Is New Zealand's 'rural-urban' divide just a myth?

Why there’s no rural-urban divide when it comes to caring about our environment

Beef + Lamb New Zealand says farmers care just as much about the environment as everyone else, and with its new Environment Strategy and Implementation plan, it plans to help sheep and beef farmers promote reduced carbon emissions, cleaner water, thriving biodiversity, and healthy productive soils. 

I recently spoke at a farmer’s event in Christchurch with a few hundred sheep and beef farmers from the northern part of the South Island. At the end of my talk, an older farmer came up to me and asked why I hadn’t talked about organics. On my way home, someone tweeted me that they’d “always said we should have declared all of New Zealand organic and GMO-free. The price premium could have been whatever we asked for.”

At the Beef + Lamb AGM recently, a group of farmers (mixed ages, from their 20s through to their 60s) asked me why I hadn’t talked more about Regenerative Agriculture – farming that heals the land, the lifeforms that dwell there, and the communities of people too. The fact that I keep being surprised by this stuff says more about me as an urban Kiwi than it does about farmers.

Everywhere I go, farmers tell me they care about the land and the rivers and how they want their children to be able to enjoy both. They tell me they care about biodiversity and how they want to play their role in protecting and preserving our native flora and fauna. They tell me they’re concerned about climate change and they feel the impacts of it first hand through the increased frequency of severe weather events like droughts and floods.

All of this is why sheep and beef farmers through Beef + Lamb New Zealand recently launched the Environment Strategy and Implementation plan.  It’s a comprehensive framework that has real actions to help sheep and beef farmers improve their environmental performance. It’s focused around four major areas: reduced carbon emissions, cleaner water, thriving biodiversity, and healthy productive soils. 

“Everywhere I go, farmers tell me they care about the land and the rivers and how they want their children to be able to enjoy both”

On carbon emissions, we’ve made a major commitment for the sheep and beef sector to be carbon neutral by 2050. New Zealand as a whole has a commitment to reduce emissions by 11% below 1990 levels by 2030, but the sheep and beef sector has already educed absolute greenhouse gas emissions from their farm operations by 30 % below 1990 levels. Now we want to get to a point where the red meat sector is carbon neutral.  

We’ve also committed to improving water quality, making sure mahinga kai (food collection) and swimming in rivers is possible in the freshwater surrounding farms. Farmers will be supported to develop Catchment Communities to share and use best practice approaches across the country. This means specifically tackling nitrogen and phosphorus on farm, as well as erosion management. 

It also means ensuring that stock levels are appropriate to the capability of the land. It may mean changes to the way a farm is run – including the use of fertilisers and the planting of marginal land into a variety of species (eg: manuka). These species will encourage biodiversity of insect and bird life.

Farmers are also committed to having healthy soils. Soil is an effective store for carbon, and soils with high organic matter typically store much more carbon than those without. Changes to tillage, and the kinds of grasses and other plants we grow to feed our stock can make a major difference to the amount of carbon we emit. Equally, the way we manage our land can mean that less soil enters our rivers and waterways through erosion. Grazing animals are part of healthy ecosystems, and at the right stocking levels provide nutrients for the plants they graze on. New Zealand’s thriving organic farms have already shown this.

With biodiversity, initial research by Beef + Lamb New Zealand indicates that around one-quarter of New Zealand’s native vegetation is found on sheep and beef farms, with about 1.4 million hectares of that forested. Along with doing more detailed work around this native vegetation, the sector will also explore both ways to improve the quality of biodiversity on farms, but also the carbon sequestration opportunities that both native and plantation planting could provide.

To underpin this strategy, all farmers will be supported to have an active farm environment plan by 2021, the development and implementation of catchment communities, and Beef + Lamb New Zealand supporting farmer action through its extension programmes. Farm environment plans will have specific on-farm actions to help farmers improve their individual environmental performance, while catchment communities will see farmers identify and act together to make a difference on a bigger scale, as well as sharing their expertise around the country.

(Infographic: Beef + Lamb New Zealand)

Farmers thinking about how they’re impacting the environment isn’t something new or something that’s been suddenly brought on by public pressure either. The Ministry for Primary Industries recently undertook some research which showed that despite some public commentary to the contrary, the so-called ‘rural-urban divide’ doesn’t really exist at all. Urban and rural New Zealanders are concerned about the same issues.

For example, MPI’s research showed 52% of urban and 58% of rural New Zealanders felt water pollution and quality was the most significant issue facing the primary sector, and the majority of urban and rural New Zealanders agreed that responding to climate change was the responsibility of all New Zealanders.

Whether you live in a city or on a farm, New Zealanders are worried about the same environmental issues.

These findings line up with my own experience of working across both urban and rural New Zealand. People I talk to and work with, whether they’re from farms or cities, both share the same concerns around our environment, and they don’t see the world in terms of ‘us vs. them’ either.

This local convergence of concern around the environmental performance of farming is also echoed overseas. Customers around the world are increasingly demanding high quality, great tasting, free-range, grass-fed beef and lamb. They want to know that the red meat they’re eating has been raised in an ethical way, GMO and hormone free, without routine antibiotics, and in a way that’s as environmentally sustainable as possible. Not only is New Zealand well placed to win in this marketplace, but it’s something our farmers are excited about because it’s how they like to farm too.

If there’s a common theme that unites New Zealand’s farmers it’s that they’re not just farming for today, they’re custodians of the land and the surrounding environment for tomorrow. Ask any farmer about the long-term vision for their land and they’re more than likely to say that they want to leave it in a better condition for their children and their grandchildren.

New Zealanders can be rightfully proud that our farmers practice a more sustainable and less intensive form of agriculture than many farming systems around the world. Even so, our farmers know there’s more they can do to improve their environmental performance, and they’re committed to doing their bit to meet the challenges we face.  We want to be the solution, and this plan puts us right at the front of that.


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