Voluntary efforts to control farm pollution failing

By Daniel Collins 19/03/2010

Yesterday, the sh!t hit the fan.

Agriculture Minister David Carter:

“The data from this year’s snapshot tells a totally unacceptable story of effluent management. Regardless of whether this is because farmers don’t have the right tools, don’t know how to comply, or simply don’t care, behaviour has to change.”

The snapshot in question is a progress report on the Dairying and Clean Streams Accord, released by MAF. The Accord is a framework for national and regional government, farmers and industry to work together towards targets for improving water quality around farms.

Set in 2003, these targets are:
1. Dairy cattle to be excluded from 50% of streams, rivers and lakes by 2007, rising to 90% by 2012
2. 50% of regular crossing points to have bridges or culverts by 2007, and 90% by 2012
3. All dairy farm effluent discharge to comply with resource consents and regional plans immediately
4. All dairy farms to have in place systems to manage nutrient inputs and outputs by 2007
5. 50% of regionally significant wetlands to be fenced by 2005, rising to 90% by 2007.

Two of the 2007 targets were met in 2008/09.

Just two.

Cattle exclusion from 50% of riparian areas has been achieved in all regions. In fact, it has risen to 80% – well on it’s way to the 2012 target. What’s better is that 98% of regular crossings now have bridges or culverts.

Success various among regions. In terms of compliance with resource consents, the winner is by far Taranaki. The three furthest behind, in terms of full compliance, are Northland, Waikato and Canterbury.

Moving from the report to the reactions, Fonterra called the results “completely unacceptable”. They have recently strengthened efforts to get their farmers up to scratch with resource consents. This is not a surprise. As an international exporter, Fonterra is exposed to the whims of the international market, and any sustainability-based consumer choices it makes.

Green Party Co-Leader Dr Russel Norman was similarly disappointed:

’It’s time for the Government to regulate the impact of dairy pollution with enforceable water quality standards. Voluntary measures, which rely on individual farmers to make improvements to their practices and report their own progress, are simply not enough of an incentive,’

While Lachlan McKenzie of Federated Farmers was also “really disappointed”, they still managed to find a solver lining:

“While the focus will be on the negative, the industry’s openness and accountability is a much bigger positive.”

…while also managing a dig at regulatory authorities:

“This Report really highlights need for greater consistency with the way farms are inspected.”

Forest and Bird Advocacy Manager Kevin Hackwell noted that the increase in the average level of significant non-compliance by diary farmers rose from 12% to 15%.

“That’s a 25 per cent increase in serious non-compliance. It’s unacceptable that we are going backwards on environmental standards after seven years of the accord and with all that’s known about the impacts of intensive dairying on our waterways.”

And Fish and Game thinks the Accord should be scrapped. Neil Deans, Resource Management Coordinator:

’Compliance with regional council effluent rules and consent condition has actually dropped and other measures of progress have stalled. Targets such as the percentage of farms with a nutrient budget are as meaningless as the percentage of people with diet plans — it’s the day to day action that counts.’

The bottom line? Voluntary on-farm targets for reducing agricultural pollution are, on average, not being met. They are improving, and exposure to an increasingly sustainability-conscious market is helping. But, for whatever reasons, many farmers are failing to meet best management practices.

The question at the front of my mind is: Why? What I would love to see are the results of an anonymised survey of farmers, by an impartial social scientist, asking this very question.

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