Minister David Parker's statement last week, made in Levin, that the pending National Freshwater Standards could include exemptions for Horowhenua and Pukekohe growers regarding nitrogen toxicity, came as a shock to many (Horowhenua Chronicle July 17, p1).
The mooted exemption of vegetable growing will need to be reduced by at least 40 per cent to achieve the standards as was reported at the time, does not mean that pollution is now okay?
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A spokesperson for the Ministry for the Environment said ministers have yet to make a decision on the proposal, which was the result of extensive consultation.
"In the Action for healthy waterways package announced in May, the Government agreed in principle and subject to further engagement that, in some areas of Horowhenua and Pukekohe, where a large proportion of New Zealand's supply of fresh vegetables are grown in highly concentrated areas, councils could set minimum standards of some aspects of water quality below the national bottom lines.
"The Government made its in-principle decision in response to feedback received through the extensive consultation undertaken, and aims to ensure that New Zealanders can maintain access to healthy fresh vegetables at a reasonable cost.
"As signalled in the May announcement, since early June, officials from the Ministry for the Environment (MfE) and Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) have been engaging with councils and relevant tangata whenua.
"The Minister for the Environment David Parker has also met with relevant iwi/hapū, councils and other stakeholders to get a first-hand account of what is important to people."
As to what this proposal if it becomes part of the freshwater standards will mean no one really knows yet.
"MfE and MPI expect to finalise policy options on which ministers will make a decision by the time the new freshwater regulations – the NPS-FM and new National Environmental Standards for Freshwater (NES) – are gazetted and passed into law. We expect gazettal will take place sometime before Parliament rises on August 6," the MfE spokesperson said.
"We cannot say how it might work in practice until the Government has decided on the final policy.
"It is important to note that councils cannot allow water quality to degrade further regardless of whether the proposal proceeds or not. The new National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management (NPS-FM) will require councils to set targets for improvements to water quality everywhere, in consultation with their communities.
"That is, the NPS-FM will require councils to take an integrated approach to waterways, set a long-term vision for those waterways and set interim goals towards achieving the vision that must be reported against, as well as meet the range of other requirements for healthy waterways."
Horizons Regional Council has set strict standards in its One Plan, for which a plan change is in progress, to help growers achieve levels expected, so they can get a resource consent. Many are at present unable to get a consent, in part because the rules do not take into account the variety of farming activities taking place in Horowhenua.
Dr Nic Peet, Horizons strategy and regulation manager, said the move is motivated by the Government's belief that there is a national supply issue for fresh produce.
"We are all waiting with bated breath what exemption will mean for us and until we know more we will not know how this will affect the One Plan. A plan change for this is in progress and this requires a delicate balance."
He said a national solution to the issue is good in this case as it is considered a supply issue.
National's candidate for Ōtaki, Tim Costley, said the idea of any exemption shows that blanket rules are problematic.
"So many exceptions to one rule show the fallacy of the idea."
He said he had visited many local growers in the past year. "We have the most environmentally friendly and efficient growers in the world."
He said reducing the number of growers is no option, to make the preferred standard. "We are trying so hard to get people to buy local and eat fresh, healthy food. We should not be hammering our growers."
He said he believed that urban waterways are in a far worse state than rural ones. "We are actually doing something to make the waterways better."
Green Party candidate for the Ōtaki electorate, Bernard Long, does not mince words about what he thinks is going on.
"Industrial scale horticulture and mono-culture farming (single crop) are having a significant impact on the health of Lake Horowhenua.
"Food security is a national issue and Horowhenua should not be sacrificed to the nation's pollution to ensure fresh vege.
"Tinkering with intensive systems is not going to help us achieve the environmental outcomes we want. With a rethink of the whole system we can transition out of these polluting practices.
"We need a clear plan with timeframes to transition local horticulture to less intensive systems such as regenerative farming practices. The Government and the Regional Council need to provide leadership and work with the industry to prepare transition plans along with input from experts and support as appropriate.
"Less intensive models, such as regenerative farming, provide an opportunity for growing food locally, employing local people and significantly reducing the amount of chemicals and fertilisers that are applied to the land.
"We need a stronger story of agriculture from the gate to the plate, to allow Horowhenua to be the sustainable food basket of the country. We are capable of producing high quality vegetables with strong environmental protection without growing plants out of season.
"The expectation that we can purchase a particular fruit or vege out of season all year round contributes unnecessarily to this pollution. That expectation needs to be managed," Long said.
Local grower Jay Clarke (Woodhaven Gardens) has been spending up big to mitigate the impact his business has on the environment. (Horowhenua Chronicle, April 24, p3).
He was the one who brought David Parker to Levin last week. He said one blanket rule for all just does not work, especially when it comes to nitrogen. He said all Horowhenua growers are committed to work on improvement.
"We all want the waterways to be healthy and we try to use the best science and the latest techniques available to achieve that."
He said the fact that exemptions are being considered for areas that have a lot of vegetable growing proves his point.
Horowhenua is represented at the regional council by Jay Clarke's sister Emma and Green Party member Sam Ferguson.
Ferguson said clean waterways are a great passion of his and that's why he stood for the regional council.
He said the region's 61 growers need a transition pan to regenerative growing. "We do not want to do away with our growers. Food growing is part of our region's brand."
He acknowledges that consumers are part of the problem, for wanting particular produce out of season, which he believes demand more chemicals to grow, especially nitrogen. "That requires lots of additives, so we need to eat in-season."
He is a big proponent of regenerative farming, but it is something invented in regions of the world where soil has degenerated and is hardly usable to grow food. New Zealand is not in that position at all.
According to New Zealand's leading farming academic New Zealand has almost perfect soil, achieved over "decades of New Zealand specific research, developing systems, breeding pasture plants, and identifying the most accurate ways of analysing soil so that the appropriate balance of nutrients can be added".
"Ongoing analysis and trials continue to make improvements, and New Zealand soils have far more organic matter in them already than regenerative agriculture has achieved on the impoverished soils where the concept was born.
"Success along that path towards sustainability depends upon the ability of the farmer, and New Zealand farmers have done well. It is good farming that makes the difference, not what you call it," she said.
"Regenerative agriculture involves Adaptive Pasture Management (called rotational grazing in New Zealand) but allowing the pasture to grow longer and leaving more pasture after grazing than New Zealand research recommends.
"The result is a decrease in pasture quality, a decrease in efficiency of production, a decrease in organic matter as soil organisms adjust and then a decrease in turnover.
"Professor Tony Parsons, now retired from Massey University, has shown that greenhouse gas and nitrate loss per unit of milk or meat produced will be increased under this scenario in comparison with the New Zealand optimised system.
"This means more impact on the environment for a given amount of production. Reducing production means less food," Rowarth said.
Until we know more about those "exemptions" and what they might look like everyone is guessing. Horowhenua District Council's principal policy adviser Cynthia Ward couldn't add much to the debate either because of that.
"Horowhenua District Council is committed to working closely with the Government and Horizons, on behalf of the communities within the district, on target setting and a transition plan (pathway), to meet updated limits and improved water quality outcomes long term."