First published in NZ Herald, 19 December 2008.
Meadow Mushrooms' decision to shut its Waikato growing operation, with more than 160 jobs lost, could not have come at a worse time for staff and the Morrinsville community – but it may also signal what's to come for more in the rural sector.
The Meadow Mushrooms closure is not an isolated response to residents' complaints and the general economic downturn, it is symptomatic of a wider threat facing the New Zealand rural sector. Our rural industries are under fire from urban development and lifestyler pressure – and the Government's announcement of a Resource Management Act Technical Advisory Group to review and recommend changes to the RMA may provide little protection in the future.
It does however offer an opportunity for the terms of reference of this review panel to include meaningful way to ensure the sustainability of our rural industries.
Rural industries, by their nature, involve effects which cannot be contained within property boundaries – odours – as was the case at Meadow Mushrooms - noise from tractors and other farming equipment, spray drift, and bird-scaring devices. This, however, is the very reason why these activities take place in the rural environment and not adjoining residential development.
But our traditional rural environment is being challenged by lifestyle development in rural areas, resulting in residents with unrealistic and often idyllic expectations of the rural environment. This conflict between existing rural activities and residents led to the set of circumstances forcing Meadow Mushrooms to close its doors and has also arisen in numerous other cases between residents and farmers, winemakers and other rural industries around the country.
The Environment Court's 2007 decision to only grant consent to Meadow Mushrooms to continue and expand its existing mushroom compost production site if odour was "captured" on site illustrates the restrictive conditions placed on rural activities in the name of protecting residents' enjoyment of the countryside. Meadow Mushroom's parent company, New Zealand Mushrooms, has spent more than $2 million since 1995 to reduce environmental effects at the plant, and has now found it is not economically viable in the current market to spend another $2 million to meet the Environment Court's conditions.
What the current planning process fails to take into account is the rural sector's position as the backbone of New Zealand's economy; providing employment to thousands of people, as well as playing a key factor in sustaining rural communities. While the negative effects of rural activities, such as odour, on adjoining residents must be considered as part of the resource consent process, this should not be at the expense of the wider community's wellbeing.
The decision, which led to the closure of the operation, also highlights the Resource Management Act's failure to protect rural activities. While the Act does provide for consideration of economic and community wellbeing, these concerns are generally of secondary importance in assessing the effects of an activity – resulting in the rejection of applications, or, in the case of Meadow Mushrooms, the imposition of conditions which make continuing operations unviable.
It is time for a new approach to productive activities in the rural environment. In this tough economic climate, the Government needs to support primary industries and work with them, and rural communities, to develop constructive solutions to problems such as odour and noise. In the meantime, greater tolerance in the short to medium term of these effects by residents is necessary for the sake of the rural economy.
The importance of sustaining the rural economy must be included in the terms of reference for the newly formed RMA Technical Advisory Group, before other successful rural industries are forced to close their doors as a result of the escalating cost of managing effects. Perhaps a research and development tax credit would assist in encouraging investigation into new mitigation measures?