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Is agriculture NZ's golden goose?
The Government appears to have quietly added "the intensification of agriculture" to its list of contentious policies it believes will bring new jobs, and economic growth, to New Zealand.
Its master strategist, Steven Joyce, signalled this in a speech to the National Party conference.
"If New Zealanders want more jobs," he warned, "they should stop being fearful of foreign investment, accept the intensification of agriculture, not forgo oil and mineral exploration ... and do a few things that might make us uncomfortable."
Nothing Mr Joyce says is random or accidental, so I am wondering what he was signalling here?
Was he signalling that we had all better get used to the fact that agriculture will become more and more intensive, and stop being squeamish about animal welfare?
Was he suggesting that our reluctance to accept certain practices, such as locking up hens in cages, or fattening cows in cubicles or feedlots, is holding agricultural progress back, and will have to change?
Perhaps he was signalling that it's time we dropped our resistance to genetic engineering, and embraced it enthusiastically?
Or was he simply signalling we need a huge boost in the number of dairy cows in New Zealand?
Certainly there are signs of a renewed push for genetic engineering in New Zealand, and for more intensive, irrigation-based dairy farming, and innovations such as "cubicle farming" to fatten up dairy cows.
But I believe Mr Joyce is dreaming if he thinks consumers will happily accept ever more intensive agriculture, as the price we must pay for more jobs.
Polls show most New Zealanders oppose the current practice of keeping millions of animals in cages, where they suffer every day of their lives. They understand that more intensive agriculture will inevitably mean more suffering for animals. That's why consumers want to see more humane, free-range farming practices, not factory farms.
It's hard to imagine how we could have further intensification of our agriculture without destroying our already stressed and polluted environment, and our clean, green brand.
Already New Zealand has 6 million dairy cows - double the number in 1990. It's hard to imagine how we could fit a million more cows into New Zealand, or what would happen if we did.
Six million cows have polluted our waterways to such an extent that we cannot swim in most of our lakes and rivers any more.
Our clean, green brand is rapidly eroding as a consequence. Does Mr Joyce want to eliminate it altogether?
Aside from the environmental impact of any further intensification of our agriculture, this proposal has other flaws.
The first is his assumption that intensive agriculture will create more jobs.
If Mr Joyce visited a factory farm, he would quickly discover that intensive farming is about eliminating jobs, not creating them. Virtually every agricultural process is mechanised inside a factory farm, and so it's hard to find a worker inside them.
I've visited a huge factory farm outside Dunedin, for example, where 400,000 layer hens live lives of abject misery inside cages. Their feed and water arrive by conveyor belt, and the eggs and excrement are removed by conveyor belt. One worker is employed to check on the health and welfare of 90,000 hens, and remove dead and diseased birds.
It's the same in the huge sheds I've visited, where up to 30,000 broiler chickens are reared. These are job-poor industries.
But perhaps the most obvious flaw is that our key advantage as a food producer is our reputation as a quality producer of safe, healthy, sustainable food.
If we go down the path of ever more intensive agriculture, that reputation will end up in tatters, along with our clean, green brand, which is worth about $18 billion to our economy.
For these reasons I sincerely hope Mr Joyce will quietly abandon this latest proposal to bring us more jobs and growth.