Changing the landscape
Farming has been the most significant human influence on the land in New Zealand. There are about 70,000 farms, which cover about half of the country’s land area.
Despite New Zealand’s relatively gentle climate, farming has not come altogether ‘naturally’. From the kūmara plots of early Māori to today’s intensive farms, orchards and vineyards, farming has demanded determination, technological innovation and significant changes to the environment.
Farming has long been the backbone of New Zealand’s economy, and is a significant part of its cultural and aesthetic landscape. But it also causes some of the nation’s most vexing environmental problems.
Farming practices can lead to erosion and loss of nutrients from the soil, which affect farmers themselves. Other environmental consequences affect the wider community, for example the depletion of aquifers (underground layers of water-soaked rock) or contamination of fresh water. Some effects are immediately noticeable, but others, such as ground water contamination, can take years, or even decades, to appear.
Over the past few decades, public opinion has changed significantly about the appropriate balance between human land use and care for the environment. Because New Zealand’s agricultural produce is mostly exported, farmers are highly sensitive to the demands of overseas consumers. A growing preference for ‘safe’ and ‘green’ foods has resulted in changes in farming practices. The emphasis has changed from harvesting as much of a product as is possible, to meeting new standards, mainly related to protecting the environment.
Reducing chemical use
New Zealand’s horticultural exporters – particularly of kiwifruit and apples – used to rely heavily on pesticides. They have now responded to market demands by becoming some of the world’s most environmentally friendly fruit producers. Wine producers have also been proactive in adopting practices to protect the environment.
Changes are being forced on other farming sectors because the old methods are no longer working as well. For example the effectiveness of anthelmintic drenches for internal parasite control in sheep and cattle has declined dramatically. Alternatives involving better grazing management and different feed types are being examined.
Production practices have changed considerably in almost every New Zealand food-export industry. Dairying is now the only significant exporter still facing serious environmental problems, which have resulted from expansion and intensification.