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Nutrient discharge from farming is a major factor in freshwater quality (File photo, Radio NZ)
Nutrient discharge from farming is a major factor in freshwater quality (File photo, Radio NZ)

The BulletinAugust 12, 2021

The Bulletin: Review finds farm environment software borked

Nutrient discharge from farming is a major factor in freshwater quality (File photo, Radio NZ)
Nutrient discharge from farming is a major factor in freshwater quality (File photo, Radio NZ)

Good morning and welcome to The Bulletin. In today’s edition: Review finds farm environment software borked, Hipkins warns of level four if delta gets loose, and four key reads on the Monday blackouts.

In what is a really massive story for the rural world, the Overseer software tool has been given a scathing review in a long-delayed report. If you don’t know what Overseer is, it’s basically the system on which farm environmental management is meant to run, telling farmers what the outputs (pollution) will be depending on what inputs (fertiliser) they put in. This means having it working properly is crucial to issues like freshwater quality and general environmental health. But as Radio NZ reporter Farah Hancock put it in a beautifully worded tweet, it is the “Novopay of Agriculture”, referencing the education system software that was similarly borked.

The review found “overarching structural problems”, reports Stuff’s Eloise Gibson and Jono Galuszka. There was no confidence it was measuring nitrogen loss properly, despite it being used by councils for this very purpose. Parliamentary commissioner for the environment Simon Upton said “it can no longer be a central pillar of freshwater quality management.” These are damning conclusions, but they’re not exactly new concerns – here’s a story from 2015 about farmers protesting at the Otago Regional Council how Overseer was used.

To reiterate, Overseer is used as a regulatory tool, and it is astonishing to think that the data provided by it isn’t reliable for that. Overseer is owned by fertiliser companies and had millions in taxpayer funding, and in response chief executive Caroline Read said it had been measured on things it was never designed to do, particularly with real-time information. This Farmers Weekly article goes into the more technical detail of what it does. Overseer remains confident their tool can provide useful long-term information.

The government has committed to improving the system, which has been welcomed by Local Government NZ. In a release, LGNZ regional sector chair Doug Leeder said “our close and continuing relationship with rural communities relies heavily on shared trust in the models we use for regulation.” Radio NZ reports ministers David Parker and Damien O’Connor say “the Government will seek to ensure improved tools for estimating nutrient loss are transparent, accurate and effective.”

Covid minister Chris Hipkins has warned that a return to alert level four could be necessary if there’s a delta outbreak in NZ, our live updates reports. Hipkins warned people to be prepared for that move to take place very suddenly. The comments come ahead of a forum today on reopening the borders, which in the wake of yesterday’s Skegg report seems like a long way away. Writing on The Spinoff, Dr Siouxsie Wiles has looked at what needs to happen before opening up.

The blackouts on Monday night have sparked a flurry of interesting pieces about the electricity market. Radio NZ’s Jordan Bond has picked up on a point about Genesis not going ahead with building a massive new wind farm, despite getting resource consent for it almost a decade ago. Stuff’s Tom Pullar-Strecker reports emissions from the electricity sector rose over the last year, in a wider piece about New Zealand’s emissions profile. And writing for The Spinoff, Clint Smith has resurfaced an idea Labour and the Greens pushed in opposition called NZ Power (should’ve been KiwiVolt) to radically reform the generation/retail market. Meanwhile, the NZ Herald’s Thomas Coughlan reports the government has walked back some of their language around so-called “commercial decisions” made by Genesis.

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The deputy mayor of Invercargill has called for a no-confidence vote in mayor Sir Tim Shadbolt, reports Logan Savory for Stuff. The tipping point for deputy Nobby Clark came at a council meeting earlier in the week, in which he said Sir Tim was not capable of handling. The story contains a video of said meeting, which Clark said speaks for itself. In response, the mayor said the move reflected the “determined workplace bullying” that he was facing.

There is increasing evidence that the overheated housing market is finally starting to cool a bit. Interest has covered the latest QV figures, which show house prices are still going up, but much slower than the extreme inflation seen over the past year. It is likely if interest rates go up later this month that trend will continue, though much will still depend on the basics of supply and demand.

There have been bits of news over the last week about the health and safety conditions in Talley’s factories being brought to light. Thomas Mead for 1News has now published the story behind the story, and the company’s attempts to prevent whistleblowers from coming forward. That included legal threats from the commercial giant, which the broadcaster admirably ignored, and published the story anyway.

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Metaverse uber-fan Mark Zuckerberg

Right now on The Spinoff: George Driver investigates the difference in food staple prices between NZ and the rest of the world. Catherine Woulfe reports on the winners of the 2021 Children’s Book Awards. Justin Latif reports on a new documentary about Aigagalefili Fepulea’i Tapua’i, who emerged as a leading voice of youth and South Auckland during 2020. Hal Crawford writes about the latest phenomenon in tech evangelism – the ‘metaverse’. Tara Ward gets absolutely baffled by the new TV show Give Us A Clue. Sam Brooks wades into the latest round of stupid parliamentary bollocks so you don’t have to. And musician Theia (who is also our office te reo Māori teacher and very cool) is the latest guest to be interviewed on First.

For a feature today, a bit of feedback on an issue that has been building for months. New Zealanders overseas are still New Zealanders, but their voices often aren’t being heard in discussions around MIQ and the border. Alexandra in England sent an email in after yesterday’s Skegg report came out, and I think it makes important points. Here’s an excerpt from the message:

For New Zealanders living overseas, opening borders (or reducing MIQ time for double vaccinated travellers or allowing at-home quarantine) means citizens, like me, can come home. It means families can be reunited. It doesn’t just or only mean tourists can enter the country. The stress of not knowing when I can see my new niece or hug my grandma is horrible and the anxiety of being unable to come home while grappling with the torrent of speculation about NZ being closed for 5 years or yet another tragic MIQ story, is horrible.

 I don’t begrudge NZ maintaining an elimination strategy or keeping some kind of border control, but I do begrudge the government ignoring its own citizens. Whether it’s the appalling complacency about problems with the MIQ booking system or the frankly galling suggestions from David Skegg’s group that the first change to the border could be to fill up previous MIQ space by vaccinated business travellers leaving NZ, the government’s approach is far beyond inequitable and needs critique.

In sport, arguably the most iconic player-club connection in football history has been broken. Lionel Messi has formally left FC Barcelona, the team who plucked him out of obscurity as a child, and who he returned the favour to by delivering countless trophies. He offered to take a huge pay cut, but Barcelona has been managed so badly that they still wouldn’t have been able to afford to have Messi play for free. ESPN reports he will now play for PSG in France, a team bankrolled by the oil-rich state of Qatar who are now surely favourites to win the next Champions League.

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