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Parker seeks policy on urban sprawl, intensive farming after report shows degraded land in NZ

Thursday 19th April 2018

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Environment Minister David Parker wants officials to work on a national policy statement for versatile land and high-class soils in response to a report showing changing land use such as urban sprawl and intensified farming are adding to natural pressures from climate change and earthquakes. 


The Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand today released the 'Our Land 2018' report on the state of the soil and the state of indigenous biodiversity and ecosystems. The document showed significant changes in land use over the past two decades, with a 10 percent expansion of urban areas at the expense of New Zealand's most versatile land and a 7 percent contraction in agricultural land, which had become increasingly converted to dairy and used more intensively. 


The report found New Zealand loses 192 million tonnes of soil each year, with 44 percent from pasture, and that 48 percent of tested areas fell short on soil quality in two areas: phosphorus content, which indicates soil fertility, and macroporosity, an indicator of the soil’s physical status. 


Parker said in a statement he was "particularly troubled by how much of our urban growth is occurring in our irreplaceable highly productive land" and has tasked officials to start work on a national policy statement for versatile land and high-class soils. A national policy statement lets central government direct a local authority to amend a regional policy statement or district or regional plan to include specific objectives or policies. 


"We have to ensure we have enough land to build the houses people need, but we must protect our most productive areas too," Parker said. "This report must spark a greater effort to build our knowledge of land, as it’s clear there are significant data gaps, which must be filled."


The report showed more intensively used land was more prone to fall short on the quality standards, with 51 percent of tested dairy sites reporting excess phosphorous and 65 percent below target for macroporosity. 


"Healthy soil is like a sponge, full of holes that can absorb air and water," Parker said. "When it is compressed it can’t absorb water, which makes it more drought-prone and nutrients are more likely to run off into waterways." 


The report said a loss of tree cover accelerated soil erosion, and that the increased profitability of dairy contributed to deforestation and conversion. 


"Human use of land has always had an impact on the environment," the report said. "What has changed in our lifetime is the extent and intensity of this impact as population increases and technology and society change."


The report said earthquakes in Canterbury and Marlborough over the past decade have had long-ranging impacts on land in those areas, and that climate change was already affecting New Zealand's land through increased frequency of heavy rainfall. Rising sea levels are also expected to increase coastal flooding and erosion, it said. 


The report said its analysis is limited by significant gaps in data coverage, consistency and scale, such as spatial coverage, long-term trends, understanding soil health and how it relates to the provision of services, and the impact on the nation's social, cultural, environment and economic well-being. 



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