Bursting The Bubble of The Clean Green Myth

Bursting The Bubble of The Clean Green Myth

As a Canadian exchange student, I have the impression that pride in New Zealand’s farming history is ingrained in every Kiwi outside of Auckland. But what exactly do you Southerners have to be proud of? Is New Zealand’s clean green agricultural image real, or just a marketing façade to separate you from the mass-produced meat of North America?

To try and figure out what Kiwis really thought about their own agricultural produce, I stopped people on the street - like an evangelising Christian - to ask,

“Why do you buy Made in NZ?”

The respondents fell into two groups: those Kiwis who thought of NZ made as ANZAC biscuits, Pavlova, bangers n’ mash, and Tim Tams; and the morally motivated vegetarians and regular Saturday market-goers.

If you’re in the first group, you buy food sporting the “Made in NZ” label (when it’s conveniently priced), and it makes you feel like you’re giving a fist bump to your gumboot-clad countrymen. You feed on what you think is good Kiwi kai: lamb, Rob Roy ice cream, and Speights. You have a gut feeling that food from America and China “isn’t good”, and associate imported food with lower quality, poorly-treated animals, chemicals, or other non-specific, unsubstantiated ideas. Oh, and you think vegetarians and vegans are pasty-faced animal lovers. Or, as one bloke told me: “Vegetarians are like Muslims. But vegans are like the Taliban! It’s just unpatriotic. You live in a country whose primary industry is agriculture.”

Personally, I have always fit into the second category — the holier-than-thou dutiful market goer/vegetarian/person who tells anyone who’ll listen that they “only buy cage-free organic at Countdown”. But this group can’t automatically claim the moral high ground.

I have been a vegetarian most of my life, and as a Category Two, I used to think I was Buddhist monk-level holy. But since my arrival in the land of 30 million sheep, I have worked on a few farms, and my mind has been blown by what really happens in your “green” agricultural industry. I no longer identify as a vegetarian. I now realise that we blindly buy into a completely false image of green agriculture.

Farm Life

This is the true story of my first day working at an “animal welfare-approved” farm. I was out for a long bike ride when I came across a sign on the side of the road:

FARM EGGS, $4/doz

Like any good Category Two would, I thought, “Great! Fresh food, from a local farm! Family-run! Hens and pigs are probably out back in a big field! And $4 for free range! This is the type of food production that I want to support!”

I rode up the driveway and knocked on the door. Paul (names changed so I don’t get lynched) met me. He seemed like a stereotypical Kiwi farmer – rugby jersey, gumboots, strange accent. I explained to him that I was a biology student looking for some work before my classes started up at uni. He brusquely told me to come back on Tuesday at 7am. “Tuesday’s pig shipment day.”

On Tuesday morning I arrived, already sweaty from a long bike ride up the hill to the farm. We got right to work, and immediately my preconceptions about NZ farming were destroyed. We started in the farrowing barn, stooping as made our way through narrow, cold, cement passageways. As we passed cement rooms filled with screaming pigs, I started to wish I had brought earplugs.

Looking down into the first farrowing crate, I was excited to see seven tiny, unbearably cute piglets lying next to their immobile mother. One piebald baby with its umbilical cord still intact was lying on its side. Purple intestines protruded out from a wound in its belly. My fellow farm labourer, Benjamin, explained the mother had bitten the piglet in the stress of her first farrowing. “What do we do with it?” I asked, thinking that maybe we would call a vet. WHACK! Benjamin casually smashed its head against the cold wall and dropped it onto the floor, where it started to twitch in a spreading pool of blood. My illusions about the beauty of Kiwi farming were as soundly smashed as the poor piglet’s skull.

I worked on another pig farm located on the top of a hill, where they used all the shit from the indoor pig farm to fertilise the sheep pastures, which is a good use of resources if it’s done properly. Each day we rode our ATVs down the dodgy hillside to move the gravity fed sprinkler system, which sprayed shit like a fire hose from the barn’s septic tanks above. However, there were streams running through the pastures, which led to a beautiful estuary, a yellow-eyed penguin colony, and finally ran out through a public beach and into the ocean. Shit. Literally.

I worked on yet another pig farm a few weeks after this. The pigs at this farm were living the Kiwi high life. Marauding packs of piglets caused havoc in the kitchen vegetable patch because they had free run of the whole section. This farmer raised animals with empathy, knowledge, and a respect for the local community. Canadians think of Kiwis as tough, capable, honest folk, who at 12 years old spend nights out by themselves during lambing season armed only with a flashlight, thread, and needle, tirelessly suturing torn vaginas. This is the Kiwi heritage you should be proud of. And these are the entrepreneurial small farmers we need to support. As the quote goes, “You should choose your farmer with as much care as your doctor, lawyer, or pastor.”

The Canadian Kiwi Dream

Canadians see New Zealand as a rugged, pristine country. My preconceptions were not disappointed when I first arrived. Where I’m from, you can’t walk down to the beach and collect paua, cockles, and muscles for dinner, because the ocean is too polluted. I’m amazed that here I can bike out to the Peninsula to collect my legal limit of 50 cockles per day.

If the food is cheap and it’s got a NZ label, or we get it from a friendly farmer at the market, most of us don’t ask any questions. But just because we’re poor students doesn’t mean we can justify eating shit, unethical food. Bizarrely, in both New Zealand and Canada intensively farmed meat and veggies are the norm, and organic and free-range food is marketed as something fancy for the elite. Paul, the pig farmer, justified his production methods as “providing cheap meat so people can afford it”. Cheap meat is a false economy. How many Kiwis are sick from kwashiorkor, a disease characterised by the distended belly of protein deficient children in Africa? No, kiwis are dying of gastrointestinal cancers and being too fat, one of the causes of which is eating too much meat and not enough veggies. FYI, New Zealand is the seventh fattest nation in the world.

So, spend a little more on a little less food that you are proud to eat. Don’t feel guilty buying organic, and don’t feel obnoxious asking questions. Coming to New Zealand, the biggest culture shock for me was how straight up Kiwis are.
“Did you score last night?” wouldn’t be an uncommon question from someone I had just met. But you pussy-foot around when it comes to finding out about the food you’re about to buy. “So... where ya from?” It sounds like a feeble pick up line, but it’s the most common question vendors get asked at the market, and usually that’s where the questioning ends. Yet when it comes to non-food related activities, when it comes to allowing someone else’s foreign object to enter our body most of us are pretty picky (freshers excluded). So next time you’re at the farmers’ market, be a little more Kiwi! “Do you keep your hens in cages?” “Do you dock your pigs tails?” “Have you ever been fined for environmental pollution?” Ask the tough questions.

Have you heard of the Paradox of Choice Experiment? It’s a theory that the more choices we have, the less satisfied we are with what we end up choosing – think sexual partners, clothes, food (ever notice how delicious food tastes on a tramping trip when you have nothing else to eat?)… Make it easier on yourself and make buying good food a priority, even though you’ll have less money to spend on plastic novelty streamers for your next couch burning.

I was drawn to New Zealand for its world-renowned biodiversity. However the reality is that 80% of New Zealand is farmed, planted, or built on. I realise now that conservation doesn’t happen “out there” in DOC parks. It starts in pastures, plantations, and piggeries. So treat yourself to some expensive meat, less often, and cut back on the cheap crap. You’ll be healthier, and you’ll be voting for the vision of New Zealand that Canada and the rest of the world idealise.

This article first appeared in Issue 21, 2012.
Posted 4:26pm Sunday 19th August 2012 by Jordan Maynard.