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Farming’s future lies in major revamp

3 November 2004

Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment

Farming’s future lies in major revamp of production systems

New Zealand must make some fundamental changes if we wish to maintain the ‘natural capital’ of our farms and ensure a prosperous future for the country, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr J.Morgan Williams said today.

Speaking at the Hamilton launch of a major investigation into intensive farming, Dr Williams said that the rapidly expanding use of nitrogen-based synthetic fertilisers, increased stocking rates, and increased irrigation are all putting the health of our soils and fresh water at risk.

Growing for good: Intensive farming, sustainability and New Zealand’s environment looks at whether New Zealand can keep growing more and more food from the same areas of land. It draws on research, a study of trends in the UK and Europe, and over 150 interviews with New Zealand farmers, agribusiness leaders, researchers, environmentalists, councils, bankers and others. It also features a close look at farming in the Waikato, Hawke’s Bay, Canterbury, and Southland.

In analysing key trends across several farming sectors including dairying, horticulture, sheep and beef, and viticulture, the report finds there is intense pressure on our ‘natural capital’ – rivers, lakes and aquifers, soils, biodiversity and atmosphere. Between 1996 and 2002, synthetic fertiliser use across all sectors grew by 21%, and the use of urea fertilisers soared by 160%.

Once nitrogen has entered our waterways there is no effective way to remove it. Dr Williams says there is strong evidence that our waterways and lakes are becoming nutrient enriched and degraded, from animal faecal matter and eroded sediment as well as nitrogen. The current deterioration in Lake Taupo’s water quality is from increased nutrients from farming up to 50 years ago, so we have yet to see the worst effects of today’s trends.

If farmers continue as they are, then not only will they antagonise other New Zealanders who want clean water for health and recreational reasons, they will also risk access for their products to lucrative overseas markets. Many countries, particularly in Europe, will not want products sourced from farms that are polluting their environments. Environmental awareness is also rising rapidly in many of our Asian trading partners.

Dr Williams says it will take more than minor tinkering to meet farming’s challenges. Rather, some fundamental redesign of farming practices and the systems that shape those practices is needed. However, he is optimistic about the future and says there are many positive signs.

“The good news is that a lot of activity is already taking place in New Zealand to redesign the production systems on our farms, from the Whaingaroa Environment Catchment Plan near Raglan, to fertiliser budgeting systems, and to research on new clovers and grasses to improve nitrogen fixation, digestibility, and reduce methane production,” he said.

Growing for good concludes with a number of recommendations. A dialogue around the future of farming is urgently needed, says Dr Williams, and so is a new pan-sector institution that can articulate a vision for farming.

Three recommendations are for immediate action: remedying the pollution from farms, managing the use of nitrogen fertilisers, and dealing with the contamination of waterways from animal faecal matter. More research, particularly into sustainable farming systems and integrated catchment management, is also a top priority.

He says farmers, researchers, and investors have shown many times that they can adapt to a changing world. “We believe in the ability of New Zealanders to innovate and to recognise when new directions are needed. We certainly have the capacity to design and run vastly more ecologically and economically efficient farming systems. We can be world leaders.”

Dr Williams was speaking at the launch of the report hosted by Environment Waikato. Over the next few months, PCE staff are speaking at a number of seminars around New Zealand about the themes outlined in the report.


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