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Kicking The Nitrogen Can Down The Road

Following today’s announcements on the government’s response to the future of freshwater, it appears that despite the chorus of calls for a change in how the post-COVID future of Aotearoa is shaped - and following many months of engagement, consultation and evidence-based science - we are facing the reality that change will not occur anytime soon. The deferral and weakening of the freshwater protection limits recommended by government-appointed expert panels is extremely disappointing and a kick in the guts for the 80% of New Zealanders who said that freshwater quality is the most important environmental issue we face. The decision to take a weaker stance on nutrient loads in waterways will inevitably result in a continued decline of fresh and coastal water quality, with a corresponding decline in the wide array of ecological, cultural, social and economic values that a healthy environment supports.

Despite freshwater being a prominent election issue three years ago, and in spite of years of work from expert panels, including the Science Technical Advisory Group, Kahui Wai Maori and Freshwater Leaders, the advice has fallen on deaf ears. Instead, it appears the Minister for the Environment has caved in to political and industry pressure to further delay implementing the long overdue instream nutrient limits.

Claims that the tightening of environmental standards for freshwater will threaten New Zealand’s economic recovery seem to ignore the fact that clean water and a healthy environment is the foundation of our current and future economic wellbeing. A healthy, resilient future can only be built on safeguarding our natural resources.

The great irony is that this opportunity to do better is undermined by lobbyists claiming to represent farmers’ interests. Yet the continual and unnecessary chemical dependency in our agriculture is only encouraging the increase in farm debt and further degrading soils across our productive landscapes, reducing the farming sector’s resilience in the face of a changing climate. Accelerating this race to the bottom by putting short-term interests ahead of long-term wellbeing will hurt farmers as much as anyone else.

In the case of nitrogen, it is not just an ecosystem health issue but also a human health issue – nitrate in drinking water is increasingly linked to colon cancer which is disproportionately high in many parts of New Zealand. Further, our heavy dependency on synthetic nitrogen is unsustainable, with a third of the nitrogen fertiliser derived from Taranaki gas and the remaining two thirds from Middle Eastern gas. Moreover, our high use of synthetic nitrogen is adding to our greenhouse gas footprint through nitrous oxide emissions.

Dr Mike Joy, Senior Researcher at Victoria Universities Institute for Governance and Policy Studies and a member of the Science Technical Advisory Group that provided advice on the national direction, is appalled that Minister Parker chose to ignore and defer advice from expert panels on instream nitrogen limits. The limits proposed by the specialist panels were key to achieving real change, and far from being extreme, would have simply brought New Zealand into line with the rest of the world.

Dr Joy comments:

“The irony is that for a century New Zealand produced milk without synthetic nitrogen fertiliser – instead using natural nitrogen fixation by clover, which does not incur the harms that synthetic nitrogen does. The use of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers ramped up in our drive to provide low cost milk powder to a fickle and unstable Asian market.

If we want the genuinely strive for a better water quality outcomes for future generations we need to front up to the unsustainability of the current nutrient regime and seek more regenerative landuse practices which have been demonstrated to be a win/win for farmer profitability and freshwater.”

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