14 Aug 2019

Environment minister: 'We actually prefer potatoes'

6:04 pm on 14 August 2019

The government is proposing new policy to better safeguard highly productive land that could be used for food production from being subdivided or used for urban expansion.

Market gardens in Pukekohe, south of Auckland City.

Market gardens in Pukekohe, south of Auckland City. Photo: RNZ / Eva Corlett

Environment Minister David Parker said the government would "prefer potatoes" to more subdivisions.

He and the Agriculture Minister today released a document for public consultation on the threats this highly productive farm land faces and how to protect it.

The document includes a draft National Policy Statement.

"In parts of New Zealand we're losing too many of our productive soils to subdivision... we've got to get that balance better," Mr Parker said.

"Every day, truckloads of brocolli and other winter greens leave from the Auckland region, not just to feed Auckland, but also to feed the South Island.

"If we lose these soils, the price of vegetables will go up and we'll be a less healthy country."

Mr Parker said that even in a housing shortage, there are places with lower quality soil that can be used for developments.

"This does not put at risk our ambition to build more houses," he said.

"There's lots of land in New Zealand, we're a country of four and a half million people with the land area of the whole of United Kingdom. We've got plenty of land, we can do both of those things."

The document includes a draft National Policy Statement.

Over the last decade more than 200 produce growers in Auckland have closed up shop as more rural land has been rezoned to residential to keep up with the demand for housing.

About 14 percent of New Zealand's land is categorised as highly productive, excluding conservation land and existing urban areas.

Mr Parker said highly productive land was under pressure from expanding urban areas and the growing number of lifestyle blocks.

The document stated that while not all urban expansion occurred on highly productive land, evidence suggested a large portion did.

Mr Parker said the National Policy Statement would introduce a clear and consistent policy that councils must follow when making decisions on land use.

"It proposes that councils be required to ensure there's enough highly productive land available for primary production now and in the future, and protect it from inappropriate subdivision, use and development," he said.

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor, also Biosecurity Minister, Food Safety Minister, Rural Communities Minister, Trade and Export Growth Minister of State

Damien O'Connor. Photo: RNZ / Dom Thomas

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor said one of the greatest challenges facing the world was how to feed a growing population.

"Continuing to grow food in the volumes and quality we have come to expect depends on the availability of land and the quality of the soil," he said.

"Once productive land is built on, we can't use it for food production, which is why we need to act now."

The discussion document outlined four possible options for solving the problem.

The first and the preferred option for the government was a stand alone National Policy Statement that would set out objectives and policies for matters considered of national significance relevant to achieving the purpose of the Resource Management Act (RMA).

The National Policy Statement may also state objectives, policies and other requirements that councils must include in their own policy statements and plans.

"This would help to ensure the benefits and value of highly productive land are given more weight in land use planning and decision-making," the document said.

Other options include introducing new national environmental standards under the the RMA, making amendments to the pre-existing National Policy Statement on Urban Development Capacity, or establishing a criteria for assessing the options.

Policy welcomed.

Horticulture New Zealand welcomed the government's draft National Policy Statement on Highly Productive Land.

Natural Resources and Environment manager Michelle Sands said keeping the best soils for producing food was important in the transition to a low emissions economy.

She said at the moment, poor rules were preventing new vegetables gardens being established to replace land lost to housing in Auckland.

"We know the country needs more houses. However, the current situation means that horticulture land lost to houses cannot be replaced," she said.

The draft National Policy Statement will be open for consultation for the next two months.

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