Replacing the RMA with two new pieces of legislation – experts comment on review panel’s proposals

The Government has welcomed the most comprehensive review of New Zealand’s resource management system since the Resource Management Act (RMA) was passed in 1991. The findings and recommendations – set out in a report titled New Directions for Resource Management in New Zealand – were prepared by an independent review panel led by retired Court of Appeal Judge Tony Randerson QC.

The panel has recommended the replacement of the existing RMA by two separate pieces of legislation – a Natural and Built Environments Act and a Strategic Planning Act.

It will be up to the next Government to consider the report and decide whether to implement some or all of the recommendations. Environment Minister David Parker said he expected political parties would develop their policies for the upcoming general election campaign in light of the report’s findings.

The review panel said the proposed new Natural and Built Environments Act (NBEA), taking a substantially different approach from the RMA, would focus on enhancing the quality of the environment, housing and achieving positive outcomes to support the wellbeing of present and future generations. Continue reading

Report shows NZ waterways polluted – Science Media Centre posts expert reaction

The Environment Aotearoa 2019 report released today (here) shows why the Government’s plan to clean up our waterways and make New Zealand carbon-neutral is so crucial, Environment Minister David Parker said.

Released by the Ministry for the Environment and Stats NZ, the report shows the country’s waterways are polluted in both farming and urban areas and many rivers in both are unsuitable for swimming.

There were no big surprises, Mr Parker said.

“We’ve known for years about the pollution and damage we’ve been causing to our oceans and freshwater, climate and biodiversity.” Continue reading

Researchers pour cold water on ideas about irrigation efficiency

Increasing the efficiency of irrigation – it seems – may not save water as common sense suggests it should.

In a Policy Forum published today in Science [open access], Australian and international experts argue that increasing efficiency simply results in more water being used on farms and less being returned to the environment.

The Science Media Centre has asked experts to comment on the article.

The results are reported HERE.

Dr Leanne Morgan, Senior Lecturer (Groundwater), Waterways Centre for Freshwater Management, University of Canterbury, comments:

“This article argues that higher irrigation efficiency does not necessarily equate to water being ‘saved’, as is often assumed. Rather, the article argues, improved irrigation efficiency at the farm scale can lead to increased water use at the basin scale.

“Additionally, the authors argue that improved irrigation efficiency can have a range of unintended consequences. One of these is reduced groundwater levels from reductions in return flows (i.e., reductions in irrigation water moving through the soil zone to groundwater). In New Zealand, there is some evidence of reductions in groundwater levels in parts of the Canterbury Plains arising from a change from low efficiency border dyke irrigation to high efficiency sprinkler irrigation.

“The reduced groundwater levels can impact spring flows and require farmers to lower wells (at considerable cost) to access the now deeper groundwater. Managed aquifer recharge is being considered as a means of augmenting groundwater levels, again at considerable cost. This is an example, additional to those provided by the authors, of the unintended consequences that might arise from irrigation efficiency initiatives designed to reduce water use.

“The authors have outlined five steps designed to assist policy makers assess whether irrigation efficiency measures are in the public interest. These five steps focus on water accounting, caps on water extractions, risk assessment, cost benefit analyses and behavioural economics. It is interesting to note here that the five steps do not explicitly consider the relationship between irrigation and groundwater quality in any detail.”

Dr Brent Clothier, Principal Scientist, Plant & Food Research; Editor-in-Chief, Agricultural Water Management, comments:

“Paradoxically, the increasing drive to increase irrigation efficiency has not saved water. This paradox is discussed in recent paper in Science which is led by researchers from the Crawford School of Public Policy of the Australian National University. The team of authors, from a range of global institutions, are all world leaders in water-resource management and policy.

“Irrigation efficiency (IE) is simply a ratio of the beneficial use of water on the farm, to the total amount of water applied by the farmer. It’s a dimensionless ratio. Nature doesn’t deal in dimensionless quantities. Nature ‘feels and lives’ by quantities – the litres of water. That’s just the denominator of efficiency – the litres of water applied. Not the ratio.

“The IE paradox is that any water saved by the individual farmers does not – global empirical evidence shows – serve to reduce water takes across the entire catchment. More people end up using the water. So, individually, the farmers might well use water efficiently but in sum the total extraction of water by the whole community of farmers across the catchment is not reduced.

“That’s the IE paradox. What’s the solution?

“There must be robust water accounting and water-take measurements. Our Resource Management Act demands there be telemetered measurements of water takes. That’s great!

“The next step in the solution is the hard one. The authors of this Science paper state that there must be a ‘cap on extractions, an assessment of uncertainties, a valuation of trade-offs, and a better understanding of incentives and behaviours of irrigators’.

“To protect our global water resources, the world’s policy people and regulators need to grasp that nettle with a strong hand.”

No conflict of interest.

Professor Troy Baisden, Bay of Plenty Regional Council Chair in Lake and Freshwater Science, University of Waikato; Principal Investigator – Te Pūnaha Matatini Center of Research Excellence, comments:

“The Policy Forum article published in today’s issue of Science highlights that commonly accepted goals of irrigation development, when translated into government policies, can lead to a counterproductive paradox. Worryingly, this paradox is embedded in the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that drive international comparisons, as well as economic aid programmes.

“The target for water use and scarcity (SDG 6.4) focuses on monitoring and improving water-use efficiency associated with irrigation. Improved ‘irrigation efficiency’ sounds like common sense, at least when thinking about a farm. But at the scale of river catchments and aquifers, evidence has accumulated that claimed benefits of improving irrigation efficiency rarely help to ensure water is left over for amenity, ecosystem health, or downstream users.

“The reason for this is that ‘irrigation efficiency’ concept counts water that returns to streams or groundwater as waste, rather than recognising that this water has downstream benefits, which we often call ecosystem services. These benefits include supporting downstream fisheries and wetlands as well as the overall health and amenity of some the ecosystems our society recognises as most valuable – lakes, rivers and estuaries. It’s no good if greater ‘efficiency’ means less water ‘left over’ for these ecosystems, and even worse if smaller flows of water carry even greater concentrations of contaminants.

“When we read international accounts of water scarcity and irrigation, we might think they don’t apply to New Zealand. But this one does, for a number of reasons. Firstly, our drier, irrigated regions have rapidly increased the value of their agriculture and horticulture in recent decades, from dairy to wine and fruit exports. It is widely known that our freshwater available for irrigation is already fully allocated or over-allocated in these regions. Secondly, we need to consider that climate change means better growing conditions in early spring, but more demand for irrigation in summer and autumn.

“Last, irrigation development remains a political issue, with Labour and the Greens largely opposed to support for irrigation schemes in the last election, but the Government providing careful support for some through the Regional Development Fund. Water rights and ‘ownership’, as well as kaitiaki or stewardship over downstream ecosystems is another hot topic for current political debate. The impacts of water removals for irrigation, and water returned from irrigated land on downstream users and ecosystems needs to be valued, so the true costs of water use for irrigation can be considered.

“The decisions New Zealand is making now, as we start to carefully consider water scarcity, have tended to be locked in for generations in other nations. The article provides a timely five-step framework to be applied to assess whether irrigation schemes and new water allocation policies deserve government support.

“When I apply these steps to water issues we face in New Zealand, the value of water comes into focus in two areas, to offer government, councils, industry and NGOs improved clarity on irrigation policy. The first is the quantity and timing of return flows from irrigated land, as part of water that is reserved for the health of ecosystems and fisheries. Ensuring the return flows have quality criteria, and aren’t concentrated sources of contaminants matters too. Second, it could be a fallacy to keep believing that more irrigation means more production and more value. International supply chains may place greater value on the food we produce if we irrigate to maximise the reliability of our production in the face of droughts and climate change. Supply chains, as well as tourism, seem likely to also place considerable value on minimising environmental impacts.

Conflict of interest statement: Chair funded by Bay of Plenty Regional Council.

Dr MS Srinivasan, NIWA Principal Scientist – Catchment Hydrology, comments:

“One definition of irrigation efficiency used in the paper is maximising the beneficial use (i.e. water used only by the crops irrigated). This is already mandated in New Zealand as a part of the resource consent granted to the irrigator. In places like Canterbury, where the majority of the country’s irrigation happens, the regional council Environment Canterbury has started mandating that 80-100% of all applied irrigation should stay within the root zone for crop water use.

“Over the past few years, New Zealand has moved to from flood (‘border-dyke’) irrigation to more efficient spray irrigation systems that use less water to grow the same, or more, crops. However, it is also true this water saving has allowed expansion of irrigated area across the country, as has been highlighted in this paper. IrrigationNZ statistics indicates that the size of New Zealand’s irrigated area has been doubling every 12 years since 1970.

“New Zealand has already been ahead in the game by mandating metering of water takes at farm scale (for takes over 10 litres per second since 2010 and >5 litres per second since 2016). For instance, regional councils mandate measurement of extractions at the source (rivers) as well as at the delivery points (farm gates). This has been a work in progress and its real value is yet to be realised. Water metering has resulted in a large volume of data.

“While we are on the right track, we have got to go a long way in ensuring data quality and usefulness. It is necessary the knowledge gained from this data collection is communicated back to water users to ensure best use of water. Closing this loop is important for behaviour change.

“In New Zealand, irrigation efficiency is not seen on its own – just saving water or not extracting water that is not needed. It is tightly linked to water quality. For example, the good management practice guidelines by Environment Canterbury identify a good water management practice as a critical step to good nutrient management. Thus farmers are mandated to manage irrigation to not only increase efficiency but also reduce nutrient loss from farm to surface and ground waters.

“Increasingly, irrigation schemes that seek consent to extract water out of our rivers are asked to comply with and report on nutrient management practices within the scheme area.

“NIWA’s Justified Irrigation programme is addressing the core of this irrigation efficiency issue at two levels – 1. Enabling farmers to use weather forecasts to schedule their irrigation and nutrient management practices and reduce the irrigation footprint; and 2. Providing farmers an economic incentive by reducing their irrigation costs while maintaining the productivity. The environmental and economic drivers provide farmers and others a business case to use less water in achieving the same, or better, outcome.”

No conflict of interest declared.

These author comments were gathered by the Australian Science Media Centre.

Professor Quentin Grafton is a researcher at the Crawford School of Public Policy at the Australian National University. He is a UNESCO Chairholder in Water Economics and Transboundary Water Governance, is the immediate past President of the Australasian Agricultural and Resource Economics Society, Executive Editor of the Global Water Forum and Convener of the Geneva Actions on Human Water Security

“Contrary to common wisdom, increasing irrigation efficiency frequently reduces the water available for reallocation yet governments around the globe are pouring billions of dollars into making irrigation more efficient, with disastrous consequences for fresh water availability. Together with nine other scientists and economists from eight countries and seven universities, we demonstrate that increases in irrigation efficiency, in general, reduce surface run-off and groundwater recharge to the detriment of people, the environment, and our future.

“When irrigation efficiency increases, such that a greater share of the water extracted for irrigation is used to grow crops, this frequently reduces the volume of water that previously flowed back to streams and to replenish groundwater. Because this water is not consumed by irrigated crops, and therefore does not increase crop yields, it is treated as a ‘loss’ by irrigators.

“The tragedy is that these so-called unconsumed water losses to farmers are actually return flows – water that is frequently recovered and reused elsewhere in a watershed or basin. They have value. The key point, and the paradox, is this: advanced irrigation technologies that increase irrigation efficiency frequently increase on-farm water consumption and groundwater extractions and reduce return flows.”

Quentin has not declared any conflicts of interest.

John Williams is an Honorary Professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University. He is the  former Commissioner of the NSW Natural Resources Commission, former Chief Scientist in the NSW Department of Natural Resources and former Chief of CSIRO Land and Water.

“Our Science paper provides five key steps to respond to the unfolding global water challenge and look at how to reverse the tide of bad policy. First and foremost, physical water accounts are needed from the farm scale to the basin scale to make transparent ‘who gets what and where’. Second, reductions in irrigated water consumption require decreases in water extractions and limits on the irrigated area.

“The other three steps to avoid a global water tragedy include: valuing water (including in-stream flows) to ensure that the public benefits of irrigation efficiency subsidies exceed the costs; risk assessments of the effects of increases in irrigation efficiency, including uncertainties over inflows and outflows; and a much better understanding of how irrigators’ actions change as their irrigation efficiency increases.”

John has not declared any conflicts of interest.

Source: Science Media Centre

Local government powers to constrain GM projects may be revisited

Scientists should keep an eye on new legislation aimed at restoring the promotion of social, cultural, economic and environmental well-being of communities to the statutory purpose of local councils.  The legislators may be pressed to strengthen local authority powers to determine what happens in their regions on issues such as genetic modification

Two new Bills also aim to re-introduce the ability of councils to collect wider development contributions and make it easier for them to bring in online voting.

The Local Government (Community Well-being) Amendment Bill is the one designed to restore the “four well-beings” to the statutory purpose of local government.

Previous National-led administrations had narrowed the statutory purpose of local government to focus only on service delivery and not broader community well-being, Local Government Minister Nanaia Mahuta said (see HERE)

“By inserting the four well-beings back into the Local Government Act we acknowledge the valuable role local leadership has to promote the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of citizens and communities,” she said.

“We are confronted with various challenges as a country such as the impact of population growth, climate change and ageing infrastructure. Quality of life outcomes as well as regional growth and prosperity require a broader focus in the way councils meet the challenge of setting priorities and planning for the future.”

There are implications for the constraint of research involving genetic modification.

Before the election, Labour said it would  maintain the status quo of new GM techniques requiring EPA approval for use.

Labour also declared it would maintain the ability of councils to decide on economic grounds whether and where release and commercial use of GMO plants and animals is allowed.

It would also protect farmers who do not wish to adopt GM technology by ensuring the liability regime for use of GMOs that cause harm is strengthened.

Green Party policy is that genetic engineering should occur only in a contained laboratory setting.

“Our food and environment should be GE Free,” the Greens say.

A second Local Electoral Matters Bill addresses the design, trial and analysis of new voting methods for local elections, and will make it easier to trial electronic voting, including online voting.

In November last year, GE-Free Northland expressed its delight after Federated Farmers withdrew two “vexatious” appeals to the Court of Appeal to challenge GMO provisions in the Northland regional policy statement and the council’s right to have the region declared GE-free. 

GE-Free Northland, along with appellant Whangarei District Council and other interested parties including Tai Tokerau mana whenua and the Soil & Health Association, at that time had successfully defended the right of local authorities to manage the outdoor use of GMOs in their region after Federated Farmers sought a ruling in 2015 that the Northland Regional Council had acted outside the law. 

Federated Farmers had argued that the Environmental Protection Authority had sole responsibility for the regulation of GMOs under the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act, and disputed the right of councils to put in place precautionary GMO provisions, and the right of local mana whenua to identify Issues of Significance.

The Northland Age reported (HERE):

The broad suite of interested parties standing behind the Whangarei District Council, the robust existing case law (unequivocal decisions by both Principal Environment Court Judge Newhook in 2015 and Justice Mary Peters in the High Court last year) and recent amendments made to the RMA (confirming the High Court ruling) had led the federation to the view that they were likely to have materially reduced the prospects of the appeal succeeding, he said.

A spokesman for GE-free Northland, Martin Robinson, said:

“Parliament acknowledged last April that local councils can regulate or ban outdoor use of GMOs under the Resource Management Act, in keeping with the wishes of farmers and other ratepayers.”

Councils across the country accordingly were now free to act on their duty of care to their constituents and the environment, putting in place a much-needed additional tier of local protection against the risks of outdoor use of GMOs, Mr Robinson said.

Whether the Government might be pressed to make sure councils are free to act on these matters by fortifying their powers is among the questions raised by the announcement of new legislation.

EPA to consider AgResearch application to evaluate new grass species

AgResearch’s Margot Forde Germplasm Centre has applied to the Environmental Protection Agency to evaluate 18 new grass species in real farm conditions, rather than in the laboratory or containment facilities.

The EPA, which is  calling for submissions on this proposal, says the new grass species could help make New Zealand’s pastures become more tolerant to disease, pests and drought. This could improve productivity, increase returns to farmers and enhance the environment.

The grasses are all closely related to perennial ryegrass, New Zealand’s most common pasture grass. The aim is to transfer desirable traits from the 18 species to ryegrass by integration and crossbreeding. The new species would not themselves be grown as pasture.

While new to New Zealand, the 18 grass species are distant relatives of New Zealand native grass species. The EPA says it is therefore highly unlikely they would hybridise naturally with native grasses. They are wild relatives of pasture grass species already in cultivation in New Zealand.

The new grasses have adapted to harsher growing environments overseas and possess desirable traits such as drought tolerance, pest and disease resistance, and being nutrient efficient. Incorporating these traits could improve the resilience of local pasture and reduce the need for fertiliser, irrigation, pesticides and herbicides, lowering farmers’ input costs and enabling more sustainable, environmentally friendly farming practices.

Another potential benefit is being able to reduce grazing animals’ methane emissions, which would help New Zealand to meet its target under the UN Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

AgResearch says it will pay particular attention to the potential for any new cultivars to become weeds affecting maize, wheat, barley and other crops, and will work with Plant and Food Research on this issue. After a weed risk assessment it ruled out one species for entry into New Zealand.

Public submissions on the proposal opened on Wednesday and will close at 5pm on Wednesday 22 February 2017.

Plant & Food’s Bruce Campbell is honoured by the Royal Society of NZ

Dr Bruce Campbell, Chief Operating Officer of Plant & Food Research, has been awarded the prestigious Thomson Medal for 2016.

The Thomson Medal, which recognises outstanding contributions to science and technology,  was presented to Dr Campbell for his outstanding leadership in both the agricultural and horticultural sciences over 35 years.

The medal selection committee noted:

“His leadership has had a positive impact on the New Zealand economy, including innovations in forages, wine, kiwifruit and avocado sectors, and he has fostered new science talent and linked science closely with business and the wider community.” They particularly noted his scientific leadership during the response to the kiwifruit bacterial disease Psa when it was discovered in New Zealand in 2010, which saw more than 100 Plant & Food Research scientists mobilised to support Zespri and the kiwifruit industry in understanding and managing the devastating disease.”

As Chief Operating Officer of Plant & Food Research, Dr Campbell leads a team of more than 600 scientists across New Zealand, delivering research and innovation to support the sustainable growth of the plant and marine-based food sectors. H

He acts as Director for several industry organisations and science partnerships, including Forage Innovations Limited, the Bio-Protection Research Centre of Excellence and the Horticulture New Zealand Vegetable Research & Innovation Board. He was made a Fellow of the NZ Institute of Agricultural & Horticultural Science in 2014.

Dr Campbell is a strong advocate for encouraging young people to build careers in the horticultural and wider food industries. He championed the development of the Plant & Food Research Summer Studentship Programme – which to date has seen more than 250 young scientists spend three months undertaking a research project at the Institute to gain insights into real life science and business activities – and the creation of scholarships that support young Māori and Pacific Island students in furthering their science education and careers.

He was  instrumental in establishing the Joint Graduate School in Plant and Food Science with the University of Auckland, the first collaboration of its kind in New Zealand, and the Joint Graduate School of Horticulture and Food Enterprise with Massey University.

Chemicals that make plants defend themselves could replace pesticides

New research published in Bioorganic & Medicinal Chemistry Letters identifies five chemicals that trigger rice plants to fend off a common pest – the white-backed planthopper, Sogatella furcifera.

This paves the way for  pesticides being replaced by chemical triggers that make plants defend themselves against insects.

The widespread use of pesticides to control insects that destroy crops has raised environmental concerns because of the detrimental effect on ecosystems. One problem is that many pesticides kill indiscriminately.

Plants have natural self-defence mechanisms that kick in when they are infested with pests like the white-backed planthopper, Sogatella furcifera, that is a pest for rice crops. This mechanism can be switched on using chemicals that do not harm the environment and are not toxic to the insects or their natural enemies.

In the new study, researchers from Zhejiang University 
in China developed a new way of identifying these chemicals. Using a specially designed screening system, they determined to what extent different chemicals switched on the plants’ defence mechanism.

The team designed and synthesized 29 phenoxyalkanoic acid derivatives. Of these, they identified five that could be effective at triggering the rice plants to defend themselves.

The researchers used bioassays to show that these chemicals could trigger the plant defense mechanism and repel the white-backed planthopper. This suggests that these chemicals have the potential to be used in insect pest management.

“We demonstrate for the first time that some phenoxyalkanoic acid derivatives have the potential to become such plant protection agents against the rice white-backed planthopper,” said Dr. Yonggen Lou, one of the authors of the study and professor at Zhejiang University 
in China.

“This new approach to pest management could help protect the ecosystem while defending important crops against attack.”

The next step for the research will be to explore how effective the chemicals are at boosting the plants’ defenses and controlling planthoppers in the field.

Study shows black carbon or biochar can’t be locked away in the soil

It’s back to the drawing board with an idea about carbon disposal that seemed to promise a way of dealing with climate change.

A report at The Daily Climate (here) says US and European researchers have just established that black carbon, soot and biochar – the burnt remains from countless forest fires – doesn’t stay in the soil indefinitely.

Around 27 million tons of the stuff gets dissolved in water and washed down the rivers into the oceans each year.

Continue reading