Mr English, who has the substance abuse problem?

(First published on The Farming Show July 2012)

At the recent Federated Farmers AGM, Bill English made an off the cuff joke about drug testing beneficiaries. It got some laughs and applause from the audience, no doubt happy to see the government picking on a group other than farmers for a change.

His comment got me thinking. If ever there was a substance that agriculture was addicted to, it’s phosphate. Unlike some of our other inputs, there’s simply nothing that can stand in for it. In the words of the U.S. Geological Survey “There are no substitutes for phosphorus in agriculture”. We currently import most of our phosphate fertiliser from Morocco.

Until recently, Moroccan phosphate seemed to be our only option for importing fertility (locally made urea is our primary source of supplementary nitrogen) but that looks set to change with recent offshore developments. Large deposits of rock phosphate exist on the Chatham Rise and extraction is being investigated now.

Chatham Rock Phosphate has the rights to exploit over 4000 square km of the Chatham Rise sea floor and claim there could be as much as 100 million tonnes of rock phosphate available. They believe it could be extracted using existing technology for much less than the cost of buying and importing it from Morocco. If it pans out, any chance of New Zealand running low on phosphate due to global shortage seems to have been shelved for about 100 years.

Which in some ways is a shame, and potentially a missed opportunity for us. While Kiwis are generally regarded as great problem solvers and innovators, that behaviour tends to be in response to the demands of circumstance. We need to be smarter about how we apply supplements to the land, but it looks like constraint of supply won’t be one of the reasons.
We know that run-off from farming activity is having an impact on the quality of our rivers and lakes. The stats on our stewardship of the environment are not pretty: more than 60% of our native fresh water species are threatened, almost half our lakes are polluted by excess nutrients, and almost all river quality monitoring show things are getting worse.

We are in danger of losing our single biggest marketing asset: the global perception that we produce food in a 100% Pure paradise. With low-cost producers competing with us on every continent, why would global consumers buy food from halfway around the world when they can get it cheaper at home? Our pure branding is our advantage.

But like an addict that says “It’s not that bad”, or “I can give up any time I want”, it’s time to face up to our problems. Arguments like “Councils pollute too”, or “what about the townies?” don’t do us any favours either. All the public see are shirkers, trying to shift blame.
Every media story of fines for effluent discharges undermines our best efforts to do right by the environment and overshadows the examples of the farmers that are doing everything right. The slow progress and dubious results of the Clean Streams Accord are putting more pressure on local bodies to act. It’s a matter of when, not if, water quality factors will be reflected more directly in farming profitability. Just as a drug test subject is asked to “pee in the cup”, councils may yet end up sampling water quality directly at pollution sources and taking a much stronger line with offenders.

Farmers need to consider our dependence on applying fertility to the land, and the downstream impacts our dependence has on the wider ecosystem we operate in. We can wait for more regulation and view it as a future imposition on our business, or we can see it as an opportunity to build sustainable businesses that are cheaper to run now.

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