Rabbits, water quality and the RMA

If there was a more virulent variety of rabbit haemorrhagic disease in Australia that could be useful in New Zealand, then the Government would not say it could not be introduced.

However, Primary Industries Minister David Carter told farmers at the deer industry conference they would have to "engage with the process" to introduce it.

After his address to the conference, Mr Carter answered a wide variety of questions from the floor.

Haldon Station manager Paddy Boyd understood there had been some further scientific work done in Australia isolating a component of the existing virus that knocked down any immune rabbits.

He asked if the Government was party to that and if it was likely it would be allowed to be introduced into New Zealand to help in rabbit-prone country.

Mr Carter said he "did not in any way" support the way RHD (then known as rabbit calicivirus disease) was introduced in 1997, when it was illegally imported to control rabbit poulations.

That sort of "cavalier attitude" to biosecurity should not be applauded, he said.

However, he knew the industry, particularly in the rabbit-ravaged Mackenzie, might have done something in desperation.

That was history now - "it's here" - although he had been advised, if it had been done in a more controlled fashion, it might have got a more successful result.

If more virulent strains were being developed in Australia, "then engage with the process to bring them in", he said.

Biological controls were introduced in New Zealand on a regular basis but through a process by which science judged the risk if the experiment was to go wrong, he said.

One farmer expressed concern about how regional councils were handling the big emphasis in recent times on improving water quality in farming systems.

Some councils had seen "huge growth", particularly in dairying operations, in parts of their areas, "which actually probably shouldn't have happened".

Now there were ramifications and the councils wanted to "change our water overnight" with regimes that were in some cases unaffordable.

While farmers all wanted to improve their water quality, there were many people in councils with no rural background or knowledge of farming, and they had considerable power, he said.

Mr Carter thought some regional councils were coming to the issue "a bit late and ill-prepared" and there might be a rush by some to get up to speed.

He spoke about the Land and Water Forum, which brought together a range of industry groups, environmental and recreational non-governmental organisations, iwi, scientists and other organisations with an interest in freshwater and land management.

The aim was to get all to respect each other's point of view "so we can make better use of water but acknowledge that, as we develop and deliver irrigation, it won't be about irrigation at all costs".

"We have to find a way to irrigate this land but be prepared to contain or mitigate the environmental impact."

The Government had to give the regional councils more guidance and would be doing that.

If a council would not operate constructively, then the fate of Environment Canterbury, where the councillors were sacked and replaced by commissioners, was an example of how the Government was prepared to "step up and deal with it".

Wanaka farmer Richard Burdon sought an update on Resource Management Act reforms, saying it was starting to have a big impact in the district.

Resource consent was needed to put up a centre pivot; putting in a track required a landscape architect to view it and it was "becoming a very difficult part of the farming business".

Mr Carter said the first part of the RMA reform had been in action for a couple of years, while phase two was being worked on by Environment Minister Amy Adams.

It was hoped to have it before Parliament towards the end of the year so it could go through the select committee process, to be passed into legislation, probably by mid-2013.

Mr Carter was tackled on the sale of the Crafar farms to Chinese company Shanghai Pengxin by a farmer concerned that, as the farms were sold in one entity, it took most New Zealand farmers and companies out of contention.

Mr Carter was "completely supportive" of foreign investment, saying New Zealand did not have enough capital to expand its economy.

He personally thought the investment, particularly that it was Chinese, would be "good for New Zealand".

Deer Industry New Zealand chairman Andy Macfarlane asked how he believed the Government could contribute "to the confidence people in the city have that farmers are doing the right thing".

Mr Carter believed the past few years had explained to most New Zealanders how dependent the economy was on the primary sector.

"What has brought us through the global financial crisis has indeed been our dependence on the primary sector for economic growth and I think most New Zealanders, if they want to read the tea leaves, actually realise that."

One area in which the industry had a part to play was around issues of lapses in both environmental and animal welfare management. Any of those stories "that get on the front page of any paper" not only became instant New Zealand news but instant international news, he said.