1493682454879 - Time is needed for farmers to switch to more water friendly systems

Time is needed for farmers to switch to more water friendly systems

OPINION: Another month, another report on the state of New Zealand’s water quality.

The latest one from the Government largely confirms what we already know, that the quality of New Zealand’s freshwater has worsened.

Cue the outrage and finger pointing by the usual suspects and demands for immediate action. An election year has turned water quality issues into a shark feeding frenzy.

The demands sound simple enough, slash cow numbers, bring agriculture into the emissions trading scheme, put taxes on commercial water use and throw the legal book at water polluters.

* New Government target to see 90 per cent of rivers and lakes ‘swimmable’ by 2040 
* No longer swimmable: A community mourns its lost river
​* ‘Progress’ on water quality has been in the wrong direction
* New water quality website helps swimmers check the cleanest swimming spots
* Making every water body swimmable is ‘not practical’
* New ‘swimmable’ fresh water targets are also 100% pure politics​
* The thorny politics of ‘swimmable’, a word losing its meaning​

For argument’s sake, lets assume there is a change of government and all of those demands are put into law.

While the changes will be welcomed by some, people will need to have their eyes wide open about the potential economic consequences. If you think improving water quality won’t hit everyone in the pocket, then think again.

Waikato’s Healthy Rivers plan change was modelled to cost the region $7.7 billion over its 80 year timeframe. Now imagine that extrapolated across New Zealand.

 A flawed exercise I know, as each region is different with different challenges and costs, but it gives an indication of the potential financial implications.

Local government will also have to come to the party and upgrade urban sewerage, so get ready for a rates hike. District and city councils should not be able to get a free ride if there is a sewage leak while the same offence on a farm sees fines and outrage from environmental groups.

Food prices will also lift as farmers and processors can only absorb so much extra costs, meaning the days of cheap home grown food in supermarkets will end. There will be less food produced too as farmers are forced to offset their nutrients or emissions by destocking.

That means more cheap, imported food produced by farmers that are not bound by such regulations.  There’s already a living example of this with the pork industry.

Yes, I hear you say that the domestic market is a drop in the bucket and our farmers will make a fortune from shifting from the commodity market to the value added market. Yes and no.

Shifting into that market takes time.  Higher prices mean greater demands from customers and those relationships take time to develop. Like it or not, commodities are going to be around for a bit longer.

Also, foreigners are already paying a premium for our products overseas, particularly for red meat. Pushing that price even higher could see blowback from customers.

Falls in stock numbers will occur to a degree with regional council plan changes coming into play. But calls for a stock number cap should be rejected because different regions have different water quality challenges.

For example, capping cow numbers on the Hauraki Plains is pointless because sediment is the biggest issue in that catchment, not nitrogen. 

The transition and its results will take time to bed in and more empathy from the industry’s critics is needed because the constant stream of hate is not helping.

Hating farming seems to have become a new national pastime.

Dairy farmers have come through two tough years that have put many under huge mental stress. It will take more than one good payout year for them to dig themselves out of their financial hole.

The constant financial pressure, the endlessly negative press in some quarters and now having to change their farm business could push some over the edge.

By all means, engage, challenge and debate, and educate yourself by attending public field days and see for yourself what is being done on farms and listen to the issues farmers face.

In the 13 years I have been in media I have seen farming leaders go from denial and deflection to acceptance and engagement. But fixing water quality will take a collective effort from everyone.

It’s better to get on board and help make that change than shouting from the sideline.

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