Essential changes made to freshwater regulations, but issues remain

28 May 2020

Dairy farm riparian planting

Sector feedback has resulted in significant change to the Government’s Essential Freshwater package but there is still a sting in the tail, says DairyNZ chief executive Dr Tim Mackle.

“Over the last eight months DairyNZ has advocated for an evidence-based and pragmatic approach to freshwater regulation. We are pleased to see Government has listened and made significant changes to some of the more controversial elements of their original proposal,” said Dr Mackle.

“Like all New Zealanders, dairy farmers share ambitions for healthy waterways and have invested a lot of time and money for over a decade in improved management systems, upgrading effluent systems, riparian planting and fencing streams to exclude cattle.

“Looking at where the policy has landed, it appears that the Government have taken a better approach in terms of scientific rigour and practicality for farmers on the ground.”

Dr Mackle said although farmers will have a generation to implement the changes needed, the regulatory settings they see today will influence their confidence to invest for the future.

“The Government have parked the dissolved inorganic nitrogen (DIN) measure and removed the impractical and expensive requirement for farmers to move existing fences to meet new stock exclusion guidelines. These two issues were of great concern for farmers so this will provide reassurance.”

Dr Mackle said it is pleasing the Government listened to DairyNZ’s guidance on using the nitrate toxicity measure, which will achieve the environmental outcomes with less economic and social disruption.

“While we agree that nitrate toxicity is the right measure, we disagree with the standard which has been set. DairyNZ advocated for 3.8 as a significant progression on the old NPS and double the existing standard.”

Dr Mackle says the proposed 95% protection standard will severely affect farmers in catchments who are already taking significant action towards reducing their footprint in line with new Regional Council policy plans.

For example, in Canterbury’s Selwyn and Hinds zones farmers are already working towards a 30 percent reduction in nitrogen. Under these new regulations, these reductions may need to increase to 70 percent to meet the standards being proposed.

“This is a double-whammy for farmers who were already on the journey to make significant reductions to nutrient loading. If further plan changes are rushed, it will have significant impact on confidence, jobs and communities,” said Dr Mackle.

“The Government and Regional Councils need to take a more nuanced approach when it comes to rolling out plans in regions where farmers are already undergoing significant change due to recent nutrient limits.

“If farmers are asked to implement impractical and expensive solutions that will put extra strain on businesses, communities and families this will have a huge impact on farmers mental wellbeing.”

DairyNZ is also concerned that the Minister intends to revisit the DIN in 12 months.

“The evidence base for DIN was never robust enough to justify the level of intervention and disruption it would introduce, to meet the standard. DairyNZ will continue to advocate strongly against this issue, on farmers behalf.

“The Government have accepted DairyNZ’s proposal to achieve progress through mandatory and independently audited farm environment plans (FEPs). This aligns with our sector strategy, Dairy Tomorrow, which is committed to all farms having a farm environment plan by 2025.  

“The benefit of national standards for such things as fencing and wintering practices is that it will establish a level playing field for our dairy farmers and other land holders.”   

Dairy farmers will continue to invest in research and development through DairyNZ to develop tools they can use to reduce their environmental footprint, but government support is needed to succeed.  

“Farming and food production has an important role as we look to rebuild our economy post-COVID, where other income earners like tourism and international education have taken a big hit,” said Dr Mackle.

“Investing funding from Budget 2020 into initiatives to improve water quality outcomes on farm would be a good place to start.

“Most importantly, we want to see central and local government working alongside farmers and with the sector to find pragmatic and workable solutions to achieve environmental outcomes that don’t impose unnecessary drag on productive sectors that are now even more vital to New Zealand’s future for jobs, thriving communities and export earnings”.

Sustainable Dairy: Water Accord farmers and partners achievements to date, including:

  • fencing off dairy cattle from 24,249km (98.3%) of significant dairy accord waterways (waterways which are more than one metre wide and more than 30cm deep). That’s the equivalent of nearly 12 road trips from Cape Reinga to Bluff. Excluding stock from waterways is one of the most beneficial ways to improve water quality
  • installing bridges and culverts on 100% of stock crossing points dairy cows use
  • preparing 10,396 nutrient budgets – up from 6,400 budgets in the first year of the Accord. Nutrient budgets allow farmers to carefully plan nutrient applications and manage nutrient losses
  • assessing 100% of Accord farms for effluent management practices – this process checks that farms have appropriate infrastructure and systems in place to manage effluent
  • developing riparian management plans to protect water quality on 52% of Accord farms with waterways.

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