Barber’s Wire: Devil’s in the detail of Essential Freshwater

Allan Barber Barber's Wire

Sheep and beef farmers are generally in agreement with the principles behind the Ministry for the Environment’s discussion document on the national direction for essential freshwater, but there is substantial unease about the finer details, writes Allan Barber.

Three key areas of concern, identified by Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ Ltd), are proposed restrictions on farm systems to current emissions levels, land use and farm systems termed ‘grandparenting’, compliance costs well in excess of forecasts, and the real potential for sheep and beef farmers to be put out of business.

The sheep and beef sector, as distinct from dairy and other land uses, is particularly vulnerable to these threats because the government’s proposals penalise those farm types with lower emissions, especially those who have already achieved significant progress in introducing sustainable systems.

Rick Burke, Chairman of Farmers for Positive Change (F4PC), a group of some 3,000 drystock and hill country farmers, claims the grandparenting approach, especially the capping of on-farm nitrate leaching to current levels, completely fails to acknowledge the distinction between heavy and low emitters. The F4PC group has pushed back against the Waikato Regional Council’s Plan Change 1 process, instead proposing a bottom-up approach working across sub-catchments. A previous winner of the Ballance Farm Environment Award, Burke’s farming system has been completely redesigned over 20 years to incorporate new planting, fencing and rotational grazing which has entailed slightly higher nitrogen use, but resulted in infinitely higher productivity and significantly improved environmental outcomes.

Burke says sheep and beef farming has an exciting future and farmers are eager to unlock serious profitability while pursuing environmental improvements. F4PC is keen to see farmers in each sub-catchment given a fair target to achieve via a series of 10 year milestones out to 2050, but a rushed one size fits all approach has no place in reaching the ultimate goal.

If central government persists with its top down model when bringing the Essential Freshwater policy into law, it means environmentally sustainable farms would be restricted to the lower levels of nitrogen already achieved than their less diligent neighbours and Burke is adamant some farmers will be driven out of business. The net result would be a dramatic hit to land values which would effectively be, in his words, the ‘theft of natural capital.’ This could well result in affected farmers taking a class action against the government.

However according to Burke, the F4PC group agree with the principles of the Action for Healthy Waterways and are keen to make the necessary changes to comply, with the significant exception of the grandparenting provisions which would prevent extensive and low impact farms being able to adjust their systems.

When releasing the Essential Freshwater discussion document, Environment Minister, David Parker, gives the strong impression of being hellbent on speedy implementation with a short consultation period, since lengthened by two weeks, at the busiest time of the farming year. This timetable is driven by the government’s determination to introduce the new policy early in the New Year, no doubt as a result of it being an election year.

I have listened to Parker’s comments both on the radio and at a consultation meeting which give the strong impression of a man on a mission, unlikely to be diverted from his chosen course of action. He sounds eminently reasonable when making the point this is a process that will take decades and nothing will come into force before 2025, while emphasising the importance of agriculture to the New Zealand economy. But at no point have I heard any indication he is prepared to listen to farmers’ concerns about intensification and grandparenting with its dire impact on efficient and sustainable producers.

Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor, also sounding totally reasonable, sticks very closely to the party line, repeatedly saying that the farmers that are “doing the right thing” won’t be affected by the proposals, while the sheep and beef farmers I have spoken to think it’s the opposite and those who have been doing the right thing will be the most affected.

The sub-catchment approach through regional councils is much more in line with the Auditor General’s just released report on Managing Freshwater Quality: challenges for regional councils which states ‘there is not enough information about freshwater at a national level to prioritise efforts on a national basis’. Auditor General John Ryan recommends the Ministry for the Environment take the leadership role, working with regional councils and others, presumably unitary authorities, to make the improvements needed to ensure the information is collated and used consistently across the country. It will be interesting to see whether Parker recognises the logic of this argument which can’t be accused of bias, unlike farming groups who will inevitably be tainted by the suspicion of self-interest.

What the government appears unwilling to recognise, if it insists on the blanket approach to the freshwater question, is the disproportionate impact on sheep and beef farming. Local Government New Zealand’s Sector Water Subgroup published its advisory report on the Essential Freshwater proposal in July and found the cost-effectiveness of nutrient reduction policies was questionable, with other measures such as riparian planting likely to be more effective. Modelling carried out in the Waikato-Waipa catchment found dry-stock farming land use would decline by 68 percent, dairy farming by 13 percent, while forestry would increase by 160 percent, a massive redistribution of resources. The annual cost of meeting the revised targets was estimated at $100 million or around 11 percent of total profits derived from land use in the catchment, let alone the horrific human cost.

The overall message for the government, especially Minister Parker, is it is preferable to proceed cautiously towards a goal which all parties accept as desirable rather than rushing to introduce blunt policy instruments which threaten to destroy one of New Zealand’s most important sectors.

Allan Barber is a meat industry commentator. He has his own blog Barber’s Meaty Issues and can be contacted by emailing him at


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