Underfunded Overseer farm management tool needs thorough review: Upton
By Paul McBeth
Dec. 12 (BusinessDesk) - Simon Upton, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, wants the government to undertake a strategic review of the Overseer farm management tool, which has been hampered by under-funding since day one.
Overseer is used by farmers to help calculate their nutrient loss and has been increasingly adopted by local authorities to maintain and regulate freshwater quality. Modelling the run-off and leaching makes it easier for farmers to work out the level of fertiliser needed to encourage pasture growth.
Upton undertook the report to see if the tool could be better used by regulators in managing water quality and found there wasn't enough information to support its use in a regulatory setting. He would like to see ministers decide whether they want Overseer in water quality regulation, and if so, to identify what's needed to support that.
He recommended a comprehensive review on whether Overseer is fit for purpose as a regulatory tool. That raises questions about its shared ownership by the Ministry for Primary Industries, New Zealand Phosphate Co, and AgResearch, Upton said.
"If the Government wants to see the model being used as a regulatory tool then a large measure of transparency is needed," he said in a statement.
He recommends making the model's software open source, which is at odds with the existing business model based on proprietary intellectual property. Upton said that appeared to be driven by the need to find a sustainable funding model, which has always been an issue.
Overseer needs to generate $4 million a year to be able to develop and maintain the tool.
"When this is compared with the $1 million to $1.5 million per annum the tool was receiving up until recently, the scale of the under-funding of the tool becomes apparent," the report said.
Among his recommendations, Upton said the environment and agriculture ministers should seek a strategic review of resourcing needed to maintain Overseer, what the ongoing costs would be for users in a regulatory setting, the level of investment needed to build trust in the modelling, and how councils should contribute to region-specific research to support it.
"It will take time to improve Overseer and provide transparency around how it operates," Upton said. "In the meantime, regional councils can continue to use it but they need to be aware of its limitations."
Federated Farmers supported the recommendation for more work to be done on Overseer, saying there was too much uncertainty at present for its regulatory use.
"Federated Farmers agrees with the PCE that Overseer needs more government investment, third-party peer review, greater transparency and most particularly that Overseer should not be used to assign absolute limits to discharges on-farm activities, that can then be traded," Fed Farmers environment spokesman Chris Allen said.
Other recommendations include central government officials preparing guidance for councils on using Overseer, making sure ongoing investment in the models and databases supports the overarching goal of protecting air, water, soil and ecosystems.