Federated farmers: Quality comes first

By Federated Farmers South Island regional policy manager, Matt Harcombe


The debate over water and agriculture is a tangled web of interlinked policies, on-farm actions, science, emotion, perception and economic and cultural factors affecting its use, availability and quality.

Some factors are well understood, others are not. The biggest issue in the public eye is quality. But access to water and its use, irrigation and storage are also vital.

Although most farmers are working hard to adapt and evolve alongside changing public expectations of water quality, they are also trying to keep up with the demands of the Government and regional councils, while working out what it means to their farm.

The farming community wants to play its part in ensuring everyone has reasonable access to clean water but there is no clear consensus on what pathways should be taken to reach that goal.

Everyone who has had anything to do with farming knows the story of the early and mid-80s. The removal of subsidies had a profound effect on the economic viability of many farms and sparked a quantum shift in the way New Zealand agriculture went about its business.

Today's debate on water quality and agriculture is as much of a quantum shift and we do not know if it will boost or damage New Zealand's largest export earner.

On May 12 last year, the Government gazetted the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management (NPS), which essentially requires regional councils to set limits on water quality.

Last year, the Ministry for the Environment put together an implementation guide for the NPS.

The 50-page document is supposed to guide councils in their implementation and interpretation of the much shorter NPS, which could easily be read in ways that could put farming out of business. The implementation guide provides some assurance the NPS is about protecting water quality in a balanced way.

The guide is clear that implementing the NPS should and will take time and involve innovative approaches. It also indicates that setting quality limits at a catchment level requires engagement with each community.

The Land and Water Forum (LAWF) is the Government's independent vehicle for reaching agreement, at a national level, between many different interests on plan for water management.

In its first two reports, LAWF made a set of recommendations to Government and its all important third report is imminent.

Although LAWF is a laudable, if sometimes frustrating process, its recommendations will be too late for what farmers are facing now as councils throughout the country begin to implement their NPS interpretations of what needs to be done to set water quality limits.

The Ministry for Primary Industries website says that "irrigation plays an important role in agricultural productivity and is a major contributor to the New Zealand economy. In 2002/03 irrigation was estimated to contribute about $920 million net GDP 'at the farm gate', over and above that which would have been produced from the same land without irrigation."

The ministry has identified a further 1.9 million hectares which could benefit from irrigation and has allocated $435 million for developing water storage.

Although the NPS states the effects of its implementation should be reviewed by the minister for the environment after no more than five years, there are strong grounds for holding that review now.

First, there seems no point in LAWF collectively spending many thousands of hours and dollars in meetings at Federated Farmers' boardrooms thrashing out what can be agreed on how, when and what to do about water management in New Zealand, only to be trumped by premature implementation of NPS by overeager councils.

Recommendations need time to be debated by a wider public, then enacted, before we continue to interpret and re-interpret NPS region by region.

Second, we need to ensure we get the economic and environmental mix right, through agreed, science-informed, community-led and catchment-based processes.

The removal of subsidies had a profound effect on agriculture. So will setting water-quality limits but Kiwi farmers are adaptive and will respond to the limits.

We need to make sure we have learned our lessons from the mid-80s. Instead of jumping into sweeping changes, farmers need to be given a chance.APN News & Media

- Hamilton News

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