Farmers should be no exception in surveillance society

Geoff SimmonsEconomics

On Campbell Live last night we saw a shocking example of two dairy farmers flouting the rules and polluting our waterways with effluent. Thanks to the brave farm hands who dobbed in their bosses, they are rightly having the book thrown at them.

Farmers take their environmental responsibility seriously, and will no doubt be upset at what they saw and the ‘guilt by association’ generated by a few blockheads in their midst. However, the most concerning question to arise from last night’s piece was if the farmers weren’t dobbed in, how else would they have been caught? Last year Waikato Regional Council shelved helicopter flights and random spot checks on farm compliance, so it is unlikely they would catch farmers like these. Surveillance techniques are many now and for the sake of the environment it is vital that the public have options to expose the practices shown last night, wherever they occur.

Dairy farming miscreants

What remains unknown and must be exposed is the extent of this hardened rump of farmers out there who need to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st Century. They clearly don’t care that the waterways they pollute belong to everyone, but the public needs direct ways of demonstrating that it will no longer tolerate farmers that cream a profit by passing the costs of their environmental destruction on to the rest of us. Pumping effluent into a stream is perhaps the worst possible example of this, but there are others, as we have seen in the MyRiver campaign.

Luckily most dairy farmers as well as their industry are well aware of the risk that if these practices aren’t stamped out then the public will revoke their social license to operate. In other words, they could get regulated so tightly they can’t make any money. That is why farmers, supported by Dairy NZ and Fonterra, are taking action.

Good farmers should condemn the actions of the negligent minority

We know the strong majority of dairy farmers take their environmental obligations seriously – some 94% of waterways on dairy farms are fenced, which is far more than can be said for the sheep and beef industry. Furthermore, 93% have made the big investment required to have fully compliant effluent management systems. All these good farmers and industry organisations need to call out the small percentage of miscreants as they give the whole industry a bad name. After all it is not fair for some farmers to make the investment but not others.

The question then arises why Regional Councils are making life easy for the miscreants to continue getting away with dumping their waste by pulling back from proper monitoring. Recent decisions by Waikato Regional Council are a good example.

Waikato Regional Council have stopped spot checks and helicopter monitoring

Waikato Regional Council previously used helicopters to check whether farms were compliant with effluent management rules. This allowed them to inspect around 100 farms in the same time it took to inspect one or two farms from the ground. That meant that most farms were monitored once every six years. They could also spot check farms unannounced, although in recent years these had been used to deliver an education message, rather than prosecution.

In 2014 both these practices were halted. The official reason given was to work in partnership with the dairy industry to improve practices, however reports from the meeting suggest that the real reason was that surveillance caused stress for farmers and was linked to farmer suicides. To their credit, Federated Farmers stood up to support the use of targeted helicopter monitoring, backed by education.

The official advice received by councilors said:

“Ceasing using the helicopter at the present time is likely to mean that the very small proportion of farmers who deliberately seek to hide significant non-compliance are much less likely to be caught”

For an example, look no further than the two Waikato farmers on Campbell Live last night!

How does the Council expect to deal with poor performing farmers now, other than relying on them being dobbed in as they were on Campbell Live? And this move to a limp-wristed form of monitoring and sanction is not uncommon around the country – in 2013 eight of 17 Regional Councils gave farmers a warning before an inspection.

What else could be done?

Industry organisations have been claiming they are capable of self-regulation for years. However, as mentioned in the Campbell Live piece, Fonterra’s big stick – not collecting milk from a farm – is a ‘last resort’ – seems a bit of a hollow threat when we saw a farmer pumping effluent into a stream – it could hardly be any worse. What exactly does a farmer has to do before Fonterra would act?

Of course that type of sanction by Fonterra – even if it was invoked – could give rise to more environmental degradation as the farmer attempts to dispose of the milk. A better option would be to collect the milk but not pay the farmer for it until they comply. But even this hasn’t been done – which exposes the industry’s claim it can self regulate as rather hollow.

If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear

Over the last year, the rest of New Zealand has had to come to terms with living in a surveillance society. We are assured that if we have nothing to hide we have nothing to fear. The decision by Waikato Regional Council was a backwards step. And previous reports suggest that many Regional Councils around the country have similar provisions in place.

Farmers should be no exception

Farmers aren’t any different to the rest of us – they should have to deal with the threat of monitoring and even random inspection hanging over their head. Those powers are necessary to keep the minority of miscreants, like those we saw on Campbell Live last night, in line. It is only fair on the majority of farmers that have made the investment to deal with effluent properly.

Industry self-regulation is never a total solution. It needs the public to have its own ways of censuring bad behavior. You can play the role of inspector by using our Pollution Reporting App. If you see anything that might be polluting rivers, take a photo on your phone and report it.

Report Pollution Now
Farmers should be no exception in surveillance society was last modified: December 15th, 2015 by Geoff Simmons
About the Author

Geoff Simmons

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Geoff Simmons is an economist working for the Morgan Foundation. Geoff has an Honours degree from Auckland University and over ten years experience working for NZ Treasury and as a manager in the UK civil service. Geoff has co-authored three books alongside Gareth.