OPINION: Fonterra claims some dairy operators are not aware of the need to manage runoff from their farms to prevent polluting rivers, lakes and streams. Really?
As the Environment Court notes, they must have been living in an "information vacuum" for the past 20 years, when the damage to waterways from agriculture and horticulture has been the subject of robust public debate.
A more credible view is that while most farmers strive hard to mitigate the environmental impact of their operations, some do nothing at all. As a result, Horizons Regional Council is imposing limits on the runoff of nitrogen and other nutrients to protect the region's waterways.
The council has won Environment Court approval to restrict the amount of nitrogen that can be applied to land for dairying, intensive sheep and beef farming and horticulture.
It is part of a wider policy that will govern the use of natural resources for the next decade. Arguably the most important area is water quality.
Nitrogen and other nutrients from farming and horticulture feed algal blooms and noxious plants that clog waterways, deplete oxygen, destroy marine life and make the water undrinkable for humans and livestock. It is a serious environmental issue that New Zealand must confront if its rivers, lakes and streams are to continue to be recreational havens and the clean, green image we wish to project to the rest of the world is to have credibility.
In rejecting the appeal against the runoff policy, the court said the evidence was that half the nutrients being leached or washed into the region's waterways came from dairy farming, despite it accounting for a relatively small percentage of the land used for farming and horticulture within the council's boundaries.
The regional council's plan has brought dark warnings that it will drive some farmers to the wall, but the court found that though some would need to change some practices to get their nitrogen losses within the limits, in most cases the cost would be acceptable.
It also cast doubt on claims from Fonterra that the Dairying and Clean Streams Accord it championed in 2003 would get the job done without the need for restrictions being imposed on farmers. It noted the accord set a target of 100 per cent of dairy farms having measures in place to manage nutrient runoff by 2007. The claim that some farmers are unaware of the need to manage nitrogen loss suggests the accord has either not been publicised as widely as it should have, or some farmers have simply ignored it.
There is, of course, a balance to be struck between the environment and farming, which is still the backbone of New Zealand's economy.
However, the fact that almost 200 companies or individuals were prosecuted for unlawfully discharging dairy effluent between July 2008 and June this year and more than 3200 were issued with abatement notices or instant fines strongly suggests a lot of operators have yet to understand their responsibilities.
Rather than making excuses for them, Fonterra should drop them a line.
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