In May 2020, Environment Minister David Parker said the Government was delivering on its commitment to clean up the country’s waterways.

“Many of our rivers, lakes and wetlands are under serious threat after years of decline and political inaction,” Parker said.

“If we don’t start cleaning up our water now they will get worse, become more expensive to fix, and we risk serious damage to our international clean green reputation.”

Part of the Government’s package was a cap on the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, initially set at 190kg per hectare per year.

Environmental groups complained the cap was too high, and according to government estimates only 20 percent of dairy farmers would be affected.

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The cap has been in place since July 2021, after which farms have been required to submit their fertiliser use data. “No area of pasture can exceed this level without a resource consent,” the Environment Ministry website says.

That may sound like a bottom line.

However, figures from Waikato, Canterbury and Southland – where about two-thirds of New Zealand’s nitrogen fertiliser is applied, and home to some of the country’s worst water quality – show that’s far from the truth.

Even those farmers who admit they’re over the cap aren’t being punished. Almost three years after the cap was signalled, regional councils say they’re focused on education.

Nature is clearly struggling to cope with intensive farming. (To be fair, urban waterways are often in worse condition than rural ones.)

As Parker, the Environment Minister, pointed out in Parliament three years ago, the 20-year trend for river water quality – by measuring macroinvertebrates, small animals without backbones, such as insects and worms – shows more than twice the number of sites are declining than improving.

Nitrogen fertiliser use skyrocketed in New Zealand, increasing 629 percent between 1991 and 2019, to 452,000 tonnes. Over the same period, dairy cattle numbers increased by 2.8 million.

The aim of the cap was to reduce excessive fertiliser use, and restore the health of rivers, lakes, and groundwater. But how is that possible when thousands of farms haven’t provided data?

“It’s crazy that almost three years after the reporting requirements were publicised, and almost a year since the first set of data was meant to be submitted, the reporting numbers are so low.” – Tom Kay, freshwater advocate for Forest & Bird

Under the national policy standard for freshwater management, the cap applies to farms 20 hectares or larger with grazed land. However, the Government only requires dairy farmers to report their nitrogen use, annually, by July 31.

Reporting was delayed by a month last year because of problems with a national tool.

(In August last year, Federated Farmers wrote to Parker decrying confused messaging from his ministry and regional councils, which caused stress to farmers. It called for the deadline to move to December 31.)

Of the three powerhouse dairy provinces, Southland farmers had the highest reporting, with figures provided by 81 percent, or 777, dairy farms. In Canterbury, 667 dairy farms, or 47 percent of qualifying farms, reported, and in Waikato, which has about as many herds as the entire South Island, compliance was 28 percent.

According to 2020/21 statistics, Waikato had 3130 dairy herds comprising about 1.1 million cows.

Tom Kay, freshwater advocate for conservation lobby group Forest & Bird, says the reporting data for Waikato and Canterbury is “shockingly low”.

“It’s crazy that almost three years after the reporting requirements were publicised, and almost a year since the first set of data was meant to be submitted, the reporting numbers are so low.”

Improving the environment requires upholding bottom lines, Kay says – “this is one of them, and it’s not even that substantial”.

Everything will continue getting worse if councils don’t put money into compliance and enforcement, and without “real oversight” from a central agency, such as the Ministry for the Environment.

Christine Rose, Greenpeace’s lead climate campaigner, says the fertiliser reporting system appears unfit for purpose, and regional councils were allowing “blatant non-compliance”.

Public confidence and ecological standards are being eroded by a fertiliser cap that’s too high, and isn’t being properly implemented or enforced.

“Areas with high rates of non-compliance are also New Zealand’s most dairy-intensive regions, where addressing environmental harm relies on reducing the impacts of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and too many cows.”

Opportunity to educate and advise

In Southland, where some farms already supply fertiliser data as part of existing consents, farmers who didn’t provide information “have been contacted and advised it is a requirement”, the regional council’s resource management manager, Donna Ferguson, says.

The first year was an “opportunity to educate and provide advice”.

The message is similar in Canterbury.

“Providing education and support early on leads to higher levels of compliance,” says Judith Earl-Goulet, general manager of regulatory services at Canterbury’s regional council, ECan.

“With the first year’s data, we have focused on education. With the second year’s data, we will complement our educational approach with direct engagement with non-compliant farmers, and where required, we will use our enforcement processes if farmers are unwilling to work with us.”

Tracy Nelson, Waikato Regional Council’s primary industry engagement manager, says new regulations generally lead to a “period of adjustment … as the regulated community becomes more aware of their obligations”.

“As such, our initial focus is on engagement and education.”

The Waikato, Canterbury and Southland regional councils state there are 20 or so farms in their provinces that apply more than 190kg per hectare per year. But as Kay, of Forest & Bird, points out, without full reporting it’s impossible to know how many more are over the cap.

The councils’ response is inconsistent, including when they might switch from dangling carrots to sharpening sticks.

“In the first instance, we see education as the most appropriate way to engage with this group of farmers,” Nelson, of Waikato’s regional council says. “Over time, a graduated response to ongoing or persistent non-compliance may be necessary.”

Environment Canterbury only contacted farmers who exceeded 200kg per hectare per year. “We will be prioritising a review of reporting in future years for these properties to ensure actions to comply were undertaken,” says Earl-Goulet.

“Where required, we will use our enforcement processes if farmers are unwilling to work with us. This enforcement process can range from warning notices to abatements and infringements.”

Ferguson, of Environment Southland, says many farms initially thought to be over the cap were not because of “incorrect data entry”.

As to the ones who had applied too much fertiliser: “We have communicated with them about the requirement of obtaining a consent if they are going to continue to apply those amounts of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser.”

Kay, of Forest & Bird, says these are the country’s most intensive, potentially most environmentally damaging farms.

“To have it going unreported and probably unconsented leaves a massive hole in our collective approach to improving water quality.”

Greenpeace’s Rose says a tighter, more robust framework is needed to reduce fertiliser and dairy pollution.

“We also need strong and active support from the Government for ecological farming – farming that works with, instead of against nature, and protects our climate and our waterways for generations to come.”

As pointed out by Greenpeace last year, synthetic nitrogen fertiliser isn’t just a problem for waterways. It causes more than double the greenhouse gas emissions of domestic flights.

Greenpeace activists unfurl a banner on the Fertiliser Association’s building in Wellington in October 2020. Photo: Nick Tapp/Greenpeace

Fertiliser Association chief executive Vera Power says it shouldn’t be assumed farms that don’t report are breaching the cap.

“Farmers are grappling with and are overwhelmed by the range of government compliance they are now facing. This is more likely to be the reason they are still working on reporting fertiliser use.”

In saying that, fertiliser giants Ravensdown and Ballance have made it easier for farmers to report by making their own software compatible.

The cap has helped “at the margins” to reduce fertiliser use over the past two years by 12 percent, she says. (This fact was noted by the minister’s office.)

Other factors reducing fertiliser use include high prices because of the Ukraine war, as well as innovation and efficiency.

Irrigated farms in Canterbury have historically used higher application rates than those in other parts of the country, Power says, and they are now adjusting to “some of the strictest limits in the country”.

Analysis suggests “significant” decreases in nitrogen loss on Canterbury farms in the past 10 years, she says. (Overall, though, between 2002 and 2019 urea fertiliser used in Canterbury more than doubled.)

Industry body DairyNZ supports councils’ education-first approach.

“DairyNZ is working with dairy companies to communicate expectations to farmers so they are aware of the need to send data to their regional council,” sustainability general manager Dr David Burger says.

“Low reporting levels are not unexpected during the first year of adoption and are in line with the introduction of previous regulatory reporting requirements. Improved understanding and tool usability will support an increase in reporting for the current season.”

Michael Hide, general manager of sustainable dairying, on-farm programmes for Fonterra, New Zealand’s largest company and one of the world’s biggest dairy companies, says the cap of 190kg per hectare per year “does not factor in nuances like how effectively and efficiently fertiliser is being used” – which suggests at least some Fonterra farms continue to apply rates above this level.  

“We will continue to support our farmers to improve the efficiency of their fertiliser use, but it is ultimately the role of the Government to work with regional councils to enforce their own regulations.”

Environment Minister Parker takes a positive line, saying he is confident more dairy farmers will report this year.

“Minister Parker will write to councils asking for improved levels of compliance,” his office says in a statement.

Nature is struggling

Russell Death, a professor of freshwater ecology at Massey University, has sympathy for farmers, given the dramatic increase in compliance in different areas.

He also believes regional councils have dug themselves into an awkward position. “Many have allowed years of increasing intensification and now they need to pull that back.”

By far the biggest issue for freshwater in intensively farmed areas is stock densities, Death says, and the feed required to support them.

He doesn’t think the current synthetic nitrogen fertiliser cap will make much of a difference as it’s still very high. The Government is yet to pull the right levers to turn water quality around, he says.

“I was and am still a strong supporter of nitrogen limits for waterways that will preserve ecological health.”

Is a fertiliser cap the right lever? Funnily enough, Power, of the Fertiliser Association, doesn’t seem to think so.

Nitrogen losses to water from fertiliser are a small proportion of overall losses, she says. Studies show the main nitrogen losses on dairy farms come from cow urine patches.

“The net environment benefit of the cap may not be substantive,” Power says.

That may be true in a technical sense, but the losses must surely be related. Fertiliser promotes greater pasture growth, leading to higher stocking rates, more grazing, and, therefore, more cow excretion.

The Environment Minister’s office says the fertiliser cap is being reviewed as part of a wider report on nitrogen management settings. “This report is expected to be provided to relevant ministers later in the year, with public release some time after that.”

One wonders if the report will surface before October’s general election. At that point, voters may be mulling if the Government has delivered on its commitment to clean up the country’s waterways, “after years of decline and political inaction”.

Action can’t come soon enough. But Russell Death warns not to expect instant results.

“Recovery from the amount of damage we have inflicted on our waterways will not be quick.”

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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