Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ministry of Primary Industries New Environmental Regulator

I attended a consultation meeting today for the new National Environmental Standard for Plantation Forestry ( NES-PF) document. It was a very concerning experience, not only for the precedent that is being set that a single industry can determine environment standards, but also for the fact that GE-GMO trees are going to become permissible without any public mandate or wider economic assessment. A Green friend attended a similar meeting in Northland and he commented that it felt like the Ministry 'for making money' is being allowed to decide what is good for the environment.

Staff from the MPI presented a logical case for greater consistency when larger forests encompassed more than one region and therefore would need to include different environmental and bureaucratic expectations in their planning and operations. These new standards would apply to the forestry industry's wider activities and would mostly override the district plans and the regional council rules (there were some exceptions but would generally would be the case).

The document does contain some sound environmental standards, but some others will allow for less stringent rules for forestry activities around waterways, reduced protections for indigenous vegetation and the potential for clear felling on erosion risk land (as some examples).

This document is intended to make it easier for commercial forestry to expand and operate, but many of the potential costs of mitigating any adverse effects will be passed on to environment councils and ratepayers. Someone from Environment Southland asked whether this is a sign of the future and whether the Council may have to manage a similar set of unique standards for the likes of the dairy industry in the future. This possibility wasn't discounted.

I questioned the need for separate rules for different land uses and put forward the idea that if we had national standards that covered all land use it would be much simpler. I also suggested it should be the role of the Ministry of the Environment to set environmental standards, not the MPI. Why should a farmer building a road across his farm to a forestry block have one set of rules for crossing his paddocks and another for inside his plantation? I was told that if the local council wanted to adopt their rules for consistency's sake, they could. It sounded a little like the tail wagging the dog to me and all the onus would be placed on the councils to make the differing rules work.

Environment Southland Councillor, Robert Guyton, questioned the manner in which the use of GE-GMO trees was slipped into the document with little acknowledgment. He read out a statement from the appointed Commissioners for Environment Canterbury who had voiced concerns about the wider ramifications of introducing GE-GMO plants with no transparent or democratic process. By including this in the Environmental Standard as a fait accompli it does not allow any region to assess the impacts of it on their local industries especially those relying on an organic or GE free environment. It was admitted that there had been no research into the impacts on other industries or the trade implications of losing New Zealand's GE free status.

Commercial foresters were keen to allow the use of GE-GMO Douglas Firs (as one example) that cannot reproduce. These trees grow well at higher altitudes but are notorious for the spread of wilding trees if they are allowed to seed in their natural state. This would be very useful for commercial foresters and would reduce the cost for dealing with a rampant pest, however, once introduced it would then change the country's GE status forever with huge consequences for other industries.

While forestry has been poorly served by this Government and reforestation is needed to regrow the industry (and increase its capacity as a carbon sink) this document is a step too far.

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