Irrigation in New Zealand and yet more Propaganda

The following was submitted to regional papers in response to an opinion piece written by Andrew Curtis from Irrigation NZ in early September 2015.

Irrigation NZ’s Andrew Curtis’s comments (3rd Sept 2015) about land use and irrigation – as well as the disparaging comments about the ‘extremists’ who dare to suggest that industrial agriculture is not our best future – suggests that some minds are firmly made up.

Our rural communities deserve much better than what is being dished up by the proponents of intensive corporate-style irrigation schemes.

There is a whole library of books and a database of research on the history of degradation and the destructive effects of intensive and industrial farming systems on local ownership, farm size, local employment, our community and the local economy.  The corporates win.  Everything else loses.  But the proponents of the industrial commodity model will use words like community, reliability, value, resilience, jobs, GDP, drought, and anything else that will pluck the heart chords of struggling farming communities,

Central Plains Irrigation

.. with images that suggest something is as benign as using a watering can on some peonies.  Image and perception is everything.  Image is a thing to be ‘managed’, like facts.


The research and history reveal a deeper story that image management would rather be kept hidden.  The literature includes the history of the effects on our soils, water, functional ecosystems and civilisation itself going back to the Sumerians and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Even Plato wrote about it with his famous references to Greece’s lost Arcadia through certain land use practices. Are these the people Andrew Curtis describes as “extremists,” or part of the “the radical green lobby that are just anti-change”? Or perhaps we acknowledge the trends and are thinking about better solutions before our own vested interests.


Arcadia – a radical green agenda a caption

There are also shelves of books on the failure of the 1950s-style centralised irrigation systems that Andrew Curtis espouses. He must be aware of this fact, as he must be aware of the links to historic and current colonisation and international food commodity networks.

There are whole branches of research on Agri-Food Systems and the Political Ecology of continuing industrialisation where the big get bigger, privatise the commons, socialise the costs through pollution and the decay of villages and hamlets, and generally treat people and place as mere commodity measured by yield and dollars alone.

cotton picking exploitation

Andrew Curtis also knows that the appeal is for a higher value, more diversified rural landscape, the employment of more local people, owned by local people, and processed locally. And so he promises that future, with all the fanfare and exuberance of a good commission salesperson.

The real promise and potential of that high value future is no more than hollow cant when promoted by commodity-thinking industrialists. Theirs is not the way to get there. Theirs is the very opposite path – to degrading the local space for the benefit of the absentee. It is no more than the honeyed words of Euripides’ Orestes, dealing in false promises of the good life, ending in woe.

The unsettling of America

The claims of industrial agriculture advocates such as Irrigation NZ are so at odds with the international evidence.  With the industrial bigger-is-better approach, we get the famous ‘unsettling’ of the settler communities. Intensively managed industrial landscapes producing commodities end up with a focus on cost-cutting, not premium price.

That results in at least four things:

  • A focus on scale of both ownership and production (more homogeneity, not more diversity, witnessed with the latest NZ dairy boom);
  • A trend to centralise and corporatise ownership and processing out of the local area;
  • A reduction in social fabric, people employed as well as their working conditions (an extensive review of 51 studies on the social effects of industrial agriculture on rural communities can be found here); and
  • A continued long-run decline in real prices because commodities are always positioned in strong buyers’ markets, and consequently the buyers simply negotiated each small cost-efficiency away with a lower price offer.

Real Commodity

And then there is a fifth effect. Once profit margins are yet again inevitably cut to the bone, there are increasingly desperate calls for the right to ‘socialise the cost efficiencies’ by shifting the costs to either community or the future. We have done this repeatedly by either lobbying for the right to degrade the ‘common’ – the community’s rivers and landscapes within which we live and recreate – or by degrading their own land and substituting the loss of soil function with increasing applications of soluble fertiliser inputs … and calls for new irrigation schemes.

Industrial Irrigation

That is New Zealand’s land use history, with all the dinosaur colonial appeals to ‘feed the world’ cheap food as if our future heaven is some vast industrial landscape with the cost structure of Bangladesh. The proponents of the Ruataniwha dam are either knowingly or unknowingly proponents of a volume-over-value agricultural model that is badly failing.

Glover wrote about it in The Magpies.

The farm’s still there. Mortgage corporations
couldn’t give it away
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies say.

The previous NZ Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Morgan Williams highlighted the environmental effects, and the need for a redesign of our ‘working’ landscapes, and our thinking, back in 2004 with the Growing for Good report.

If the PCE and others are considered ‘extremists’ or ‘radical greenies’ for suggesting there has to be a rethink away from intensive commodity-producing land use, then so be it.

False promises

Andrew Curtis knows, or should know, about the difference between the false promises of intensive large-scale agriculture and the real outcomes to people and place. After all, the detrimental social, economy and environmental outcomes that are the result of thinking that ‘good’ farming practice is to grow ever cheaper and higher yields of undifferentiated stuff, is already upon us. It has been seriously harming our provinces and rural communities for some time. But still the industrialists show the aces in the pack that they say will be dealt out to the farmers and the rural communities, and because there is always optimism and hope for better, the promise of those aces is readily accepted by some.

False promises economy

Promising aces while holding a pack of deuces, is a time-honoured propaganda technique called ‘card stacking’. Mr Curtis and other proponents of the Ruataniwha Dam do this constantly – more GDP (for whom?), more jobs (what, where and for whom?), unsubstantiated promises of a ‘better’ river (really?), a vibrant community.

Snake oil

Mr Curtis knows there is debate out there, and dismissing it as ‘extremist’ is frankly arrogant … and rather extremist. Of course, he and many others have a personal stake in the industrial approach, as do the financiers as well as corporate and political backers of big irrigation schemes. Large schemes create a deal of interest, with ownership prospects to corporations, as well as media kudos, headlines and promotion to politicians and CEOs.

We deserve a lot better from those who claim to be speaking in our interests. We deserve, at least, a commitment to our rural homelands over the next corporate deal promoted with false promises; we deserve a lot more honesty, and we deserve less name-calling.

Chris Perley

Chris Perley is a Hawke’s Bay consultant with a background in land use practice, advisory services, strategy, policy making and research.

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2 Responses to Irrigation in New Zealand and yet more Propaganda

  1. David Haynes says:

    Nice one Chris – here’s a copy of a letter I wrote to the Rotorua Daily Post in response to same article…
    No one can accuse IrrigationNZ’s Andrew Curtis of lack of self interest. In his piece “Future depends on water control” he once again extols the benefits of mega-irrigation, the one he neglected to mention being that his pay packet is directly related to them. His tiresome plea for public subsidies can only indicate a poorly performing company with an unaffordable product – I don’t see Xero, Ryman Healthcare or any other profitable enterprise begging for taxpayer funded handouts.

    To suggest that mega-irrigation projects will bring “jobs and wealth to struggling regional economies” is to assume milk powder prices will be back at levels which underwrite the debt farmers need to take on to participate in such projects. Other than where his next fat pay cheque is coming from he must know something the rest of us in the rural community don’t.

    And as for DoC and its land swap deals, this is merely a reflection of how DoC has undergone its strategic shift away from an environmental advocate into a (parliamentary) house trained kitten.

    David Haynes
    New Zealand Federation of Freshwater Anglers

    • cjkperley says:

      Thanks David. Andrew Curtis’ propaganda piece was published in almost all the Herald papers. To date I’ve had no indication of my reply being published. If it was, let me know. Regards Chris

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