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AGCARM annual meeting - Hon Damien O'Connor

Hon Damien O'Connor
Speech Notes
23 July 2003

AGCARM annual meeting,


President, members of the Executive committee, invited guests and conference delegates, it is my pleasure to join you today.

Agriculture is the leading sector in our economy, with growth in productivity averaging about twice that of the general economy since the mid-1980s. You play an important part in maintaining that productivity.

New Zealand is a geologically young country. Our soils are thin and lacking in minerals in comparison with older landmasses.

During our history, we have developed our pastoral agriculture, building up to being one of the world's best producers of high quality safe food. We have done this through our use of agricultural chemicals ? ranging from fertilisers to insecticides, as well as animal remedies and those with a multitude of uses. For a long time, that was considered unilaterally beneficial.

But as we progressed with production and scientific knowledge continued to develop, we discovered that agricultural chemicals could have a downside ? if they were used unwisely and improperly. As MP for Mapua, I am constantly reminded of such new awareness. Nitrate runoff is now being identified as affecting our waterways, and residues are now being monitored for possible contamination of animal products.

I suppose the inevitable reaction to such growing knowledge was the evolution of "chemophobes", people who want to be natural and not have any chemicals in their lives. They want to live naturally and organically, or so they say.

Now, putting to one side the fact that water is a chemical, as are all those natural and organic things we eat? there is a message for us in that development.

There is now a genuine concern by a growing number of people who want to be sure that we are not wasting our planet's resources and that we are making as little impact on the earth as possible. That is one of the spurs in the Government's ratification of the Kyoto Protocol, and it is also a driver in your industry to develop more effective chemicals and animal remedies.

There is also an absolute determination that all food we consume must be safe to eat and free of undesirable residues. That does of course leave the way open to debate the relative levels of safety or freedom from any other ingredients, a discussion best left to the Food Safety Authority rather than this forum.

But sometimes regulatory systems set up to manage chemical use undermine the objectives of the system itself.

Last month, Associate Commerce Minister John Tamihere released a report commissioned by the Ministry of Economic Development from NZIER, which looked at the impact of the HSNO legislation on business costs and innovation.

While that report should be considered indicative rather than definitive because of the survey's low response rate, its results are fairly clear.

Conclusions from the survey under the current HSNO regime were that: 1) Applicants' effort and costs were disproportionate to the risk being controlled and were considered high, particularly when compared to other countries 2) Costs of preparing the application outweighed ERMA costs; and 3) Application costs fell disproportionately on small, niche applications

Coinciding with that release, Environment Minister Marian Hobbs announced the Hazardous Substances Strategy, that I am sure will be positive for your industry, and for New Zealand business in general.

The Strategy aims to reduce the cost of complying with the Hazardous Substances and New Organisms Act without compromising safety or the environment.

I know that your organisation made a valuable contribution to the strategy working group. The work done by Ross Hore, Jack Richardson and others has been acknowledged and I would like to assure Agcarm members that their views were well received by Government. I believe they have been incorporated into the new strategy wherever possible.

The strategy itself is a comprehensive package to simplify the transfer process for existing substances, reduce application costs for new substances and improve the compliance and enforcement of HSNO.

It also directly addresses the concerns raised in those two studies done by NZIER.

With regard to changes, the main one is that the Environmental Risk Management Authority (ERMA) ? the agency that decides on applications to import, develop, or manufacture hazardous substances in New Zealand ? will have more flexibility to base its decisions on the actual risk posed by a particular substance or group of substances.

ERMA will have the means to assess low-risk applications more quickly and efficiently than currently. As a result, costs to applicants will be reduced substantially. These changes should encourage newer, safer chemicals into New Zealand ? tilting the playing field in favour of cleaner and greener substances.

Changes are also proposed to speed up the transfer of hazardous substances from controls made under old legislation to controls made under HSNO.

Those changes are intended to be implemented by early next year.

The strategy also proposes to strengthen the enforcement role of ERMA, and changes to the Act clarify the part played by territorial authorities and regional councils, in monitoring compliance with the law and enforcement where there have been breaches.

Major changes to the hazardous substance approval process will be the subject of a public discussion document due to be released in November, and I encourage you to get hold of copies of that and study them closely.

The proposals are quite separate from amendments, currently before Parliament, to the way HSNO operates for new organisms, including GMOs.

Before I conclude, I would like to touch briefly on my visit last month to Sacramento where I represented New Zealand at the Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology.

The conference brought together Ministers of Agriculture, Science, Technology and the Environment from more than 130 countries. The broad focus of the conference was to discuss the critical role science and technology can play to raise agricultural productivity in developing countries in an environmentally sustainable way.

Such countries, while accepting the very real advantages of science-based solutions to assist agricultural production, were sceptical of how this could be achieved, given the lack of investment from developed countries and international organisations in their existing production and marketing systems.

The knowledge and evolution of Genetic Engineering was at the forefront of discussion by all participants and I was encouraged to have endorsed by a number of experts that New Zealand's management of the process is well regarded. The Americans have been especially impressed with our approach and were keen to hear about the Royal Commission process and outcomes.

At a breakout session on "Adopting Regulatory Frameworks for Agricultural Biotechnology", it was encouraging to note that virtually all elements promoted as key to a safe and ethical monitoring system are either already part of our regulatory regime to deal with GM or part of the Amendment Bill, currently before Parliament.

Biotechnology was not the only focus of the conference and it was widely accepted and repeated that there are many conventional technologies already used for decades that can be adopted to bring productivity gains to some of the world's poorest countries.

The conference and discussions served as a reminder to me that there is the ongoing requirement for all food producers to build and retain public trust in the systems of agriculture and horticulture we use and develop. As a country New Zealand is well placed to capitalise on our excellent reputation for safe food. You have played a big part in that reputation and our cooperative efforts into the future will determine our collective destinies.

Ladies and Gentlemen: agriculture is still at the heart of the New Zealand economy. The Growth and Innovation advisory board is planning ways to build on that economic strength. As a Government, we know just how vital good economic performance in your sector is to our country and we want to assist you with the best tools to improve performance in agriculture, horticulture and forestry.


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