Sheep and beef farmers sacrificial lamb in Essential Freshwater proposals

Andrew Morrison
Andrew Morrison.

The sheep and beef sector has significant concerns about the government’s Essential Freshwater proposals released today. 

Beef + Lamb New Zealand (B+LNZ Ltd) says plans to lock down current land uses will have a disproportionate effect on the majority of sheep and beef farms that are low input, extensive systems with a light touch on the environment.

“The sheep and beef sector’s vision is for New Zealanders to continue to be able to swim in and collect food from the freshwater surrounding sheep and beef farms,” says B+LNZ’s chairman Andrew Morrison.

‘Sheep and beef farmers are committed to protecting the health of our waterways and we’re proud of the progress we’ve made so far, however, we know there is still more work to be done.

“The Essential Freshwater proposals are comprehensive and will take time to assess, however, we are deeply concerned by some of the analysis we have seen – including modelling that suggests 68 percent of drystock farms in the Waikato/Waipa catchment would be converted into forestry as a direct result of the proposed regulations, while more intensive land uses largely remain the same.

“These proposals will undermine the viability of a low-intensity sector which supports over 80,000 jobs and generates exports of $9.1 billion a year.  It risks decimating rural communities, especially when coupled with other proposed policies such as the Zero Carbon Bill.

“Ultimately, we are concerned the sheep and beef sector will bear a disproportionate impact of the proposed policies, far outweighing the environmental impact of our farming systems.”

Issues around nitrogen leaching are driven primarily by cattle stocking rates and high loadings of nitrogen fertiliser, leading to greater concentrations of nitrate leaching into waterways.

“Most sheep and beef farming systems operate within the natural capacity of the land due to our low stocking rates and efficient, low input farming model,” says  Morrison.

“Our nitrogen leaching rates are low and in catchments where sheep and beef farms are the predominant farming system, nitrogen levels are not an issue.

“The sheep and beef sector’s main water health issues are sediment, phosphorus and intensive winter grazing on crops.  We are committed to addressing our contribution to these issues and understand the need for increased oversight for activities which pose a higher environmental risk.

“However, the devil is in the detail and we will be looking to ensure any new requirements are matched to the environmental effects we are looking to manage.

“The Essential Freshwater proposals that will likely have the greatest impact on sheep and beef farmers are a range of “grandparenting” provisions that restrict land-use change, and flexibility within a farming system to diversify.

“In doing this, the greatest flexibility is provided for those that currently undertake high intensity, high discharging land uses.

“New Zealand’s most sustainable and low-intensity farming systems, those with the lightest environmental footprint, will have no flexibility moving forward to adapt to these and or other environmental pressures. The success of our farming system has been the ability to adapt and diversify.”

The approach proposed also fails to take into account the other benefits that extensive farming systems provide such as biodiversity and supporting healthy and vibrant rural communities, says Morrison.

“The government’s objective of “holding the line” is understandable, but the way it would be implemented will lead to a perverse outcome where blanket limits are placed on everyone, even though individual farmers’ contribution to the problem differs wildly.

“While the government says these are interim controls until councils have new plans in place, there are no time-frames and based on our previous experience, councils’ processes will take many years. During that time, the damage will be done.”

Sheep and beef farmers have been working to address a wide range of environmental issues, he says.

“We are committed to addressing freshwater quality issues such as erosion, E.coli and phosphorous by working towards all farmers having Land Environment Plans by 2021.  Our sector has already lifted this from 36 percent in 2017 to 49 percent in 2019 and many farmers are getting involved in catchment communities.

“While there is still more to do, in-stream sediment concentrations have been improving as farmers have been planting native and poplar trees in erosion prone areas and retiring some land from production.

“It appears from the proposal that many sheep and beef farmers will be punished for doing the right thing.  Over the last 30 years we’ve doubled export revenue from the industry while reducing our land use foot print, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent.

“At the same time our sheep and beef farms are a reservoir for almost three million hectares of native vegetation, making up nearly a quarter of New Zealand’s remaining native vegetation and including 1.4 million hectares of native forest, which co-exists alongside productive agriculture.”

B+LNZ has extensive resources to support farmers in adopting best management practice for intensive winter grazing on crops and has over the last year led a pan-sector process to develop common policy solutions and build on industry initiatives to manage these activities.

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