OPINION: Last week, New Zealand's farmers woke to some pretty sobering news. If you guessed that our cockies choked on their cornies over Fonterra's latest payout downgrade, you'd be only partly right.
Potentially more damaging and far-reaching was news that the Environment Court had thrown its considerable weight behind Horizon Regional Council's precedent-setting One Plan for resource management.
According to parties on all sides of the debate, this comprehensive document will revolutionise management of water, land and the industries that use them, not only in the Manawatu-Wanganui catchment served by that particular local authority but right around the country.
So important was the outcome of the court ruling that powerhouses Fonterra, Federated Farmers and DairyNZ, among many others, were lined up against it. And they were all floored by a strident, unequivocal ruling in support of a document that dramatically rebalances the regulatory framework in favour of the environment.
The ruling, backed by independent expert submissions, paints a very different picture to the bucolic tapestry that has been lovingly, carefully laid out before us in the past.
It concludes that the image of 100% Pure Green New Zealand is a marketing mirage that hides a darker, messier reality of unsustainable land development, agricultural intensification and degraded waterways.
It concludes that education, cajoling and voluntary agreements such as Fonterra's clean streams accord have not worked and regulation should be the new route to results.
And it sets limits on land-use, nutrient loading and water quality that are to be backed by enforceable compliance regimes.
What that means in practical terms for horticulture and farming beyond the farm gates of Manawatu-Wanganui is at best opaque.
Doubtless our own Taranaki Regional Council will argue that it is already an able advocate for the environment in maintaining the balance between nature and those who would exploit its bounty. (Even if it has removed overt references to the environment from its mission statement.)
But what is clear is that the court's ramrod backing for the One Plan creates a template that other regions and local bodies will not be able to ignore.
It puts councils, farmers, industries and environmentalists on notice that a new benchmark has been set. And that it will be applied even if some farms and businesses have to fold.
The ruling also makes a point of reminding farmers that they are not entitled to special treatment when it comes to exploiting resources. And that is fair.
But it is hoped that the application of the ruling does not tip the balance so unfairly to one side that the other is critically undermined.
Finding a balance that preserves the environment while maintaining healthy, profitable businesses remains the key. Because the agriculture sector is of vital importance to the New Zealand economy.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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