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Otago and Southland’s less profit-driven farms, which do less damage to the environment than their larger corporate counterparts, could be caught out by the new national policy statement for freshwater management 2020, Associate Prof Janice Lord said.
Prof Lord, a University of Otago botanist, spearheaded the interdisciplinary pilot study through He Kaupapa Hononga Otago Climate Change Network.
In-depth farmer interviews found new freshwater regulations could be prohibitively expensive for landholders on multi-generational, low-impact sheep farms that ran on slim profit margins, Prof Lord said.
Those properties could end up sold and turned into intensive dairy or corporate forestry operations if farmers could not pay for changes mandated by the new rules.
Either of those alternatives would have worse environmental outcomes than staying with low-intensity sheep farming, she said.
The study under way by Prof Lord, research assistant Aleisha Lord (no relation), climate change network co-director Associate Prof Sara Walton, from the Otago Business School, and University of Otago environmental economist Viktoria Kahui had found farmers who feared they would be forced to sell up.
There could be unintended consequences from what seemed like a quite sensible policy, Prof Lord said.
"Imagine what Central Otago would look like if it all went to carbon forestry," she said.
"It’s a bit scary, and it might just happen accidentally, simply because farmers who can’t afford to do what’s required by the national policy might sell up."
The freshwater regulations were brought in this year with the new national policy statement, new national environment standards, new stock exclusion regulations, and amendments to regulations for the measurement and reporting of water takes.
Farmers’ anger over the new rules in the South have resulted in protests and a petition to Parliament.
One issue is the Government’s so-called one size fits-all approach.
The new rules could fail to take into account the differences between farms such as where a single stream cut straight through a flat paddock and those found in complex landscapes such as the Upper Taieri scroll plain where labyrinthine winter waterways changed with the seasons and dried up over summer, Prof Lord said.
"A lot of really good catchment groups" in the South and their grassroots efforts were bypassed by the oversimplified top-down approach passed on from the Government.
Prof Lord said the university researchers expected to publish their findings at the beginning of next year, but were also planning to report their findings to the Otago Regional Council.
She said the group planned to expand the pilot study next year.