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Source: Environmental Protection Authority

So… I am the regulator, and you are the industry. Shall we call it how it is?

As an industry, you have issues with the ‘what’ and ‘how’ we regulate … 

You wish to have a balanced and science-based regulatory environment that gives members freedom to operate and grow in New Zealand. 

As a regulator, I must take more into account than just science and your ability to operate in this country. 

As an individual, I am also influenced by own values and by a developing view that balance is now not the issue…but one of giving the other guy, the environment, a chance. 

So, at least on the face of it, we would seem to hold somewhat conflicting and oppositional positions.

Nothing is ever as simple though as ‘black and white’; we live in a world of trade-offs and uncertainty. 

So, the words: Ko te kai a te Rangatira he kōrero (The food of chiefs is dialogue) seems to fit our place here today.

I am here today to further our dialogue.  I have two objectives: 

  • The first is to build a bridge through understanding. I believe, I hope, we have more in common than not. 
  • The second is to signal a change in our stance and perspective.  I fully appreciate this may not be welcome news, but I believe it is important to be upfront. 

So, let me start with the first. 

Building understanding 

The theme of your conference is “working together for a sustainable future”. 

And, I wish to acknowledge this aspiration and your intentions.

It’s a theme we support, both in the how and the what.

I know that you understand the future of your business will depend on the health of the environment, and the people of New Zealand giving you the social licence to operate. 

Much of your material and information talks of a sustainable future, environmental stewardship, and a better world. 

At the EPA, we know from our ongoing engagement with you that you have identified the need to invest in greener chemistry. That’s great.

And it is great to see a commitment to recycling containers, disposal of unused product, and putting pollinator safety front-of-mind. 

We also know that many of Agcarm’s member organisations have made individual commitments to sustainability. 

This is good leadership, and we applaud it. 

We can see that you are aware of the voice of an environmentally conscious market, that needs your attention to the environment, and perhaps in the way you operate. 

Under the ‘Fit for a Better World’ framework, the wider food and fibre sector is collaborating to provide an export-driven COVID-19 recovery.  

This, of course, is something the EPA is keen to see succeed. 

We are keen to work with you, and with our colleagues in government to support this strategy. 

So, it is only fair and right to acknowledge these efforts, and your work. It’s all good stuff.

You do occupy a pivotal position – the products you provide to New Zealand’s agricultural industry have the potential to significantly increase the productivity of our land, providing food and fibre to a growing global population.

Nonetheless, you also have another obligation and that’s to your owners, one that I know only too well from my previous corporate career. 

That obligation is to create value for shareholders.

In less enlightened times, some would have argued that was your only obligation. 

And, in less enlightened times, profit and protection have not mixed too well. 

I was part of those times.  

I made a lot of money by selling your products to farmers when I was leading Wrightson, and it is true, that there were times when I gave little thought to the environmental costs, especially when facing a performance announcement to the NZX and our shareholders. 

But there were also many times, on farm, that I thought we could not continue operating this way, that is, if the industry were to survive and thrive. 

Change in agriculture is hard – I spent many years attempting to reform the strong wool industry and like those before me, and those after me, I failed miserably. 

Strong wool was an undervalued commodity; up against synthetics and hard floors. 

Consumer preferences were driving change, and today, that’s combined with an inter-generational change, reflecting quite different values. 

The youth of today, my daughter included, is not impressed by the apparent trite arguments of those who are older and ‘know better’, and they are tired of not being listened to.  

As Rebecca Solnit, the Guardian columnist notes, nothing is more destructive to a person or to a community than silencing them. 

And today, those communities are refusing to be silenced – school students on climate change marches. Iwi on environmental issues. And more recently, cyclists claiming a lane on the Auckland Harbour Bridge.  

It would be easy to dismiss these actions as simply ‘noise’.   

But underneath them, I believe there are fundamental value shifts, with consumers using the power of their choice, and their money, to speak for what they believe in.  

They are buying food in compostable packaging…combing the vintage stores rather than shopping in high-street fashion shops … and shelling-out a little extra for choices they perceive to be ecologically friendly. 

In my time at the EPA, I have seen the intensity and nature of ‘environmental activism’ increase dramatically. 

I see little likelihood this activity will lessen. 

In your sector, we have been witnessing a growing resistance to your products and their associated activities. 

It waxes and wanes, but the trend is clear. 

We believe, as a regulator and a servant of the public, that we must listen…be seen to be listening…and then be seen to act, where we believe it is warranted. 

It is important to remind us all, that, at the EPA, we do not set the rules – we can set some, but they must be consistent with our statutes and legislation. 

So, in reality, the EPA is not really your audience. 

The gentleman who spoke before me is. 

Whatever you wish to call it, ‘social licence’ is determined by the people and their communities. 

Take glyphosate. 

If the government of the day thinks it is bad and wish to ban it, they could. 

Such a decision would be tested in the glare of the media and eventually the polls, but our role would be to uphold the law. 

What I wish to talk about now is the EPA’s discretion, within the rules, that have been set. 

A change of perspective

A colleague of mine, in describing his comfortable lockdown experience in the face of such global tragedy and misery, said it was a bit like saying ‘you had a good war’. 

For me, with the security of a salary, no small children, no elderly and isolated parents, or family stranded overseas, lockdown in-between the many zoom meetings and emails, was a time of reflection and pause. 

In my daily bike rides or walks through the parks, city, or around the bays, I loved the silence, the appearance of native birds ‘freed’ from Zealandia, and the sound of the sea and gulls. 

For the environment, it was as if the world had pushed pause, and at the same time, it held the mute button on human activity. 

The apparent phenomena of ‘nature regaining ground’, ignited in me a sense of loss and awareness of our challenge, some may say plight. I don’t, not yet. 

I decided, then, that I had not been doing my job. 

I committed to leading the EPA to work to protect the environment… to not trying to find compromises, and then excuses for decisions that did not achieve our mandate.

I decided that the EPA had not given enough voice to the environment, and to people with deep passions and interests in their place – it was as if we had them on low volume, or sometimes even on mute. 

I also concluded, much to my surprise, that after a 30-year corporate career, that I no longer felt comfortable with the neo-liberal ideology. 

Its self-interest driving collective good argument, did not seem to work for environmental or social issues.  

There are smarter and more persuasive people than me, who have suggested that there is a need for a new model of human activity, and of enterprise. 

One that can find a better type of relationship with nature. 

One that perhaps, as the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, has suggested “…would make peace with nature”. 

You are welcome to accuse me of acting like a reformed smoker. 

But, I would ask you to hear me out, and consider my invitation to be part of the dialogue, and the way forward. 

In doing so, we do not have to agree on everything, we won’t, but if we can resolve to continue working constructively together, that would be a wonderful outcome. 

So, are there some starting points we can agree on? 

For example, can we agree that humankind has not been the best for the global environment? 

By our nature, especially in Western civilisations, we are an exploitative species and some of our societal value systems have expounded our right to exploit the ‘treasure trove’ before us. 

With some alarm, I noted that last week we are now thinking, in the same manner, about space. 

António Guterres, observed, “… the planet is broken” and “… there is no vaccine.” 

Finding balance in such a context is difficult for an environmental regulator. 

Recently, we have been told by the Court of Appeal that such an approach is not acceptable. 

In terms of our oceans, the Judges have said that the protection of the marine environment cannot be compromised for the sake of economic benefit. 

They have also said that more weight must be given to the views and customs of Māori and to the Treaty. 

We are awaiting a final view on this judgement from the Supreme Court. 

It will be an important decision, with ramifications, well beyond the oceans.  

Can we also agree, that for New Zealand, most of the substantive activities that create economic value are grounded in the environment? 

We rely on primary production, we have resources valued by global extractive industries, and we have built a tourism industry based on our natural context.   

That was until COVID.

But COVID did not change the need for us to have food and clothing, and to aspire to continue enjoying our way of life in the future. 

We need agriculture and its products.  That’s a given. 

And agriculture needs a healthy environment.  That’s a given.  

So, can we put aside the arguments of the extremes and make these two things work together? 

Surely, if there was anywhere that such a model could develop, it should be in New Zealand, the home to some of the most innovative agricultural practices in the world. 

For us, it means embracing the ‘longer term’, where our decisions are most ‘felt’. 

In doing so, the EPA is now building a 3, 30, 300-year strategy, and we are basing this direction on a greater reliance on the precautionary approach. 

This will mean that when there is uncertainty over effects on the environment or people’s health, then we are more likely to say no, or impose controls that ensure they protect people and the environment.

As part of this strategy, we have committed to considering the rights and views of our stakeholders, but especially Māori. 

We have developed and are now embedding our Mātauranga Māori Framework, to make sure te ao Māori perspectives are included and valued, in our decision-making. 

In our view, iwi, and community voices haven’t always been heard  – we want to make sure they are being heard at full volume, and with no distortion, along with industry and other stakeholders. 

In terms of mātauranga, this evidence will be weighed in the same way as other evidence in a hearing or submission.

Again, the Courts have recently said it is not up to decision-makers to decide on the rights and wrongs of cultural evidence. 

We believe they must skill themselves, to be able to test and examine such evidence. 

We have been told, by Government, to step-up our compliance activities. 

We are investing more in our compliance, monitoring and enforcement resources, and in Warranted Officers. 

We have faced two major clean-ups of industrial chemical disasters, and suspect there will be more… 

… and we would suggest that your industry, as a whole, could help us develop a ‘process or code’ to deal with the dumping or misuse of your products. 

We would like to work together, within this new context or outlook, so it is truly a shared goal. 

That’s both at the macro, but also at the micro or practical level. 

So, three suggestions related to the practical: 

The first, invest more in providing rigorous and fully-examined evidence, in your applications and arguments, that will not only stand the scrutiny of decision-makers, but also the ‘activists’. 

Do not rely on us to find the answers or complete your applications, as we do not have the resources. 

Use the pre-application phase wisely, as, again, we only have so much time and resources that we can provide. 

The second, support us, join with us, in eliminating the really bad stuff and finding alternatives with commitment. 

Please do not pin your hopes on extensions to phase-out dates, or relaxed controls. 

And the third, please make an investment in further community consultation and engagement, especially with Māori.

Study their mātauranga, and check that your applications address the cultural and observational evidence, they may provide. 

We are committed to understanding all stakeholder perspectives, and under our new General Manager Engagement, Paula Knaap, we are building a refreshed engagement strategy and operation.   

We hope soon to have a dedicated senior resource to work with you, as an industry, to understand and represent your perspectives within the EPA. 

This will complement our work with iwi and communities. 

Conclusion: It does not have to be perfect; beauty can be in the now 

You may mistake my address as some plea for a return to a pristine and pre-man environment.

But, let me conclude by making it clear, that I am not talking about turning the clock back. 

In fact, some indigenous knowledge suggests that people are beneficial and necessary for ecosystems, and can co-exist with nature in a good way. 

So, here we are; we are where we are. 

And, I see the approach we are advocating as more akin to the ancient Japanese art of Kintsugi. 

The repair of broken pottery to its original form, not state – with a lacquer, dusted with gold, silver, or platinum.

So, the repair in itself, becomes part of the artistic merit of the object. 

There are several schools of thought as to the underlying philosophy of this art. 

One relates to the idea of seeing beauty in imperfection and embracing the flawed or imperfect. 

Another to non-attachment and the acceptance of change. 

Whatever the context, this is where I would position our new stance about environmental protection, and the preservation of what we have now.

I know we all hope and aspire to restoring ecosystems, cleaning-up our rivers, and reducing the load on the environment.

But it may not always be possible, so I am suggesting that we are trying to restore the pottery piece, not remake it, and that we will do so in a way that it will have the beauty of today.

Our decisions at the EPA last for centuries, and most will be impossible to undo or reverse.

It’s a responsibility that weighs on all the decision-makers in our place.

So, we use the term, ‘we make history’, seriously.

And it is precisely because ‘we make history’, that we think a 300-year strategy makes sense. 

To make 300 years have human scale that means something to us, and our lifespans and work, we are thinking in blocks of 30 and three years.

Our friends at Zealandia, the ecological sanctuary here in Wellington, have a 500-year strategic plan, which is relevant to what they want to achieve.

We think 300 years is plenty of time for the EPA to think about its leadership role.

For us, it is not about leaving the job, with the environment in no worse a condition than it was when we started.

It is about using pure gold, to piece the bits back together, while ensuring the form stays functional, but not perfect.

And as Eleanor Roosevelt observed “For your own success to be real, it must contribute to the success of others”.

Through working together, I hope our kōrero will lead us to finding a kintsugi solution for your industry, our responsibility, and the environment in the next three years, 30 years, and 300 years.

MIL OSI