A committee of the recent annual Youth Parliament held an inquiry into ‘improving and ensuring the sustainability in the primary sector’. Phil Edmonds reports.

During the Government’s mid-term break this year MP-appointed youth representatives slipped into their parliamentary chairs for the annual youth parliament. But getting a feel for the debating chamber was only part of it – at least for some.

A Primary Production Select Committee was formed of 10 youth MPs, many representing MPs in rural electorates, or those with rural interests. As the Committee proper does from time to time, the youth version was tasked with holding an inquiry, on this occasion into ‘Improving and ensuring the sustainability in the primary sector’.

Some of the issues raised were no different to those concerning all ages. But the stand-in MPs who contributed made it apparent what the focus needs to be now to ensure farming in New Zealand remains viable for them and generations to come.

The inquiry topic was appropriate on many counts.

  • First, it embodied what the Government is trying to adhere to through its ‘Fit for Better World’ programme of work through to 2030 and a youth temperature check would no doubt have been a useful review on its focus.
  • Second it was suitably broad to allow a discussion that incorporated views from all youth parliamentarians.
  • Third, it rang the bells of what young people, particularly those connected to the sector are primarily concerned about – making sure there will be attractive jobs and careers and lifestyles for them to pursue.

Youth focused on what’s right for consumers is right for farmers

Perhaps predictably, given that young people by definition hold a naturally long-term view, the published findings from the inquiry in August revealed an undivided commitment to addressing climate change challenges including adhering to emissions targets, as well as transitioning NZ’s production systems to ones based on regenerative agriculture.

In summary, the Youth Primary Production Select Committee recommended:

  • Ensuring primary producers have the resources to transition to meet the Climate Change Commission’s 2050 targets
  • Committing to greater sustainable production targets
  • Committing to emissions targets that reasonably achieve outcomes in light of the climate crisis
  • Developing a strategy to transition to regenerative agriculture and accelerate investment in this area
  • Promoting the importance of education for primary producers and consumers who are purchasing products produced within the primary sector.
  • The final recommendation, which made specific reference to consumers, was a theme throughout the published report. As much as the committee was concerned with the implications for producers from NZ transitioning to a sustainable model of production, it equally viewed the future through the eyes of consumers. In some ways, this reflected a more holistic vision than we’re accustomed to hearing from those longer-established industry participants.
  • Among the initiatives considered for improving the sustainability of farming was implementing a consumer-focused ‘sustainability rating system’. It considered the possibility of introducing MPI-administered sustainability rating stickers (similar to the Health Star Rating system) on consumer goods.
  • It was argued via submissions to the Inquiry that such a rating system would empower consumers to make positive environmental choices. The committee recognised the frustration consumers have in distinguishing between genuinely sustainable products, and those that have been ‘green washed’.
  • While it ultimately decided not to recommend such a system given the sense of administrative difficulty, the committee nonetheless saw merit in the concepts’ use in marketing NZ-produced food to consumers that justified its high value, over and above that produced less sustainably, elsewhere.

A similar ‘consumer lens’ was paid to the idea that a framework for regenerative agriculture should be pursued, with more investment given to its development. The group of youth MPs understood regenerative farming strategies are at early stages and more research is needed to support farms to adopt those proposed. It noted that education on the benefits will be critical to its uptake, and that it needs to be targeted at shifting consumer spending habits towards more sustainable products. It noted that “consumers play a leading role in the direction of the market”, and if producers are to take on sustainable methods they must be able to rely on a market sufficiently educated to appreciate those efforts.

Rural-urban divide and disinformation

Beyond the formal report, a number of youth MPs that presided over the inquiry subsequently briefed the parliamentary Primary Production Select Committee on its findings in September. Chairperson of the Youth Committee, Thomas Hayward (representing National MP David Bennett) summarised the recommendations, but also raised several other primary sector-related issues that were of significant concern to the group of youth MPs that were outside the terms of the inquiry.

One of those was the damaging effect on young people of the rural-urban divide. Thomas noted “whether we like it or not, there is a rural-urban divide, and youth, especially those in the farming sector are feeling the effects of that.”Young people were conscious of the negative side of farming being portrayed through the media, and that the implications were tied into the Inquiry.

“If you want a sustainable sector, you need a sustainable workforce. And if young people are not seeing farming as cool, or a good industry to go into, because it is being vilified in some cases, why would you want to go into that situation?”

Rebecca Hufflett (representing ACT MP Chris Baillie) broadened the concerns of a rural-urban divide to the spread of disinformation, and the challenge facedby young people to filter through various viewpoints that exacerbated the divide.

She told the committee she’d been alarmed at the number of urban youth she had heard say they would never eat fish again after watching the Netflix Seaspiracy documentary film which examined fishing practices carried out in other parts of the world, and not at all aligned with measures used in NZ such as the quota management system.

She reiterated the importance of young people having analytical skills that gave them the ability to think carefully about the information we receive and how legitimate it is. In response to a question from Taranaki-based Labour list MP Angela Roberts, Rebecca agreed scientific and statistical literacy taught in schools was critical to determining credible information.

Sector responsive, Government responsive?

Issues raised within and beyond the youth parliamentary inquiry are not unfamiliar to those within the primary sector who are closely connected with young people. NZ Young Farmers chief executive Lynda Coppersmith says the rural-urban divide and disinformation are key concerns for the organisation when it comes to advocating for the wellbeing of its members.

The myths that lead people to adopt negative associations with farming are detrimental to wellbeing. It’s not just limited to agriculture. Those involved in seafood are often accused of overfishing and forestry workers challenged over carbon farming. Ultimately it is detrimental to the prospects of young people wanting to follow their passions and taking up careers in the primary sector.

As was evident from those who spoke at the Select Committee, young people are passionate about what they do and believe in. Coppersmith says we can’t afford to destroy that passion because these are the people who are going to come up with the solutions to the challenges NZ’s primary industries are facing. There should be no surprise about the youth MPs’ focus on sustainability, she says.

“They want farming to be something that is around in 200 years, and are understandably passionate about how we make that happen.”

In terms of the Government, there is also alignment. With its Fit for a Better World primary sector roadmap stretching to 2030, it is by its nature focused on the longer term.

The youth parliamentarians were informed by the initial thinking done by MPI on regenerative agriculture, and the Government has been responsive to recognising the value in understanding how NZ can better communicate its sustainability credentials through a deeper understanding of how our production systems can be defined as regenerative.

Since the youth parliament inquiry took place Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor announced a $26.1 million programme to undertake a comprehensive study of pastoral farming, with the findings intended to enable farmers to make informed decisions on the financial and environmental benefits of adopting regenerative farming practices.

In terms of the concerns specific to young people, the Government also recently committed $1.6m over five years to support agricultural and horticultural science teachers in secondary schools, with the intention of further boosting the attractiveness of jobs in the sector. O’Connor noted that educated, enthusiastic people are our competitive advantage. The hope is that the number of schools teaching ag and hort science (currently 126) grows, especially in urban areas. While not specifically identified, it might also be hoped that even in a modest way, the presence of these subjects infiltrating the learning programmes in city schools contributes to an easing of the rural-urban divide.