Farming leaders are stepping up to the mark on climate change and water quality, says environment and trade minister David Parker.
The first steps will be to reduce further degradation, he told the Agcarm summer conference, last month.
“In the last decade in New Zealand, when we already knew we had problems with nutrient and effluent inputs into rivers, we allowed an extra one million cows, each one producing the effluent equivalent of 15 people.
“That was like having an extra 15 million people discharging their effluent to the land,” he said. “Some of that gets into our waterways.”
There are three ways to encourage the changes in land-use practices needed to overcome these problems – education, regulation and price, Parker says.
Technology can be enabled in respect of these three mechanisms to assist in improvements, but those three ways are the only influence the government has. Of those, regulation is the most important.
“We need decent rules under the Resource Management Act imposed by central government under a national policy statement setting environmentally based limits on nutrient and effluent loss to waterways,” he says.
“The rule of law must be enforced and [failing this] we will have this continuing trend of degradation of our waterways. And that trend is still bad: about 70% of monitored water sites in NZ still have increasing levels of nitrates.
“I think there is now agreement across industry, rural industries and populations – whether they live in rural or urban areas – that we expect our rivers to be clean enough to swim in.”
Parker says he has been working on lots of detail on fresh water and will soon take this to the Cabinet. His first priority is to stop further degradation.
“If we can do that we will get time to clean things up. We have got to stop things getting worse.
He wants an “effective and enduring” system for managing water quality and its use including maximising economic value for the longer term.
The Government wants to reshape the economy to better use land, people and money.
“We want higher-value knowledge-intensive lower-emissions activity,” Parker says.
The change required to shift to a low-emissions sustainable economy “is not simply about dairy and cow numbers”.
“I am interested in seeing our agriculture sector innovating to reduce its environmental impact on water, climate change and land.”
He wants a higher-value “exit” from environmental problems, not a decrease in economic output.
Parker acknowledges many farmers and volunteers are fencing waterways and planting trees. “But at industry level a greater shift is required to ensure sustainable land use.”
He says many local councils, moving to improve water quality, face challenges under the National Policy Statement for Fresh Water. Officials and working groups are looking at how this can be improved. For instance, Parker thinks E.coli levels should be weighted towards summer when people are swimming.
He says sediments and nutrients are at the top of the list, but other indicators of water quality are being looked at.
The Land and Water Forum has contributed much to the debate and found consensus on many issues, Parker says. But “thorny” issues remain unresolved.
He has asked them for advice on two key issues: what can be done between now and 2020 to prevent further damage; and how do we stipulate nutrient and sediment loads within catchments in a way that precludes each regional council having to engage in similar, tough debate.
Parker says he wants to facilitate the development and deployment of technologies to improve productivity and the environment.
You will pay!
Asked about financial help for farmers so they can improve environmental practices, Parker says the government is “not going to pay people to stop polluting”.
The cost of changing land-use practice will be borne by the farming sector, he warns.
But he says technology research will assist in moving some land to higher value uses, “if we can strip some of the labour cost disadvantage of higher forms of land use, for example in horticulture by using robotic sensor technology, mobile positioning gear, the internet of things and big data.... We’ve got this confluence of technologies now that enable us to both make money from the technology and improve that technology.
“In Canterbury, for example, I think you will see over coming decades a move back to cropping and horticulture because there will be more money in it.”