Environment Minister is given proposal for tougher water quality standards

Environment Minister David Parker will consider tougher water quality standards which have been proposed to replace the standards National introduced last year, Radio NZ reported today.

The previous government was widely criticised for introducing standards for swimming which did not actually measure the health of lakes and rivers.

Mr Parker has been presented with the proposed National Policy Statement for freshwater management which was written by Fish and Game with input from Forest and Bird, the Environmental Defence Society and Greenpeace.

A key difference between the two sets of standards is that the proposed Freshwater National Policy Statement would account for the health of ecosystems, setting a bottom line which enables people to swim and collect food from rivers and lakes without getting sick.

Research from freshwater scientist Mike Joy was used for the proposal, which he said sets standards requiring measurements of more components of the water to give a much broader picture of what is happening in a catchment.

“What we had before was a National Policy Statement that talked all about ecosystem health, but then had no measures of ecosystem health and no requirement for meeting levels of ecosystem health,” he said.

The previous standards were introduced by former Environment Minister Nick Smith, who dismissed criticism of them as “junk science”.

But Dr Joy told Radio NZ those standards could not even achieve their own stated aims, and if the proposed measures were put in place there would be action on improving water quality.

Mr Parker declined to be interviewed on the matter, saying he had received various views on national water standards and would consider them.

But he said a report from the Land and Water Forum last week proved consensus could not be reached on different measures of water quality and the mandate now passed back to central government to tackle.

Source: Radio New Zealand



Ministers’ Letter of Expectations to the EPA for 2018/19

Environment Minister David Parker and Associate Environment Minister Eugenie Sage have sent the Environmental Protection Authority a formal ‘Letter of Expectations for the 2018/19 Financial Year’

This letter outlines their high-level priorities and operational expectations of the EPA over the year. These expectations will aid the EPA’s Board in its strategic planning.

For more detailed information please read the Letter of Expectations (pdf 1.83MB)

Source: Environmental Protection Authority


Good farming practice plan a step forward for water quality

A plan to help farmers and growers reduce their impact on fresh water, through good farming practices, was launched today.

The Good Farming Practice: Action Plan for Water Quality commits to supporting all farmers and growers to implement good practice principles that will reduce their impact on our freshwater.

The Action Plan, jointly developed by primary sector groups, Regional Councils and the Ministries of Environment and Primary Industries, is a positive step by the primary sector towards improving the health of New Zealand’s waterways, Environment Minister David Parker said.

“This initiative sets out practical measures farmers and growers can take, and also commits them to monitoring and reporting on progress,” Mr Parker said.

“It is intended to ensure that all farmers adopt the good practices needed to protect our rivers.”

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor said the Good Farming Practice principles in the Action Plan “are not a stretch for many farmers and growers”.

“The difference is that this plan intends to reach those who are not yet using these good farming practices, for whatever reason.

“The aim is that all farmers and growers develop and implement a farm environment plan that identifies the risk areas for water quality on their property and sets out the actions needed to address those risks,” Damien O’Connor said.

Mr Parker said some Regional Councils already required some farmers to have farm environment plans.

“This Action Plan is expected to accelerate the uptake of good farming practices across all catchments, ahead of any regulation. I look forward to regular reports on progress.”

The Action Plan Governance Group responsible for the plan includes representatives of Beef+Lamb NZ, Dairy NZ, Federated Farmers, Horticulture New Zealand, Irrigation New Zealand, Regional Councils and the Ministries for the Environment and Primary Industries.

Source: Ministers of Environment and Agriculture

Science boost for Overseer farm management tool

The Coalition Government and the primary sector will work together to boost the science behind the valuable Overseer farm management tool, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor and Environment Minister David Parker announced in a Budget press statement.

Overseer is a tool used by a range of primary industries and regional councils to help measure nutrient use and greenhouse gas emissions.

“Well-used, it can assist farmers to minimise waste and maximise profits,” says Mr O’Connor.

The Budget includes an investment of $5 million of operating funding over the next four years to enhance it.

The extra funding for Overseer will enable:

• quicker adoption of environmentally friendly farm practices

• the inclusion of a wider range of land types and farming systems

• a more user-friendly interface.

“All farmers and growers want to keep their fertilisers on their paddocks and crops, and they want the best tools to manage their environmental responsibilities,” Mr O’Connor says.

Mr Parker says the extra funding in the Budget opens up opportunities for farmers to trial new technologies, techniques and tools that would otherwise be too risky or expensive to try.

“We need practical, science-backed tools to achieve this Government’s goals to improve land use, achieve a net-zero-emissions economy by 2050, and help clean up our rivers so our kids can swim in them without getting crook.”

The Ministry for Primary Industries, AgResearch and the Fertiliser Association of New Zealand each hold one-third stakes in the Overseer intellectual property.


David Parker talked (briefly) about GM, too – but the media overlooked it

New Zealand might be ready to consider the use of genetic modification related to pest eradication, rather than agricultural crops, says Environment Minister David Parker – and he is willing to take a look at the issue.

His readiness to look into GM science and how it might be applied was expressed during his interview on TV One’s Q+A last Sunday (HERE).

The interview generated widespread follow-up reports and discussion in response to Mr Parker’s declaring that dairy cow numbers must be reduced in some parts of the country.

Through regulation, if need be.

“Well, cow numbers have already peaked and are going down, but yes, in some areas, the number of cows per hectare is higher than the environment can sustain. That won’t be done through a raw cap on cow numbers; it will be done on nutrient limits, the amount of nutrient that can be lost from a farm to a waterway, because it’s not just a dairy cow issue.”

But interviewer Corin Dann raised other issues with the Minister.

Genetic modification was one of them.

Interviewer:  The Environmental Protection Agency says there’s been no leadership on this issue, that trials of rye grass could help with methane emissions and these types of things have had to go overseas because of our laws. Where do you sit on this issue? Will you help farmers by taking some leadership to give them the tools and some new biotechnology that could work? 

Minister:  Well, there are new cultivars coming forward, which are already helping in that. There’s a form of plantain, which has been bred using conventional means. It’s got a lower roots— deeper root zone, and it absorbs nitrogen well, and it’s really good in wet conditions. Now, those sorts of technologies are coming forward. We haven’t needed GM for it. If people do want to pursue GM outcomes, they can do under our law. They can do the trials in New Zealand.

Interviewer: There’s a lot of science denial — that’s what the EPA’s saying, and there’s a lot of lack of leadership. Would you step into that?

Minister:  I think where New Zealand will put its toe in the water as to where we should go on GM will actually relate to pest eradication rather than agricultural crops. In my assessment, that’s where it will start. I’m willing to have a look at that issue, but through the existing regulatory regime that we’ve already got.

The lack of followup on this might suggest the news media have lost interest in the GM issue.

Perhaps.  But don’t count on it.

Government applauded for signalling the need for change in NZ agriculture

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Dr Nic Lees … a question of taking the pain now or later.

A senior lecturer in agribusiness management at Lincoln University, Dr Nic Lees, says Environment Minister David Parker is right to signal New Zealand agriculture cannot continue with business as usual.

Intensive dairying is profitable only because it is not bearing the full costs of its production systems, Dr Lees said in a news post on the university website (HERE).

“It is not paying the cost to the environment of its production. We are all picking up the tab and especially our children for the impact on our waterways and climate,” he said.

“Currently intensive dairy farming is addicted to high production per cow. This means adding in concentrated feed such as palm kernel and high levels of nitrogen fertiliser. This increases costs, which means these systems are only profitable with high production and high commodity prices.”

Dr Lees said this shows New Zealand’s future is not in maintaining our position as the lowest cost producer of meat and dairy products.

“The longer that the beef and dairy industries hold on to a commodity model based on increasing output and lowering costs the greater will be the future farmer pain.

“I think we need to have conversations around ‘peak cow’ and the future of our animal production industries.”

He said the Labour Government is clearly signalling New Zealand’s future is not in commodities.

“Facing up to ‘peak cows’ will benefit New Zealand and farmers in the long term. It is either some pain now or a lot of pain later.

“If not alternative proteins will take out our commodity agricultural products in the same way nylon took out wool as a fibre.”

Minister Parker has said there is potential to change towards cropping, horticulture, which are high-value land uses, Dr Lees noted.

“He is right to say there are too many cows, however the potential for cropping and horticulture to replace dairying is simply not going to happen.

“There is no way horticulture and cropping can replace any significant portion of dairy farming land even if it was suitable for horticulture and cropping, which it mostly isn’t.”

Dr Lees said cropping and horticulture land takes up about 2.5 per cent of New Zealand’s total land (422,400 ha). About 1.7 per cent of that is in grain crops and less than 1 per cent for growing fruit and berries. In comparison dairy takes up about 20 per cent (2.6 million ha).

However, there is potential for the horticulture sector to increase the value of our exports. The horticulture industry already produces $5.6 billion in exports from just 200,000 ha. This is in comparison to the dairy industry producing $13 billion from 2.4 million ha.

Dairying can also learn from the sheep industry.

NZ reached peak sheep at 60 million in 1984, Dr Lees pointed out.

Now we have only 30 million but produce the same volume of lamb at significant higher value.

Fewer animals mean less greenhouse gasses and reduce nitrate leaching.

There is the potential to see this happen in the dairy industry also.

Source: Lincoln University

Curtailing nutrient run-off from farms – expert reaction to Minister’s warning

Environment Minister David Parker told TVNZ’s Q&A on Sunday that tough measures to curb nutrient run-off from farms could stall further dairy intensification.

He signalled the imposition of rules which limit how much pollution farmers can put into waterways (as AgScience reported HERE).

Limits on dairy cow numbers in some areas could be among the consequences.

He said there would not be a direct cap on the number of cattle.

He also said “cow numbers have already peaked and are going down, but yet, in some areas, the number of cows per hectare is higher than the environment can sustain”.

The Science Media Centre ( HERE) asked experts to comment on what a future dairying system might look like.
* Robyn Dynes, science impact leader, AgResearch, comments:

“Requirements or targets for reducing nutrient losses on farms are nothing new in many areas of the country, and in our experience, most farmers are already moving in that direction.

“While reducing stock numbers is one approach to reducing nutrient loss, there is no one size fits all. Whatever restrictions are put in place, it is important to recognise that every farm is different and has a different capacity to adapt and change. This is where research plays a crucial role in helping the transition by farmers – including providing better guidance on land use suitability and future technologies, such as in the digital agriculture space.

“Many farmers have already changed their systems to meet current and future targets, but the challenge is to meet those targets and make a profit. There are different approaches that can be taken around more efficient use of farm inputs like fertiliser and water, better targeting source areas of contamination, and use of alternative animal feed like fodder beet and plantain that have been shown to reduce nutrient losses.

“A big driver for farming has always been what is economic, and the environment is now another important driver. But there are others issues to consider around culture and communities and shared responsibility, that we cannot lose sight of. The risk is that if changes are made without all of these issues being considered, we could end up with unforeseen problems down the line.”

* Professor Troy Baisden, Professor and Chair in Lake and Freshwater Sciences, University of Waikato, comments:

“Globally, humans have pushed the Earth’s limits, and nutrients – both nitrogen and phosphorous – are examples where development has shot well beyond the boundaries describing the ‘safe space’ to keep the Earth’s ecosystems functioning to support us. This is particularly true in highly populated areas of the Northern Hemisphere, but the data for New Zealand show that we’re not far behind. In many areas, we’re already reaching a level of impacts that are difficult to reverse. What I find most remarkable about the Minister’s recent comments is the firmness that we’re not going to keep crossing these limits. That’s what’s really important to note here, and I’ll come back to that.

“How we reverse course is another issue, particularly because few nations have. We already have examples, in areas like Taupō and Rotorua, where there’s been real commitment and investment to protect iconic lakes. That’s resulted in action by regional council legislation that has at least held the line and prevented irreversible eutrophication.

“Yet, it’s important to understand that the progress in Taupō, Rotorua and elsewhere is a bit short of what’s required to maintain profitability while reducing stock numbers. And as a result, getting plan changes working in those areas takes years of understanding thinking and compromise. It tends to lead to a feeling of completion only when everyone is equally unhappy.

“To maintain or improve productivity while reducing stocking, we almost certainly need a more forensic set of tools that can convincingly provide the insights farmers need. Those insights can come in the form of ‘gee whiz’ moments, for instance quantifying that there’s a huge loss of nitrate during short periods, on particular soils. And equally importantly, we need to help find ways to manage a farm that prevent that. In the case of phosphorous runoff, which is also really important, we may be closer with ways to trap the sediment. I think we have some promising techniques, but they still need work.

“Coming back to Minister Parker’s comments, they send the signals that may well lead to more rapid development of tools that will really help farmers become more profitable, but with less stock. That signal is needed to accelerate the science, innovation, and discussions that will help us find a path there. That will take time, but management changes under existing farming system could help us move faster than the land-use change to forestry that has dominated progress so far.

“And, it’s important to realise that sending this signal can have much faster effects than the development of new science. For example, Minister Parker’s commentary may go straight to the agricultural property market, and lenders, firmly suggesting a shift in relating land values to profitability, rather than milk solids production. It has largely been the case that land value is correlated with the milk solids production for a number of years, and a shift in the main driver of land value could have immediate effects. Greater milk solids production means more cows, but greater profit allows different thinking, and the kind that will take us on a journey toward both short and long-term solutions.”

Conflict of interest statement: Professor Baisden’s Chair is funded by Bay of Plenty Regional Council and he is a Principal Investigator in Te Pūnaha Matatiti, the Centre of Research Excellence.