Because of its high economic and cultural status in New Zealand, the farming sector has historically been relatively free of national regulations, especially when compared with European countries. Early interventions from central government, such as the Soil and Water Conservation Act 1941, tended to focus on managing environmental problems through engineering. Prevention of erosion and the promotion of soil conservation were encouraged, but environmental problems were seen mainly in economic terms as loss of farm productivity.
A general political reluctance to impose controls on farming has remained, even since the passing of the Resource Management Act 1991 (RMA).
Resource Management Act 1991
The RMA replaced a large number of sometimes conflicting environmental protection and land-use statutes with a single act. Its main purpose is to ensure sustainable environmental management by promoting the careful use of resources.
The RMA does not specifically target farming practices, but it affects farmers through the resource consent process. Farmers typically need approvals in the form of water permits for irrigation and stream withdrawals, and discharge permits. They may also be subject to land-use permits for track or road building.
The RMA devolved most resource management responsibilities to local government. Activities like soil conservation, flood control, water quality monitoring and pest management must be initiated and funded by local councils.
In general, local governments have been reluctant to strongly regulate farming practices. However, the responsibility to monitor the state of the environment has led many councils – and the public – to a greater awareness of the cumulative effects of intensive farming. This process of monitoring, education, research and outreach helps councils tackle the complex problems related to agriculture’s impact on the environment.
The need to make difficult decisions about the impact of rural land use on the environment has brought about new approaches to environmental regulation. For example, Environment Waikato has recently adopted a strategy to address the high nitrate level in Lake Taupō – it is thought this will require reducing the amount of nitrogen leaching into ground water by 20%. The strategy requires farmers to limit their nitrogen output, but allows the trading of nitrogen output quotas. This kind of pollution trading is possible because the plan sets a cap on total nitrogen output – a regulatory commitment that few councils have made to date.