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Hon Jim Sutton: Federated Farmers' annual conference, Auckland

Your theme for this conference: the federation for the global village: is particularly appropriate, rising above the minutiae of local sectional issues. These are important in their own area, but it is important that the peak organisation of New Zealand's farming community that exports 80 per cent of its products should rise above that and look at the wider world, and look at the challenges it posses and the opportunities it offers.

New Zealand farming is in a better position to tackle those opportunities now than it was 20 years ago. There is no doubt about that. The world is looking to New Zealand to see how we cope with agriculture that is purely commercial in its engine room and adapting confidently to the modern world and its objectives.

I will concede the move to farming without subsidies was not universally popular at the time.

President Tom Lambie, chief executive Tony St Clair, Ladies and Gentlemen: Earlier this year, those of us working in agriculture were criticised for not providing leadership, for not standing up and saying agriculture is important.

I was interviewed about this later on and commented that news tended to be just that: new. The Minister of Agriculture saying agriculture was important didn’t tend to meet that criteria. In fact, it’s so self-evident as to be boring.

But I think it does raise a point worth considering.

Do people in New Zealand understand our primary industries?

In the old days, everyone knew someone on a farm, they used to spend holidays on farms.

That’s led to some describing agriculture as a “sunset industry”.

We here today know that’s not true. Agriculture is the leading edge of the knowledge wave economy. Productivity growth in the rural economy far outpaces that of the general economy, because of the swift adoption of new techniques and new technology.

The Government knows that.

Our land-based primary industries are a key sector of the economy being looked at closely by the Growth and Innovation Advisory Board, which is working with ministers to identify ways to significantly boost our economic performance.

Primary industry is vital to the wellbeing of our country. That’s why farmers’ behaviour is under so much scrutiny. Your activities have a huge impact on others’ lives, directly and indirectly. When you’re number one, you get the full force of people’s attention – both good and bad.

And because we have such an urbanised population now, the job of explaining farming and agriculture to the rest of our fellow citizens is that much harder – and that much more important.

There are a lot of images of farming and farmers out there, from the Speights and Toyota ads to the one about the perpetually grumpy farming community as reported in one of the business papers last week.

It is easy to hunker down on the farm and feel like every new thing that comes past is an extra burden targeted especially at you purely to make your lives miserable. But there is a bigger picture than that.

Climate change is a reality. It is the world’s biggest environmental problem. We have to do something about it. That’s what the Government is doing by ratifying the Kyoto Protocol, in which more than 100 nations have agreed to work together to get the problem under control.

The global mean temperature went up by about 0.6 degrees in the last century and a half. In the coming century, it is projected to rise by a further 1.4 to 5.8 degrees.

This is not within the normal range of climatic fluctuations. The current concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is not within the normal range, and it is rising. The overwhelming weight of scientific opinion is that this is a problem; it is substantially caused by human activity; we need to do something about it.

Yes there are a handful of scientists who hold a contrary view. There are also some scientists who believe that GE foods will poison us; some who dismiss the theory of evolution; until comparatively recently, some still believed the earth was flat.

They just may be right. But to rely on the correctness of an increasingly isolated minority view would be reckless wishful thinking, for which our great-grandchildren could pay a fearful price.

The precise effects on New Zealand are still uncertain, but temperatures are likely to be higher and the effect on water resources will be significant. Rainfall is expected to increase in the west and decrease in the east. Floods after major downpours are expected to become more frequent and more severe.

There may be some initial benefits for parts of agriculture. A warmer climate would probably increase the growth rate or range of some crops.

But climate change threatens our agriculture too. The biggest impact is likely to come not directly from global warming, but from the increased frequency of extreme weather events, cold as well as hot. Besides the risk of more floods and droughts and violent windstorms, some crops may need to move south if they need cold winters, such as kiwifruit. Biosecurity is likely to come under increasing pressure, especially from subtropical pests and diseases. Sea level rises could create further problems with saltwater intrusion into aquifers in regions such as Hawke’s Bay and Canterbury.

In the longer run, the effects of climate change on agriculture are predicted to be overwhelmingly negative.

Doing nothing would mean sleepwalking into these hazards. For a country as dependent on primary production as ours, that would be gross negligence.

There isn’t another developed nation that depends on a stable temperate climate for its prosperity as much as New Zealand. We still buy our place in the developed world with grass. On a global scale we make a relatively small contribution to the emissions that cause climate change. But we stand to suffer economically from the effects much more than most.

Doing nothing is not a solution. In fact, it sets us up for paying a lot more.

We are a major supplier of food to world markets, many of them increasingly influenced by perceptions of environmental integrity. A positive response to climate change underscores our reputation for that. Ducking responsibility on climate change will not go unnoticed.

Our trading partners are joining in to combat climate change, both within Kyoto and outside it – both the United States and Australia have publicly committed to major programmes to address their emissions, despite declining to ratify the protocol at this stage. Australia has publicly said it will meet its Kyoto target – without ratifying the protocol, which would have given it access to mechanisms which make it easier and cheaper to achieve.

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