Where now for the One Plan?
Farmers, conservation loggerhead
Hell hath no fury like a farmer scorned, to purloin a phrase.
The vituperation unleashed by the Environment Court’s decision on the Manawatu-Whanganui One Plan is a sight to behold.
Farmers’ organisations were spurned by the court, their experts dismissed and their farmer submitters ignored. Fonterra was treated with contempt.
The backlash, led by Federated Farmers and Horticulture NZ, has been splashed across the rural media with little attempt at balance. An obvious target is Fish & Game, whose experts, along with those of the Conservation Department, had a big influence on the court.
The Feds and HortNZ are appealing the decision – which, among other things, sets nitrogen leaching levels for farms – to the High Court.
They will be arguing the Environment Court did not give enough weight to the economic effects of its decisions on the region.
I’m not sure what success they will have.
Appeals can only be on points of law and the legal view I have is that the judgment is so wellgrounded in science-backed facts that little can change.
Hardest hit by leaching rules will be dairy farmers on sandy and gravel soils.
Federated Farmers argues that some will be put out of business.
The court spent some time on this and concluded that those few who could not meet the leaching levels should not be exempted.
I must admit the court’s rather cold dismissal was a surprise.
It said such casualties in a “changing rule regime” were inevitable.
In other words, you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs. It accepted evidence from Waikato dairy consultant Alison Dewes that a 10 per cent leaching reduction could be made without affecting profitability and even cuts of 30-40 per cent could be achieved while actually improving profitability.
Others who believe they will be severely affected are vegetable growers and grain croppers.
At the heart of the new regime is a computer program called Overseer, which will be used to measure nutrient leaching.
It is already in use in three other regions and proposed for two more.
Overseer has been developed during the past 20 years at a cost of $15 million.
Most of that has come from the Primary Industries Ministry and the government-owned research institute AgResearch. So you could say your taxes have paid to find ways to ensure farmers clean up rivers.
Other funding has come from FertResearch, owned by farmer co-operatives, so farmers are also contributing to Overseer’s development.
Of course, farmers are taxpayers too.
Farmers and growers say Overseer is untested on cropping and horticulture land.
But the Environment Court accepted the expert opinion of what it termed a “galaxy” of scientists that even with leaching sources as diffuse as livestock or carrots, Overseer’s accuracy is acceptable.
Backing this has been a statement released in the past week by FertResearch upholding the quality of the latest version of Overseer.
It says “a very significant” upgrade to the arable model in a previous version has been better integrated into the new one.
Horticulture was removed from the One Plan by a previous appeal panel, as well as land in the lower Rangitikei and around some lakes including Lake Horowhenua.
The court reinstated them all, much to the dismay of growers.
There’s no doubt vegetable growing is a high leacher.
One calculation by Plant and Food scientist Brent Clothier is that nitrogen leaching on vegetable-growing land averages 215kg per hectare a year. However, other research has it at 18- 58kg, depending on the vegetable. This is still high. According to Overseer, dairy leaching in the region averages 22kg, below the national average of 34kg.
On the most vulnerable land the plan is to reduce leaching in stages over 20 years to 16kg.
This may be acceptable for dairying but harder for horticulture to achieve.
The court recognised growers’ concerns about the latest version of Overseer and said it was prepared to consider an “interim solution” while it was being trialled. That is something for the regional council to come back to the court with.
However, care of the environment trumps all, as Judge Craig Thompson made clear in these comments: “We will never know all there is to know.
“But what we undoubtedly do know is that in parts of the region the quality of natural water is degraded to the point of being not potable for humans or stock, unsafe for contact recreation, and its aquatic ecosystems range between sub- optimal and imperilled. We also know what is causing the decline and how to stop it and reverse it.”
A regulatory regime to set measurable standards and enforce compliance was simply “the right thing to do”