There is a mish-mash of information available on climate change, some of which originates from people who are not qualified to speak on the subject, says Ministry of Primary Industries’ chief science advisor, John Roche.
We live in an age when every one of us is being asked to be aware of our impacts on the environment.
The farming community has long been in the gun. Time was when we treated our waterways as little more than drains -- a convenient way to get rid of all sorts of waste. This practice has stopped and is now rigorously policed.
We are tackling the cumulative effects of diffuse discharges from intensive farming, principally nitrogen which comes from cows’ excreta as well as from fertiliser.
Our approach for rural land users has been to put limits on the nitrate pollution leaving a farm through groundwater leaching: we use a sophisticated computer model (Overseer) to measure and manage this. We don’t have a mandate to tell farmers what they can do on their land – just what they can release to the environment as a by-product of their activities.
It’s our job to make sure individual farms work within the limits we set; we use farm environment plans, onfarm and audited monitoring to do this. It’s also our job to make sure the cumulative effects of farming will not result in the further decline of water quality in Canterbury; we use scientific monitoring and modelling to do this.
We have prioritised where we need to act, starting with the farm systems causing most of the pollution and our most sensitive catchments. We communicate directly with every farmer explaining clearly what they need to do, and what support is available to help them. We have the backing of the farming sector, although we recognise that some individual farmers find the need to change challenging.
We are moving as fast as we can and encouraging farmers to respond. We are not, however, trying to put farmers out of business. We recognise the economic benefits to the region from sustainable farming, and that farmers will only be able to make environmental improvements if they understand what is needed and have the money to spend on better environmental outcomes.
Most of what is happening in rural communities is not appreciated by people living in cities and towns, but it is sharply front-of-mind for the farmers.
We started by making farmers measure their nitrogen leaching over a four-year period (2009-13). This sets an upper limit for each farm and they are not allowed to go over it. While this ‘holds the line’ and stops things from getting worse it doesn’t fix polluted waterways in the long-term.
So, the next step was to require farmers to adopt ‘good management practices’ -- an industry-agreed programme to minimise pollution from nitrogen, phosphorus, sediment and faecal sources.
The third step – in areas that have high or rising nitrate levels – is to reduce the nitrate leaching over time. This may require land managers to go further than just adopting good management practices, and they may need to look at changing some of their land to a different farm type, make significant improvements to systems or reduce the number of animals onfarm.
We are ensuring that farmers do what they need to do, through what we call our ‘consent-to-farm’ programme. We started in 2017 with the highest impact farms – nearly 1100 farms with more than 50ha of irrigation, as well as a small number (23) of farms in sensitive high-country lake catchments.
Nearly all (99%) of this initial group of farms have been contacted by us, and either have a consent to farm, or are on track to get one. About one-quarter of farms are covered by ‘permitted activity rules’ which simply means they don’t need an individual consent but are still covered by the rules and conditions in the relevant plan.
Each consent to farm requires an accompanying farm environment plan (FEP) which sets out how a land manager will address and deal with environmental risks. FEPs are independently audited and we work with those who receive an A or B grade (acceptable) to maintain and improve their performance. We work more closely with those who receive a C or D grade (not acceptable) which includes scheduling more frequent compliance visits and audits.
A recent report we commissioned on the long-term trend in freshwater quality suggests we are seeing improvements, particularly over the past five to 10 years. We recognise this is only part of the overall picture – it covers nutrients, toxins and faecal pollution, not the ecological health – but it’s an important part and something we can easily measure.
Much is happening to protect and improve freshwater quality and ecosystem health, particularly in rural areas. Farmers are being encouraged and required to improve their environmental performance, but this is just the start.
What we are seeing today is the result of 150 years of farming on the plains; it will take time -- perhaps decades -- to see the improvements from the remedial action being taken now.