Curtis - Heavy-Handed approach to water quality issue biggest concern for Irrigation NZ

Irrigation NZ Chief executive Andrew Curtis says when it comes to tackling high nitrate levels in waterways, an individual farm limit approach is not the way forward:

“At INZ, we agree with setting limits on a catchment scale, and we also realise in order to achieve those, farmers have to be held to account. However, we don’t think the tools are presently robust enough to facilitate individual farm limits.”

His comments refer to David Parker’s recent announcement of plans to introduce nutrient limits on farms, a move that is part of Labour’s nationwide initiative to address water quality issues.

A number of prominent environmentalists have recently promoted the merits of destocking in combating the problem, suggesting farmers can improve their environmental and economic performance by reducing cow numbers. Curtis says that while this may be true, it ignores the impact stock reduction would have on a community level:

“Communities are based around certain employment and a certain amount of productivity happening, so it’s about understanding what the impacts of destocking would be in certain communities. If you start destocking everywhere and therefore dropping jobs in the community, the farm may stay profitable, but the community well-being will be lowered. This is where there’s a little bit of naivety in the media commentary; they tend not to factor that in.”

He says rather than destocking, the focus should be on developing farm technologies:

“We’re great believers in technology, and there is a lot of it coming to the fore now. At the moment, many things can be done with cows and breeding and genetics, and a lot can be done with technology on farms- stuff like what the cows eat, what goes in them/what comes out of them, etc. There’s a huge scope there when you start combining the forage technologies, the technologies for how we provide nutrients and so on, and then the actual genetics of the cow, a huge scope for change over time that will get us where we need to get to. That’s where our focus needs to be, to be honest, rather than on getting rid of cows which isn’t going to solve the issue in a complete or satisfactory way.”

The technologies Curtis refers to include tools like Overseer and FeedSmart which calculate daily intake requirements for stock and help farmers with nutrient management.

Speaking on The Country last week, National leader Simon Bridges criticised Labour for the lack of planning behind what he termed their “assault on the regions” in the past few months, a concern echoed by many in the agricultural sector. With this issue, Curtis himself agrees an ‘accounting framework’ needs to be established before any limit setting goes ahead:

“The first thing we really need to sort out is the accounting framework, so to speak. It’s all very good setting limits, but we need some way of measuring how we are progressing against them in a fairly structured way. We need a mechanism for understanding what all the individual parties are doing, from farmers through to towns and other commercial users, whether it be what they’re taking or what, in relative terms, they are actually losing. In some places where it’s overcooked a bit, the solution might actually be: instead of everybody having to reduce by thirty and spending a fortune, we figure out where the issue is actually coming from and identify two farms in the whole catchment to retire completely on the basis that they are the main source of pollution in that catchment. So developing an accounting framework in a spatial sense is what I’m getting at here; identify what the issues are and who’s doing what where. From there, you can identify some far more sophisticated solutions as to what the future looks like.”

Some would suggest Labour’s hasty efforts to introduce regulation in these areas is a product of their will to make a defining mark in what may only be a brief time in governance. Curtis says that’s an unavoidable product of the political system, but hopes it won’t influence an issue as important as water quality:

That’s part of the issue with the three-year political system; people want to come in and make their mark. This water debate should be approached in a bipartisan manner, it needs to be strategically worked on over a long period as opposed to being a tool for ‘political wins’. Probably our biggest concern is a blunt, heavy-handed approach from the minister around allocation, because it’s a complex subject. There’s a reason why it has never been landed to date - because it is extremely complicated. So our biggest concern is someone coming in and saying, ‘we’re going to allocate everything based on natural to capital’, which will work in some catchments sure, but in others would be a really silly thing to do.”