Horticulture looks to science to solve water quality

Hort Talk
with Mike Chapman
HorticultureNZ CEO

By the time you read this, the results of the General Election will be known. This election proved critical for fruit and vegetable growers. Labour fired a shot at growers when they came out with a policy to apply tax on water used for irrigation. Other taxes proposed at the time of writing this article, but not defined, also had potential to hit the rural sector hard.

Regardless of who ends up in government, the discussion about water tax was one that needed to happen. It made us aware that there are still a large number of people who don’t know how healthy food is grown. It also showed that New Zealanders are passionate about water quality, if not quite sure what causes poor water quality, or how to improve it. Facts and evidence are essential in any ongoing conversation.

Horticulture New Zealand contends that using science and technology to inform sustainable farming practices and reduce adverse environmental impacts will have better outcomes than taxes will. That is, if we are looking to solve water quality issues in perpetuity.

Healthy food

Food consumers world-wide are increasingly wanting information about the environmental impacts of the food supply chain, particularly when it comes to healthy food such as fresh fruit and vegetables.

No one is more aware than our growers that environmental sustainability is paramount as it relates to freshwater and horticulture. Our growers are mainly intergenerational family businesses with a lot of collective knowledge about cropping systems and the environment.

Some of them have been keeping records for more than a century. So working with them, rather than punishing them with taxes that are not even related to good environmental outcomes, will have the most positive impact on reaching whatever targets a new government sets.

Regarding water use and water tax, some important issues and questions were raised during the pre-election debating.

Water charge

There seemed to be some confusion around existing payments but in reality, no one in New Zealand pays for water. Some people pay for the infrastructure to deliver water and, in the case of urban New Zealand, for water treatment. A law change would be required to charge for water. And for there to be such a law, the question of who owns water – a renewable resource that falls from the sky – would have to be answered. Previous governments have said that no one owns water.

People also seemed to think that using water to produce food automatically made the water user a water polluter. This is completely untrue. Growers are already using science and technology to ensure timely use of water and management of nutrients.

It has become clear that New Zealanders need to have more information about how water is captured, stored, used, and managed as waste. Understanding water’s life-cycle and knowledge of what is already being done to protect waterways will be essential in any ongoing policy development.

Vegetable shortages

Faced with a water tax, growers have two choices; either keep irrigating at present levels, producing fruit and vegetables of good quality and achieving good productivity per hectare, or reduce watering. A reduction in watering will see a reduction in the amount of fruit and vegetables produced. If there is a shortage of vegetables for example, prices increase; this is basic supply and demand. It has been the case this winter because heavy rain and the cold weather have impacted on harvesting. 

Horticulture New Zealand will be working with the new government to ensure they understand that it is in New Zealand’s long-term interests to promote healthy eating and incentivise the production and consumption of affordable and accessible fresh fruit and vegetables. The health system is where the cost of an unhealthy nation is borne.


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