27 Feb 2024

Environmental Protection Authority holds hearings on Hi-Cane usage

4:29 pm on 27 February 2024
Kiwifruit hanging on the vines ready for harvest.

(File image) Photo: 123RF

Kiwifruit growers are fighting to retain the use of a key agri-chemical used in growing New Zealand's top horticultural export.

The Environmental Protection Authority (EPA) is holding public hearings this week in regards to its re-assessment of the use of hydrogen cyanamide, more commonly known as Hi-Cane.

The spray is widely used by kiwifruit growers to help buds form and to promote even fruiting.

The EPA launched the re-assessment on the grounds that the chemical had suspected carcinogenic properties in 2019, based on international research.

While the environmental regulator has since retracted some of the earlier evidence, including the carcinogenic risk to humans, it has pushed on with the re-assessment, considering all its other possible human health, environmental, soil and insect impacts.

Public hearings are being held this week to hear from industry, Māori agri-business, WorkSafe and others.

Zespri chief operating officer Jason Te Brake said hydrogen cyanamide was used by 92 percent of its more than 2800 growers - and a ban would be devastating for the industry.

"Zespri opposes the EPA's proposed ban of hydrogen cyanamide," Te Brake said.

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Zespri chief operating officer Jason Te Brake Photo: supplied

"We consider that there's no lawful basis for the EPA to phase out or ban hydrogen cyanamide, and this is based on the scale and significance of hydrogen cyanamide's benefits, the strong scientific evidence to show low risk and the low probability of these risks occurring.

"We consider the EPA has overstated the risks here and understated the benefits."

Kiwifruit was a major contributor to the New Zealand economy and rural communities, and a ban would place many of its growers - an estimated 30 percent - in significant financial distress, Te Brake said.

"Orchard operational costs are around $70,000 a hectare for SunGold, and $55,000 a hectare for Green, so growers need to get adequate yields to be able to generate sufficient revenue to cover those costs on orchards."

As well as hurting growers' returns, it would have a significant impact on the industry, which is a major contributor to the New Zealand economy, he said.

"Losing hydrogen cyanamide would mean losing around $143 million a year from the economy."

The kiwifruit marketer disagreed with the EPA's assessment of risks hydrogen cyanamide poses to birdlife; it also questioned the EPA's soil health evidence; and said the EPA should have updated elements from its assessments, like the Māori impact assessment.

The chief executive of the country's largest kiwifruit grower, Seeka, Michael Franks, echoed the sentiment, and said a ban would be devastating for the publicly listed company, which was made up of many Māori growers.

"We're more concerned about our communities," Franks said.

Moves to support Māori to thrive, especially those in the most remote communities, would be at risk by the proposal to ban the substance, he said.

But he urged the EPA to consider controls around the use of the chemical to mitigate any risk.

"[That is] what can we do to ensure that the product can continue to be used safely, so that we don't harm our communities, that we don't have the economic loss and that we don't impact on people's lives - particularly our Māori constituency because they are in the regions."

In addition to its standard best practice, it could also consider controls like limiting concentrations of the chemical when spraying, restraining where it was used near waterways, tightening spray restrictions around wind, and making sure those people using it were tested, Franks said.

The company would remove the product if it was carcinogenic, as feared, but there was no evidence to support that, he said.

An EPA spokesperson said potential outcomes included no changes to the use of hydrogen cyanamide, a ban over time, new rules or existing rules re-considered.

More growing operations and impacted parties will submit at the hearings running all week and then a final decision will be published within 30 working days.

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