The Prime Minister yesterday and the Environment Minister on Tuesday appear to have mounted an operation to mend fences with farmers.
Only a month after farmers marched on Parliament both Jacinda Ardern and David Parker confirmed the Government was asking for another look at the tough nutrient limits for waterways announced in June.
And Ardern yesterday reminded the DairyNZ Environmental Forum that the Zero Carbon Bill would allow a review of the controversial 2050 methane targets.
But she didn’t back off the proposed changes entirely.
She was clearly defending both the freshwater proposals and the methane targets when she told the Forum that New Zealand did not have the luxury of doing nothing about the environment.
“Increasingly, other countries we trade with are asking about what we’re doing on sustainability and the environment,” she told the Forum.
“And they’re asking because their consumers are asking.
“If we do nothing, we fall behind.
“We lose our branding, and we suffer anyway.
“Change is necessary, but just how much we create buffers and absorb the shock of that change is the question.
“It’s about what you’re already doing and then what the government can do to support you as you do that.”
She was challenged by one farmer at the Forum who asked whether she could say what the process might be for the review of the controversial post-2030 methane targets.
Farmers, as a whole, have protested loudly about the proposal that the methane target be reduced by up to 47% by 2050.
Ardern’s reply was hardly an endorsement of the target.
“It’s so clear that actually there is a lot of work to be done around the science in this space,” she said.
“Science will keep developing our understanding.
“Our knowledge of it within the domestic context will keep developing.
“We need to be agile, which is why we have allowed the Climate Commission to review what that target looks like.”
Even so, her Government rejected a proposal during the passage of the Bill for the review to be brought forward.
But the Zero Carbon Bill is only one of the Government’s environmental proposals which have brought farmers to hugely attended prootest meetings all over the country and a march on Parliament.
The draft National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management unveiled in September which imposes tough new limits on nitrates, in particular, has provoked a massive backlash from farmers.
The proposals are a key plank in Labour’s Confidence and Supply Agreement with the Greens.
DairyNZ commissioned economic modelling on the proposals which it says would suggest that by 2050, implementing the proposals could lead to a fall in GDP of $6 billion.
The economic analysis forecast that by 2050 total milk production would have to fall by 24 per cent and all exports by 5.2 per cent or $8.1 billion.
Environment Minister David Parker told the Forum dinner on Tuesday night that the Ministry for the environment had received 18,000 submissions of which 3500 were individual submissions rather than form-letters.
“Officials are now working hard to go through all these submissions and analyze what’s been said to prepare advice on options for consideration and to help assist the panel with their work,” he said.
The panel is another advisory group he has set up to double-check the original proposals.
“One of the issues that Jim van der Poel (DairyNZ chair) has raised with me and it’s been raised by others is how we’re going to get our head around the enormous variety of views around dissolved inorganic nitrogen, and we are obviously giving thought to that as to how we address that,” he said.
“The Fresh Water Leaders Group for example, recently said that these areas of disagreement must be able to be narrowed and that some of these areas of disagreement should be put back to the scientific advisory group with the direction that they give us some more advice to narrow the areas of difference.”
Parker is presumably referring to submissions such as that of the Taranaki Regional Council
Its Chief Executive, Basil Chamberlain, in a briefing to Councillors in October said “the Council and others, including NIWA scientists, have found that where ecological health is improving, it is happening regardless of whether nitrogen levels are decreasing or increasing.
“The relationship between nutrient levels and stream health is not as simplistic and straightforward as often suggested.
Taranaki has fast-flowing, deeply incised and shaded rivers.
“Frequent rainfall events feeding our steep gradient rivers provide natural flushing.
“Even in summer, Taranaki rivers do not have the large bodies of shallow, sluggish and warm flows along their length, which would impact stream health.”
Chamberlain said particularly problematic would be mandatory new bottom-line catchment standards for Dissolved Inorganic Nitrogen (DIN) and for Dissolved Reactive Phosphorus (DRP).
“The proposed nutrient limits are not achievable across much of Taranaki’s ring plain without major land-use change and impacts on the region’s social and economic wellbeing,” he said.
“The Government would be directing the Council to impose requirements on farmers to significantly lower their N and P inputs.
“The only foreseeable option for some farmers will be a reduction in livestock numbers or conversion to other, less profitable uses.”
Tracey Brown is both the chair of the DairyNZ Environmental Forum and also a member of the advisory panel.
She told POLITIK that there was a variation in what people believed with the science.
“Not everybody agrees on everything,” she said.
“Not all scientists agree on everything.
“So it’s important to work through those differences and try to come up with the right outcome”
Brown was pleased with the response the Forum got from the Prime Minister.
“What I saw today was a real willingness by the government to want to engage with farmers,” she said.
“We want to actually help come up with solutions.
“I feel confident that the government wants to work with industry to come up with the right solutions.”
Ardern herself was conciliatory, implying that the timeframe for implementation might be stretched.
“While there will be differing views on how and how fast we work to bring remedial action to our waterways, ultimately everyone has agreed fundamentally with the aims of the package,” she said.
“Everyone wants better outcomes for freshwater.
“What we are trying to do is look beyond political cycles and get to a framework that will last for the next generation because it is one of those long term challenges, and we won’t be able to turn around water quality in three years, six years, even ten; it will be a generational issue.”
Ardern said that she wanted to reduce anxiety within the farming community – but she wanted to keep “our brand”.
“It’s a big challenge,” she said.
“I can’t say we will have got it right or perfect the entire time.
“But anything I can do to try and bring everyone with us and say, we know this is hard, and we’ve got your backs.
“We’re really trying to get rid of the rural-urban divide, to try and get rid of that debate of blame and scaremongering — I’ll do everything I can on that.”