For farmers, farm planning will provide a flexible and practical alternative to regulations. Everyone wins, right? But ecological tipping points do not conform to financial cost constraints. There is clearly a role for farm plans, but they do not secure the change needed at a catchment scale
It’s no secret our freshwater environments are in crisis, with up to 95 percent of rivers and streams running through pastoral lands polluted.
The Government’s “Essential Freshwater” programme, released in 2018, aims to stop further degradation and loss, make changes so we see water quality materially improving within five years, and bring waterways and ecosystems to a healthy state within a generation.
The dairy industry, a key driver of freshwater pollution, is under pressure to reduce contamination to levels that can ensure these goals are met, and fast.
To these ends, the Government’s freshwater reform package introduced new limits for environmental performance, with strong enforcement requirements: national standards (rules that apply now to high-risk activities); stock exclusion regulations; and regional rules (to be set by 2025).
Freshwater farm plans, described as a “valuable tool for farmers”, also appeared in the package to better control the effects of farming. Kahui Wai Māori—the Māori Freshwater Forum cautioned that while farm plans can help farmers comply with limits, these plans cannot set them. The 2019 Ministry for the Environment consultation paper caveated that farm plans would still need to be proven effective for long-term reliance.
But this year there’s been a shift in the message on farm plans.
A discussion document on freshwater farm plan regulations, put together by the Ministry for the Environment and the Ministry for Primary Industries, asserts farm plans will reduce the need for consents and rules, as well as respond to industry requests to move away from regulatory tools to manage land use effects on freshwater.
The document describes something of a panacea for our freshwater woes: good water quality will be achieved and Te Mana o te Wai (prioritising the health and well-being of waterbodies and ecosystems) effected through farm planning. For farmers, farm planning will provide a flexible and practical alternative to regulations. Everyone wins, right?
But this sanguine messaging obscures the limitations of farm plans—most significantly, that farm plans neither ensure individual actions on land will meet collective targets for restoring freshwater health, nor reduce farmers’ compliance responsibilities. Caution is needed to avoid putting the cart (individual farm planning) before the horse (the collective outcomes needed to meet freshwater goals).
Our freshwater problems are the result of the cumulative effects of individual actions. Rules must be designed to ensure the necessary amount of individual change to reach catchment goals happens in time. We know that for freshwater, continued nitrogen inputs will result in even more difficult and expensive recovery, as ecosystems get closer to tipping points.
The difficulty is farm plans will start rolling out from mid-2022, well ahead of new regional rules being in place.
Regional targets for freshwater restoration are expected to be set in council plans within four years. They must meet new bottom lines (stated biophysical standards), fulfil long-term visions for what communities and tangata whenua want, and give effect to local concepts of Te Mana o te Wai.
This process will take place (ideally) through close engagement with tangata whenua and communities. It will produce (ideally) targets at a catchment scale to truly restore freshwater ecosystems, and prioritise their health and well-being. It is these targets that farm plans will need to deliver on, for the cart to follow the horse.
We already know the regional planning process will require a substantial change away from dairy farming in some areas to reach nitrogen bottom lines. However, farm plans focus on current land use, and mix environmental risks with financial cost to prioritise actions.
Ecological tipping points do not conform to financial cost constraints. There is clearly a role for farm plans, but they do not secure the change needed at a catchment scale.
It is only regional rules (when they are introduced) that will secure the Government’s goals to restore freshwater health. This is because they will be set to meet catchment targets and their observance must be enforced. To ensure collective outcomes are met, farm plans must then deliver against these rules.
Once in place, more stringent rules will prevail, despite the messaging that farm plans will reduce compliance responsibilities, and the significant investment required to get one (development and sign off by a “qualified certifier” could cost some up to $10,000, excluding implementation).
But the risks of putting the cart before the horse must not be to freshwater itself. Te Mana o te Wai prioritises the health and well-being of freshwater; in this exercise, farm plans are not the driver.