Public aligned with farmers on environmental regulation

// Farm Planning // Industry

The following opinion editorial was supplied to Farmers Weekly and ran in their 27 May 2024 print edition.

scene of vibrant NZ landscape

Ben Hancock, Agricultural Business/Economics & Environmental Specialist at Beef + Lamb New Zealand  

The debate over an urban-rural divide is a well-trodden path. From a recent piece of work I’ve been involved with at Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ) I believe there’s strong alignment between the public perception of environmental regulation and what the sector has been asking of the Government. 

B+LNZ has consistently raised concerns about the significant administrative and financial burdens placed on farmers, and about what these prescriptive, one-size-fits-all rules will achieve. Recent announcements by the new Government about changes to some of the environmental regulations introduced over the past few years have been welcome.  

My role as part of the B+LNZ team is to provide insights for the sector’s advocacy. This supports the organisation’s continuing advocacy for the Government to create enduring policy solutions that strike a balance between being workable for farmers and helping to provide consumers, markets and the public with reassurance of good environmental stewardship.   

Public trust and confidence is important in giving our sector licence to operate, and we want the public to share our pride in the sheep and beef sector.  

B+LNZ regularly commissions data and analytics experts Kantar to survey the public on perceptions of the red meat sector. This has in recent years shown an upward trend in NZ public pride in our sector, with the public well aware of the sector’s contribution to economic growth and jobs, not to mention our reputation globally.  

Building on this, we recently added new questions to the regular survey, designed to provide a snapshot of public perceptions of the scale of the need for environmental management rules, as well as the amount of rules farmers are required to deal with.  

We wanted to find out the public’s view of the need for environmental regulation, in order to understand whether respondents felt farmers were environmentally responsible stewards of the land.  

Respondents were presented with a broad range of statements on the need for environmental regulation, and could select as many options as they felt represented their perception of the sector (see figure 1).  

Figure 1. Alignment of respondents’ views on the need for environmental regulation on beef and sheep farms Source: Kantar, November 2023. 

Bar graph showing public perceptions on the degree of environmental regulation placed on farmers.

Farmers can be heartened by public perceptions of them as both proactive participants in their environmental management and as stewards with a long-term view. 

Kiwis also see regulation is required but the largest response was for this to be practical and workable and not jeopardise farmers’ livelihoods and rural communities.  

Our report on the cumulative impact of environmental policies, released last year, showed that the combination of disjointed rules introduced by previous Government was going to put them under immense financial difficultly and in fact stymie environmentally proactive farmers. 

It is encouraging to know the public don’t want this to happen. They want some progress, but the rules need to be pragmatic.  

Respondents were also asked about the amount of environmental regulation placed on farmers.  

B+LNZ and other farming groups have for some time been calling for a pause, reassessment and simplification of environmental regulation.  

Around 80 percent of respondents felt they had enough information to form an opinion on the amount of regulation farmers faced – possibly helped by recent mainstream media coverage of this issue.  

Results showed public support for the sector’s contention that environmental regulation has overshot the mark, with more respondents stating there is too much than not enough – nearly 40 percent reported there was ‘too much’ or ‘a little too much’ environmental regulation, with only 22 percent saying there was not ‘almost enough’ or ‘not enough’ (see figure 2).  

Figure 2. Public perceptions on the degree of environmental regulation placed on farmers. 

Bar graph showing alignment of respondents’ views on the need for environmental regulation on beef and sheep farms Source: Kantar, November 2023.

The responses to these questions indicates that the public is willing and supportive of some rollback to the environmental rules, but they are still wanting to know that progress will be made.  

As a sector, however, we need to bear in mind that 22 percent who were looking for some more rules and that there was also fairly strong support for some rules and for independent monitoring.  

While the Government’s policy rollbacks are important to ensuring farmers have practical and enabling rules to work within, our sector will still need to show environmental progress and continue to bring the public along with us.  

Any policy changes that create public perception of avoiding all environmental responsibility, letting bad practices undermine the good work of most farmers and creating negative impacts on the environment, could shift the weighting of support for more government intervention. 

The public support in this survey is encouraging for those of us that are engaging with and representing farmers and rural communities and working to get policy changes, as it shows we’re not in this alone.