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AGCARM Annual Conference - Marian Hobbs Speech

17 July 2002

Hon Marian Hobbs
Speech Notes

The AGCARM (New Zealand Association for Animal Health and Crop Protection)Annual Conference
Official Opening Address, James Cook Hotel Grand Chancellor, Wellington, 9.45am Wednesday 17 July 2002

Good morning….

I notice that much of today’s programme is about the agricultural industry with whom your member organisations do business. It seems to me that much of that business is about working cooperatively with your customers and clients. And I’d suggest this is probably more true now that it ever was.

In my view this cooperative approach does not stop with commercial relationships, it must extend to the broader community and must extend to the way government and industries work together. Accordingly this morning I would like to share with you my thoughts on cooperation in the context of hazardous substance management. I am firmly of the view that this cooperative approach to common objectives is the key to both improve environmental and public health outcomes and reducing costs.

I am sure that you will be only too aware that a considerable group in the community regard agricultural chemicals in all their various guises as at best a necessary evil and at worst an unnecessary risk to our health and safety, our food supply and our environment. So this morning I want to discuss initiatives from the government towards approach to better and smarter management of agrichemicals.

The fact is that most agrichemicals are hazardous substances. They are by their nature designed to help us manage pests of various sorts which means they are generally used to kill something. This means that for your industry, the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act is part of business as usual.

Whereas the new organisms part of HSNO has been operating for 4 years, the hazardous substances part is a relative baby, coming into force only last July. In this area things are really just starting to happen.

The ERMA tells me that a steady stream of applications for new hazardous substances are arriving on their doorstep. Approvals have already been granted for release, transhipment, reassessment and containment of hazardous substances. Approval (and I believe that includes approval for agrichemicals) has not been the long fraught process that many had feared.

Let me be right up front and say that as the hazardous substances regime beds in, we will need to improve it. We will do that and we will listen carefully to views on how to improve it. It won’t be news to this group that those views that clearly identify problems and are provided in a spirit of cooperation will have the most impact. But I do think that basically we have got it right with the HSNO legislation itself. It is a comprehensive one-stop shop in managing environmental effects that is a vast improvement on the past.

As part of this I am coming to appreciate, particularly after my recent meeting with Australian ministers, the importance of aligning NZ with the international best practice. The HSNO legislation does this and government continues to participate in this process through the UN Globally Harmonised System. This is a good thing as it makes life easier for people that work in the international arena.

The legislation is basically right. But to make it work really well – we need each other’s cooperation. If central government, local government, industry, business, NGOs, and the public cooperate, we can all benefit. By working in cooperation, I believe that it is possible to reduce costs and improve environmental and public health outcomes at the same time.

The first and most important step in that bedding in, transfer of existing substances from previous legislation is happening – I know that many of you are already working with the ERMA on transfer for agricultural chemicals. This is to be commended.

I do appreciate that this is not an easy task, but it is in all our interests for the transfer process to go smoothly. The ERMA needs importers and manufacturers to supply the basic information about the substances to be transferred. This means both that the various agencies need to work together and that you as those affected by those agencies need to help make that process happen. A smooth and early transfer will enable some of the benefits of operating under the HSNO Act to be realised earlier.

As I have already said, I am open to practical suggestions on how to improve the transfer process.

Another area where you can benefit through cooperation is by making joint applications for approval of new hazardous substances. There are real efficiencies to be had by using the HSNO process on groups of substances. I understand you are to discuss the case of thiomersal later today and I believe this is an example of a hazardous substance used in many products that would benefit from a joint application. This would collectively share the risks at lower individual cost. Interestingly, this is also a case where New Zealand is party to international agreements about what is and is not a hazardous substance. While I am aware that some have expressed frustration with this, I believe we are as a country going to be significantly better off for adherence to this common system.

I would also like to point to the ability for industries, including this one, to work together to establish good practice and have that practice approved as a code of practice under the Act. Codes of practice are designed to provide practical day-to-day tools to comply with the requirements for hazardous substance management. While the HSNO regulations define the performance standards to be met, a code of practice is an example of how those standards can be met. Codes can be more easily changed than legislation or regulation as technology advances.

You will know that the government is prepared to offer some help in doing this and the sustainable management fund is currently being used to support development and updating of codes of practice for this industry. I intend to ensure that this activity continues to be a priority for the fund.

Other agrichemical initiatives

I now want to talk about some other initiatives to manage the risks from agrichemicals.

I said at the start of my remarks that some consider agrichemicals in general and pesticides in particular at best a necessary evil. -I believe that it is important that we are on the front foot in relation to the real issues that exist in this area. As a result, last year I set up two programmes, one to address the concerns relating to agrichemical trespass and the other to develop options for a pesticide risk reduction policy in New Zealand.

I appointed a diverse group to investigate and make practical recommendations on the issues of agrichemical trespass. This has been an area with a history of long standing concerns and I am keen to see some practical improvement. In appointing this group it seemed to me that the problem was amenable to an approach by a fresh group of people.

As you know, the committee has finished its work and I am looking forward to the release of the report – probably in early September. However, in the meantime, there are a number of general conclusions that I would like to share with you.

The committee found that instances of agrichemical trespass continue to occur. The data available to get a good handle on this situation is lacking. We need to have a better picture of pesticide use in New Zealand; one source of data we need to develop is regular monitoring of pesticide sales data. This essential first step would then be complemented with data on pesticide use on specific crops, domestic and urban use patterns, and monitoring of both health and environmental effects. This information would be compared to the rate of agrichemical trespass incidents to pinpoint particular problems. This is something that your organisation is of course in an excellent position to work with others on.

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the committee was also of the view that a key to avoiding agrichemical trespass is better education and training of all people who use or handle agrichemicals. This extends from formal training of all commercial users of agrichemicals, through retailers also having sufficient training so they could provide that additional information to customers – everything from the appropriate equipment to use to information on the effects of weather conditions.

As part of the need for training and education the committee recognised the importance of national standards, and in particular the Growsafe standard (NZS 8409:1999). Let me emphasise that this type of codification of best practice does represent one of the most powerful tools for the safe day to day management of agrichemicals, and I commend this to your continued support.

I know AGCARM is already participating in the process to develop a pesticide risk reduction policy. The process to do this started with the release of a discussion paper – entitled Towards a Pesticides Risk Reduction Policy for New Zealand – in April this year. The paper outlined how pesticides are controlled at the moment and detailed the risks involved in their use in particular areas. It also gave examples of some of the measures that could be introduced to deal with the risks of pesticide use, including some that have proved successful overseas. A series of public meetings were held to discuss the issues and encourage public submissions. The Ministry for the Environment has just begun the job of analysing the more than 100 submissions on it. I am hoping this process will help us focus on the key risks from pesticides and on the practical means of reducing them.

I expect there will be many instances where this work and the agrichemical trespass work can be drawn together. Again I see this as a strong opportunity for the key sectors of the community to which you belong to work effectively together and to work with government to improve the use of agrichemicals.

I am aware that the AGCARM submission, and others, raised concerns about the present historically low rate of rate of application for new pesticide approvals. Causes are said to include: high costs of compliance with the HSNO legislation compared to overseas jurisdictions; and the lack of adequate data protection provisions. Some of these potential problems may be compounded by the relatively small domestic market for pesticides. As a consequence, it is reasoned New Zealand growers will gradually lose competitiveness because they will not have access to the more modern chemistry.

At this stage, I have not formed a view on the extent New Zealand might be faced with a long-lasting problem in this regard, as opposed to the kind of short term problem often associated with the "bedding-in" of a major change in legislative and institutional arrangements. It is precisely to help with this bedding in that the government is funding over half of the costs of all HSNO approvals and will continue to do so until at least the end of 2003.
I am certainly aware however that technological advances can provide win-win opportunities for risk reduction. From society's point of view, there is the opportunity to reduce the environmental burden of pesticides through advances in these substances. At the same time, there is the opportunity for economic benefit through using less to get the same result. Continuing progress in pesticide development is particularly important to those growers who have adopted integrated pest management and have already phased out the use of environmentally-damaging broad-spectrum insecticides and fungicides. For all these reasons this is an area I will be keeping a close eye on.

There are two other areas I would like to briefly talk about in relation to hazardous substances, these are the disposal of agrichemical containers, and the use of methyl bromide.

A significant project has just commenced to look at ways of managing the increasing quantity of plastic waste from farms. This is of course one element of the larger matter of the New Zealand waste strategy that I believe is a key part of reducing our environmental footprint.

I am aware that right now farmers and growers use large amounts of plastics, like silage wrap and agrichemicals containers, in their day to day operations. After they have been used farmers are restricted by rules in regional plans in how they can dispose of these waste plastics. They are often left with little option but to throw them into a farm pit, burn or bury them. I know we can do better than this. I appreciate your organisation’s involvement along with representatives from the agricultural and horticultural industries, the Ministry for the Environment, regional and territorial government, recyclers, and the plastics and chemical industry in finding these solutions. I look forward to seeing the positive results of this work.

To turn to the matter of protecting the ozone layer, many of you will know that, in spite of being a relatively small consumer of ‘ozone eating’ substances, New Zealand has quite consciously set out to be a good global citizen in managing the effects of these chemicals. A moment’s thought will show that this is not surprising given the likelihood of our being affected by ozone depletion. We have made good progress in dealing with many of these compounds but several remain to be tackled.

You probably know that methyl bromide cannot be imported for use as a soil fumigant after 2005, because of its impact on the ozone layer. The use of methyl bromide for quarantine and pre-shipment is also coming under increasing scrutiny internationally. In particular because of these latter uses, New Zealand needs to find alternatives that suit local conditions.

Overseas research is useful, but it doesn't necessarily focus on the products that are important for us. Timber exports, for example, are a major use for methyl bromide in New Zealand, whereas fumigation of grain is more of an issue for many of our trading partners. New Zealand needs alternatives that deal effectively with our particular imports and exports and the pests that are an issue for us, in our climate and under our conditions. I believe this represents a challenge for this industry and I specifically invite you to consider if there are any products in your arsenal that can be adapted for use for the control of quarantine pests.

For the government’s part, I acknowledge that the requirements for handling of fumigants has become unnecessarily complex over time and I have asked a number of agencies to look carefully at the procedures needed with an eye to streamlining them before these substances are transferred under the HSNO Act.

Summary and conclusion

Let me conclude where I started. It is only by cooperative endeavour that New Zealand can keep up with the best international practice. It is only in this way that we can develop new ways for doing things better and remaining competitive, whether that relates to pesticide risk reduction or genetic modification.

Thank you …

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