Engaging in environmental policy vital for sector resilience

Don’t give the regulators a reason to regulate.
Wednesday, 19 December 2018

This is one of the messages Beef + Lamb New Zealand’s Environment team is giving farmers in response to signals from regional and national government that stricter environmental regulations are likely.

Speaking on a B+LNZ podcast, environmental policy manager Corina Jordan says the government can only regulate when it has reason to do so.

“If we can ensure, that as a farming community, we are not giving them reason to intervene in our farming businesses due to environmental and public concerns, then we are safeguarding ourselves from having stricter regulation forced upon us.”

She outlined the environmental challenges and opportunities facing the sector and the work the B+LNZ environment team is doing to help farmers help themselves as they navigate regional and national policy changes and maintain a social licence to operate.

“Success is resilient farmers and farming communities having the freedom to adapt and innovate.”

Corina says the team has spent a lot of time this year talking to farming communities about policy changes in this country and the drivers behind those changes. These include public and political concerns around farming and the environment, and changing consumer attitudes toward food production systems both in NZ and internationally.

In this country, there is growing public concern about farming and its impact on freshwater resources and while initially the finger was pointed at the dairy sector, recent media attention has drawn the red meat sector into the spotlight with concerns over winter grazing practices and feedlots.

It is important that the sector responds. Losing a social licence to operate will impacts on the resilience of a farming business, she says.

“It’s really important in relation to our businesses and the opportunities for the future of our businesses, that social license is enhanced and not eroded.”

Consumers in New Zealand and globally are increasingly concerned about how their food is produced. If this country wants to sell products for a premium, producers need to ensure they are meeting consumer needs.

She says many of the policies coming through both regional and national governments have been underpinned by reports from the multi-sectorial Land and Water Forum, and existing requirements to ensure that land use is managed within environmental limits.

Earlier this year, the forum was asked by government ministers to consider four key issues, these are: to hold the line or improve water quality, look at a resource allocation system that is fair and equitable, sediment management, and good management practices (GMP).

GMP encompass what society expects farmers to do when they are undertaking an activity such as winter grazing.

Corina says there are likely to be changes in legislation early in 2019 to introduce these four key issues into environmental policy.

B+LNZ believe environment related issues such as these should be dealt with at catchment level. Every catchment is different in terms of water quality, nutrient loading or sediment loss depending on geology, climate, soil, farming systems and proximity to urban populations.

Government and regional council policies tend to deal with a single issue, such as sediment or nitrogen loadings yet farms are complex ecological systems and a big part of the environment team’s job is to integrate all these single issues to understand how they impact on farm businesses and the wider catchment.

“We need to make sure that when the rules are written they have the flexibility to allow farmers to do what they want to do while operating within environmental limits.”
This means taking a holistic, farm system approach and developing frameworks that will work for everyone.

Corina says within the policy setting process, there is opportunity for farming groups to co-create policy with regional council that will work for them.

B+LNZ has developed resources that guide farmers and farming groups through the policy-making process. This year, they have also been working alongside farmers in the Waikato, Southland and Canterbury as their regional councils set their freshwater standards.

Corina says the “Process of Natural Resource Management” can be applied at regional council, catchment group or farm level and is simply a process of setting good principles which form the background for natural resource management.

It involves determining values (social, economic, cultural, recreational), looking at the natural environment to decide what the issues are (e.g water quality, nutrient loadings), looking at the causes of the problems and determining what can be done about it.

Regional councils will then decide whether to take a carrot or a stick approach to addressing these issues.

“When farmers understand the issues, they can them decide what they want to do about it.”

“National legislation is effects-based so in order to intervene with regulation, the regional council or national government must have a reason to step in. If farmers are addressing these issues themselves, they are less likely to intervene with repercussions.”

“We need to take control of our own destiny.”

Tailored Farm Environment Plans or Land and Environment Plans help farmers identify their farm-specific natural resources and manage them. These plans are a requirement in some regions, but they are also a valuable farm management tool and can be used to prove to regulators that farmers are actively managing their natural resources.

B+LNZ runs FEP and LEP workshops throughout the country to help farmers put these plans together. They also support the formation and operation of catchment groups which brings farming communities together to collectively identify and address the issues specific to their catchment.

Work is underway to develop workshops to help farmers monitor their freshwater ecosystems, identify opportunities for carbon farming and improve winter grazing practices. These will be launched in 2019.

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