there would be limited innovation over the next 30 years in farm management practices:

Despite the model representing a 30-year time frame, any modelling assuming there to be no improvement in technology or farm management practices is unbelievable – considering DairyNZ in all their submissions and public comments on the Zero Carbon Bill assume new technology and farm management practices are coming…

All up, the NZIER analysis was consistent with its previous research, which had indicated that “the impacts of the government reforms are unlikely to be major at the national level, and not felt for many years due to the long lead-in times proposed.” Consistent with this limited impact on the national economy, the proposed regulations on nitrogen levels might affect a number of individual farmers – but when measured by land area, or by river length, the national impact seems likely to be very limited:

Research by Dr Adam Canning shows that, after giving effect to the existing 2017 National Policy Statement for Freshwater requirements to manage DIN [dissolved inorganic nitrogen] for periphyton, only nine per cent of dairy farms (by area) are in catchments that exceed the proposed DIN bottom-line.

The science shows that only a tiny fraction of dairy (one per cent by area) is estimated to occur in catchments that likely exceed the proposed DIN bottom-line by more than 60 per cent. Despite claims, approximately only 10 per cent of rivers, by length (outside conservation land), exceed the proposed DIN bottom-line.

It is not as if government lacks a strong public mandate for asking more from the farming sector when it comes to improving water quality. In opinion polls, an overwhelming majority of the public has been expressing deep concern for years about the serious impact of dairy-generated pollution on the water quality of New Zealand’s once-pristine rivers and lakes.

No doubt, the very thought of mandatory compliance with regulations may seem alien to a considerable number of farmers. Far from “doing it tough” under the yoke of excessive red tape, farmers have enjoyed decades of a “Wild West” situation where meaningful regulation of farming has been virtually non-existent, where water use has been free, where irrigation schemes have been generously subsidised by the taxpayer, and where democratic oversight of water use in Canterbury was erased by the sacking of Environment Canterbury in 2010 by a National government. ( Only this year has democracy been belatedly restored.)

On top of all that, successive governments have shied away from requiring agriculture to make any significant response to the climate change crisis to which farming continues to make a significant negative contribution. In fact, farmers have just been given a five year reprieve by the Ardern government:

Farmers have successfully convinced the government to give them a chance to come up with a way of pricing agricultural emissions at a farm level by 2025, to avoid being brought into the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS)….The government plans to pass legislation, as a backstop, to enable fertiliser emissions (charged at a processor level), and livestock emissions (charged at a farm level) to be brought into the ETS by 2025.

Sure, a reality check on farming’s penchant for fertiliser and livestock emissions might conceivably arrive a tiny bit sooner if, by 2022, farming has not begun to implement a level of corrective measures. Yet even if inclusion in the ETS does finally, belatedly, come to pass in 2025, farmers would still continue to receive ‘most favoured’ treatment, and would be required to wear only 5 % of the cost of their emissions:

If agriculture ends up being brought into the ETS, emitters will receive a 95% discount or “free allocation of emissions units”.  While trade-exposed industrial emitters currently receive discounts of between 60% and 90%, 95% is the “upon entry” level stipulated in the Labour-New Zealand First Coalition Agreement. Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters said: “Our decision to put in place a sector-led plan to reduce emissions at the farm gate shows we’ve listened to farmers.”

Finally, this extremely generous timeframe stands to be imposed only if a Labour-led grouping manages to win both elections, in 2020 and 2023. On past performance, a National government would be likely to lift even this lightweight burden of compliance from farmers, some time before the 2025 obligations would kick in.

Suicide rates

Agricultural self-pity has received a ton of sympathetic treatment in the media of late:

Droughts, floods, earthquakes, farm debt, M bovis, looming water quality reforms and climate change legislation have Canterbury farmers feeling under the pump.

Some farmers have even managed to convince themselves that it has been government regulations (and not their own actions) that have caused the farming sector to be suddenly held in low regard by the New Zealand public:

Farmers feel like they’re being thrown under the tractor, saying new environmental regulations are turning the public against them…

The suicide rates in rural communities have even been invoked:

[Farmer] Jeremy Talbot worried the [freshwater reform] changes would push an already stressed and anxious rural community over the edge. “We talk about suicide rates, we’re only going to hit the tip of the iceberg at the moment the way things are going. There’s absolutely no confidence out there in the rural economy at all at the moment.”

This invoking of suicide rates in rural areas to criticise the freshwater regulations has become something of a recurrent theme:

Canterbury farmers say they’re at breaking point. A recent Ministry of Health report presented to MPs showed suicide rates were up 17 percent in rural areas compared to a drop of 7 percent in cities and towns.

Every suicide is a tragedy and (theoretically at least) an avoidable tragedy. For that reason alone, it is worth looking at the numbers involved, which confirm that far more people take their own lives in urban locations: on the latest 2016 provisional figures there were 341 male and 121 female suicides in urban centres, and 70 males and 19 females in rural areas. In other words, more families in cities are dealing with this tragic loss. It would be unfortunate if media coverage should inadvertently make suicide appear to be primarily a rural problem.

That aside, there is a clear imbalance in access to mental health care between rural and urban communities. This has led to recurring calls for a Rural Health Commissioner to be appointed to help improve the “simply unaccceptable” standard of mental health care available to those living in rural areas.

Even so, some progress has been made. If we look again at the latest available data on suicide rates, the suicide rate in rural areas in 2016 (13.8 per 100,000) was significantly lower than the 16.1 per 100,000 rate in rural areas during 2006. In those ten years, significant progress in prevention has been made in rural areas. Also, since bank interest rates have never been lower. the debt burden weighing upon on farmers does not seem to be a major cause. If a minority of farmers do feel themselves to be under economic pressure, then neither interest rates nor excessive regulation seem like a plausible explanation. Some of the intolerable strain could well be the self-inflicted outcome of unsustainable debt being taken on in the pursuit of monetary gain. Farmers can be the agents of their own misfortune.

In fact, farm debt (see below) is known to be a minor factor among the major causes of suicide in rural areas – if only because it is young farm labourers and dairy hands, rather than farm owners, who seem to be among those most at risk. On Coroners figures, farm-related suicides [during the period between 2012 and 2016] reportedly numbered 107 in all:

Almost half (50) were younger than 40, while the largest number (16) were in the 20-24 age group… [Rural Health Alliance CEO Michelle] Thompson said a recent study carried out by Canterbury University researcher Annette Beautrais had highlighted the large proportion of younger men who committed suicide. “What surprised us was the number of young people under 25 who were taking their lives –  predominantly farm labourers and dairy hands. We thought the group most at risk were the farm owners because of the economic and financial pressures.” Financial pressures were a compounding factor, but not the precipitating one.

Indeed, economic pressures and weather events seem to be marginal factors:

The first study ever in New Zealand farm suicides [by Canterbury University researcher Annette Beautrais, based on coroners’ records between 2007-2015] shows that financial stress was a “negligible” factor, reported in fewer than 5 per cent of cases, nor were severe weather events an important influence. The most common feature was existing mental illness, reported in 28 per cent.

In sum – and even allowing for some transmission of anxiety from farm owners to their workforce – the evidence does not support the lurid claims that the proposed freshwater reforms will pose a significant risk to the mental health of rural communities. Presumably, this pre-existing gap in mental health services will be tackled by the coalition government’s promised ramping up of mental health services, nationwide.

A global problem

No doubt, some New Zealand farmers are doing it tough. (So are a lot of New Zealand wage workers in the face of soaring urban rents, and food prices.) Farmers have survived worse, before. In the mid 1980s, the neo-liberal zealots in the Lange government scrapped farming’s reliance on subsidised minimum price supports virtually overnight, with only a minimum period of transitional payments to offset the pain of removal. Compared to the needless brutality of that era, the long adjustment periods the coalition government is offering to farmers (both in the freshwater reforms and in the Zero Carbon Bill) look like a walk in the park.

Ultimately then, trying to link the suicide rate in rural communities to the coalition government’s reform agenda is a deeply misleading approach to a global problem. Around the world, modern farming seems to pose a serious threat to mental health. The serious risks facing French farmers for instance, were outlined in this major New York Times report in 2017:

The most recent statistics, made public in 2016 by France’s public health institute, show that 985 farmers killed themselves from 2007 to 2011 — a suicide rate 22 percent higher than that of the general population.

This incidence of a higher suicide rate among farmers extends far beyond Canterbury:

A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggested that male farmers in 17 [US] states took their lives at a rate two times higher than the general population in 2012 and 1.5 times higher in 2015….The US farmer suicide crisis echoes a much larger farmer suicide crisis happening globally: an Australian farmer dies by suicide every four days; in the UK, one farmer a week takes his or her own life; in France, one farmer dies by suicide every two days; in India, more than 270,000 farmers have died by suicide since 1995.

Why is this happening? The inherent loneliness of the farming profession (which readily fuels depression among people famously prone to emotional reticence) seems to be a recurring factor. Another related factor seems to the ready access that farmers and farm labourers have to guns:

A broken relationship, drink and a gun – these three factors are a “fatal combination” and account for a significant proportion of farmer suicides, especially among young men. A gun was used by 40 per cent of the 185 [New Zealand] farmers who took their lives between 2007-15, compared with 8 per cent in the general population.

Ironically, farmers may be five times more likely than the rest of the population to use a gun to end their own lives. Yet regardless, farmers are also among the occupational groups least likely to support the coalition government’s attempts to improve the safety of gun licensing, gun ownership and gun storage. That’s very unfortunate. On the evidence, those in rural communities should have a heightened sense of concern about the potential risk (to farmers and to farm workers) of the guns that are already in their midst – rather than conjuring up an imaginary risk from the environmental reforms coming down the pike.

Footnote One : The world is on course to hit 10 billion people. At max, New Zealand agriculture can feed 40 million people – and then only if its farming practices are made sustainable – so the rhetoric about how New Zealand agriculture can ‘feed the world ‘should be dialled back a little.

Footnote Two: The recent spate of farms-to-forestry conversions are a main focus of today’s farmers march on Parliament. Genuine concerns do exist about the recent fast-tracking of the sales of dairy and sheep farms to foreign forestry concerns, and (to a lesser extent) about the financial incentives introduced last year to encourage forestry planting. There could well be unintended consequences for local employment and for the viability of some rural communities. (In some regions, census figures indicate that 1000ha of forestry directly employs 1.5 people, compared to the 7.6 people employed if the same area is used for sheep and dairy farming.)

Arguably with forestry, the revenue streams into local communities are also more spasmodic and longer term, than the continuous revenue stream from traditional farming. Downstream, there could also be risks of over-capacity at meat plants, loss of services and rural de-population if and when forestry planting ceases to be complementary to traditional farming and instead, displaces it irreversibly – due to the loss of infrastructure (eg fences) that forestry conversion entails.

Clearly, the urgent driver for the spate of forestry conversions is the rising cost of carbon associated with the Emissions Trading Scheme, and the meeting of our climate change commitments. Carbon offsets from forestry will help to reduce those costs. So…if rural New Zealand wants wide public support from urbanites for for its concerns about farm conversions, maybe it should belatedly begin to engage positively in meeting the emissions reduction targets – and cease living in denial about the pollution from excessive livestocking, and fertiliser use.

Unfortunately, agriculture’s chronic foot dragging on climate change issues has eroded public sympathy in urban New Zeakand for a sector that seems prone to crying wolf – even about the Zero Carbon Bill, which actually provides agriculture with an extremely generous period of transition with respect to meeting some very, very modest targets. Greenpeace’s Russel Norman pointed this out in his recent Bruce Jesson lecture, in the course of mounting a devastating critique of the allegedly” Zero” Carbon Bill:

The Zero Carbon Bill’s biogenic methane reduction target is a 24% to 47% reduction below 2017 levels by 2050. And it has a shorter term target of 10% reduction in biogenic methane by 2030. It seems silly to have to say it but I do – this is not ‘zero carbon’ in any sense. Methane is a super pollutant, much worse than carbon dioxide in the heating it produces over the next century – and it is one of New Zealand’s biggest greenhouse gas problems. And yet this bill sets a target of reducing methane emissions by a miserly 24% by 2050- in 30 years!!

This really is an inadequate target….In fact it is the target chosen by the polluters themselves by a group established by the previous Government called the Biological Emissions Reduction Group. The Biological Emissions Reduction Group has the following members: Dairy NZ, Fonterra, Federated Farmers, Fertiliser New Zealand, Horticulture NZ, Beef and Lamb, Deer Industry NZ and their Government allies Ministry of Primary Industries and Ministry for the Environment…. It is a classic fox in charge of the hen house situation, so you can hardly expect it to call for cuts in pollution consistent with the climate emergency – it will understandably be guided by the financial interests of its members, who are the biggest polluters.

In sum, farmers are not being asked to do too much. But they are complaining about being asked (politely) to do too little.

Footnote Three : With respect to suicide prevention, some key numbers :

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What’s Up: online chat (3pm-10pm) or 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 helpline (12pm-10pm weekdays, 3pm-11pm weekends)

Kidsline (ages 5-18): 0800 543 754 (24/7)

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

If an emergency where you feel that you, or someone else, may be at risk, call 111.