Cows right up against an unfenced section of the Ongarue River, in the Ruapehu District (Photo: Alex Braae)

Why don’t New Zealand farmers want to look after their golden goose?

If we want to assure our export markets and tourists that we are actually a clean sustainable country, we actually have to prove it, writes freshwater ecologist Russell Death.

According to some in the agricultural industry, the sky will fall on New Zealand agriculture if the government’s new freshwater policy becomes law. Consumers will no longer have an abundant supply of fresh vegetables and agriculture will cease to exist in parts of New Zealand. There seems to be no mention of the increased health risks both for ourselves and for the farmer’s animals because many nasty pathogens are more abundant in low water quality. My teams research on some of these waterborne pathogens show strong links between the number of ruminants in the catchment of a waterbody and the prevalence of Cryptosporidium and Giardia; while the prevalence of these and other gastrointestinal illnesses seem to be on the rise in New Zealand.

Everyone seems to agree we need immediate action to improve the state of New Zealand’s waterways – just not this! Those in the agriculture and horticulture industry seem set on their current self-regulation strategies, which don’t really seem to be working. Reports annually continue to highlight the poor state of the majority of NZ rivers and streams. Moreover, if they are working, there should not be any concern about having scientifically supported measurable targets for those activities. We all know speed kills on the road, but somehow still seem to need well signposted speed warnings to target exactly how fast we drive on different roads. How do you protect waterway health unless you know what levels are healthy?

If we reject the NPSFM (National Policy Statement Freshwater Management) and stick with self-regulation, I would love to hear an exporter trying to do a deal with a prospective supermarket client. “Yes we have very strong environmental regulations. Ah, yeah not as strong as China. But trust us a couple of farmers in Whaewepapa said they are doing a great job”.

I was always led to believe our economic advantage in the agricultural commodity market was our clean green environment. Not to mention the tourism industry that now surpasses the dairy industry in export earnings. “Come swim in our rivers and lakes, they are better than Chernobyl” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as “100% pure”. If we want to assure our export markets and tourists that we are actually a clean sustainable country, we actually have to prove it. The proposed NPS would go some way towards that, bringing in environmental limits for a range of ecosystem measures very similar to what most developed countries have had for years.

One of the real sticking points seems to be nutrient limits. Nutrients are one of the critical stressors of river ecosystems that have been illogically absent from previous versions of the NPS-FM. Most countries, including China, have nutrient limits for rivers because they are one of the fundamental levers for managing healthy rivers. Just as many of us manage nutrients to keep your garden ecosystem healthy.

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The new draft NPS FM will provide for the first time scientifically robust limits for nutrients to protect river ecosystem health. There seems particularly concern that a limit of 1 mg/l (rather than the current 6.5 mg/l) for nitrogen in our most degraded rivers and streams is not financially viable for current agricultural practice. I was somewhat bemused at the meeting in Palmerston North to discuss the proposed policy, where farmers were outraged at this dramatic change, when the regions One Plan already had limits of 0.44 mg/l. In fact, only 20% of current dairy land and 10% of sheep and beef land will have waterways likely to be affected by the lower bottom line.

There are some obvious issues in the proposed plan that I do think farmers have reason to feel aggrieved about. Insisting on a riparian setback of 5 m, when many have already fenced off their waterways seems a bit of overkill. Most of the benefit (~80%) to water quality protection comes in the first metre. Although these setbacks must retain the filtering riparian vegetation and thus remain unsprayed.

Sheep and beef farmers, who have had very little impact on water quality, should also feel particularly aggrieved. They are being restricted to extremely low nutrient leaching levels limiting their future options, while dairy farmers, who are the main culprits of current low water quality, retain their future flexibility being “constrained” to their very high leaching. So I can understand their concern. I just hope they don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and appreciate that while there are some issues with the proposals putting in place some real environmental limits to protect our rivers and streams is in their long term benefit. We need their submissions to reflect this.

Russell Death is professor of freshwater ecology, School of Agriculture and Environment, Massey University


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