Shifting expectations of urban New Zealand

How well do we understand the social and environmental expectations of urban New Zealand for the future?

Not that long ago depressed agricultural commodity prices would not only have impacted upon the primary industry, but would be felt throughout the whole economy where both urban and rural New Zealand would feel the economic pinch of low prices of our primary products.

While it's pleasing to see dairy prices generally lift over recent months, it would be fair to say that the financial situation is still challenging on farm looking to restore balance sheets and in the provinces servicing the farming community. But unlike past economic downturns in the primary sector, urban New Zealand has not necessarily shared the same economic roller-coaster ride over the last three to four years.

When we look at New Zealand's large metropolitan centres, most noticeably Auckland, they appear to be doing quite well and have done so for a number of years. Fuelled by increased immigration, escalating property values, and a vibrant service and construction sector, it would be fair to say that our large metropolitan centres have not suffered the same economic effects experienced by their country cousins.

We are one of the most urbanised countries in the world with 86% of the population living in urban areas. The time when everyone seemed to have a relation or friends involved in farming is no longer common place. The closest our urban friends may get to the country may be limited to the occasional excursion through the country to get to their favourite recreational spot, cycling through rural areas as part of the increasing network of national cycle ways, or visiting the local farmers' market.

Tourism is now held up as New Zealand's largest export industry in terms of foreign exchange earnings. In the year ended March 2016, international tourism's contribution to total exports was $14.5 billion (20.7% of exports), surpassing export receipts from dairy products ($12.3 billion) for the first time since 2010. Tourism is also a significant employer with 188,136 people (or 7.5%) employed in the sector, with a further 144,186 indirectly employed in the industry [Statistics New Zealand: Tourism Satellite Account 2016].

Urban New Zealand's exposure to the primary industry may now only be limited to content from mainstream media and/or through expanding a ray of other media channels (e.g. blogs, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc). The affinity that urban New Zealand had with the farming community is not as strong as it once was and there has been a shift in the expectations and general understanding of the primary industry.

In the March edition of The Journal, Warren Parker notes that up until recently the primary industry's response to environmental concerns has been largely political filibuster and mostly superficial. And that we have yet to effectively come to grips with sustaining our social licence to farm.

In reflecting upon this there has been an attitudinal shift in how urban New Zealand view the social and environmental responsibilities of our agricultural and horticultural industries, in the same way as they do for businesses as a whole.

More and more agriculture is linked to polluted waterways and the rise in algal blooms affecting the use of some of our favourite rivers and beaches. Incidents such as the campylobacter outbreak in Havelock North from sheep faeces entering the water supply causing 5000 people to be violently ill are seen by some as further evidence of the impact of agriculture on water quality.

The bandwidth of tolerance by the New Zealand public of environmental degradation resulting from poor on-farm management practices has narrowed considerably. There are without doubt greater expectations in the manner in which we farm and manage our natural resources.

Increasingly the primary industry will have to demonstrate its environmental credentials and in effect our social licence to farm. So what is the primary industry narrative we wish to articulate around improving water quality and the enhancing our environmental footprint, and how do we intend to engage and work with urban New Zealand and regulators in developing a shared vision around developing better environmental outcomes for all?