As is to be expected, some of the loudest responses to the Government's Essential Freshwater Package are from those who will be asked to foot the most change.
Farmers are adamant the proposals are on too fast a track and will have the worst impacts on some of the cleanest operators.
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Research by Local Government NZ, which will ultimately enforce the new rules, shows about half of New Zealanders are already taking steps to protect and improve water quality – such as avoiding pouring contaminants down the drain to planting alongside streams and minimising fertiliser use.
"The sheep and beef sector has reduced its absolute carbon emissions by 30 per cent since 1990. There's 1.4 million hectares of largely regenerated native bush on sheep and beef farms and a further 1 million hectares of native vegetation – an area double the size of Hawke's Bay," LGNZ said at the time of the draft proposals.
However, this Government wants more urgency – more voluntary action to reduce contamination and stronger rules to ensure everyone plays a part. If positive change is already moving apace, the Government wants it to move faster.
Beef + Lamb chief executive Sam McIvor believes the current proposals, as written, will effectively reward the highest nitrogen leaching emitters and penalise farming systems with the lightest environmental touch. This lies in a range of "grandparenting" provisions for farmers to continue to emit at a level determined solely by past emissions, regardless of their impact on the environment.
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McIvor says many farmers are looking to retire, or introduce plans to manage, the erosion-prone parts of their farms to deal with sediment. To do so, they will need to change systems slightly to pay for those costs. However, he says the way the essential freshwater proposals have been constructed won't allow farmers time to adjust their systems to pay for that.
To this, farmers have hardly been left high and dry on harsh ground. Forest and Bird head Kevin Hague points out the proposed changes will work in combination with the $229 million put aside in the Budget for the transition of farming practices towards sustainability.
Debt levels on their own may not be a major issue, but - combined with farm expenditure, milk prices and land values - they could lead to considerable liquidity and financial stress, eventually leading to forfeit of loans or bankruptcy. In the year to June 2019, the median market price per hectare for dairy farms has fallen 21.5 per cent.
Public consultation is now under way and amended orders to councils will be in force in April-March next year. In keeping with the stance that change is being forced too rapidly, Federated Farmers has asked for the consultation period to be extended.
Whether the pace of change is too swift, unfairly targeting good farming practice, or farmers are muddying the waters around the proposals, concerns from our major producers should be heard. The Government should be certain it has given those affected most the opportunity to be heard.