Growing delays in getting Environmental Protection Authority approval on crop chemicals are potentially disadvantaging New Zealand farmers and growers and narrowing their options as key markets start banning the use of older chemicals.
Data supplied to Farmers Weekly shows delays of up to five times the time limits laid out under EPA statutes, stalling the release of new treatments and the use of existing chemicals for new pests and diseases.
Companies applying for new product approvals claim they are not receiving acknowledgment of the application for some time afterwards, in some cases years.
The statutory time frames placed on EPA approvals only come into effect on acknowledgment of the application, and time waivers can also be used by the agency to extend the approval window.
Data indicates that for category C applications, products with an active ingredient new to NZ took 577 days to be approved in 2022/23.
This was more than five times longer than the statutory 100 days.
Prior to 2016, 94% of applications for new actives were processed on time. Now these are pushed out with time waivers and delays in acknowledging receipt of the application.
High-priority applications needed to control biosecurity outbreaks are also slow in being approved.
An average turnaround for urgent assessments of products already approved but needed to deal with an incursion are taking up to 190 days, rather than the required 10.
Industry sources have cited the arrival of the fall army worm as an example of a pest whose impact could have been reduced, had chemical approvals been pushed through quicker.
Dr Alison Stewart, CEO of the Foundation for Arable Research, said approval for the spray produced by agri-chem company Corteva was granted only this February, despite fall army worm having been in NZ for almost a year before that.
She said delays with the EPA have been an issue for the past six years, with approval times putting NZ growers behind the rest of the world in treatment options.
“Some of these applications are for biological treatments and they [the EPA] do not have the people with experience in assessing this type of product. The system is set up for chemicals. It’s like a round peg in a square hole.
“It is an issue for growers, who are seeing resistance build up to existing sprays, and they need to be able to mix and match but alternatives are not there.”
Containment applications seeking to research and trial new chemicals are also delayed, taking over 90 days against the statutory limit of 30 days.
A spokesperson for Animal Plant Health NZ, the industry group for crop and animal treatments, said as the European Union moves on its Green Deal strategy, pressure will mount given the backlog of approvals and lack of suitable EU-approved alternatives.
“By 2030 many of the products currently used in New Zealand will no longer be accepted, as the strategy aims to phase out many existing agrichemicals.
“Our industries are relying on the reworking of old chemistry and products which will soon no longer be acceptable to overseas markets.”
One example is the wine industry needing biological controls to replace synthetic bug killers – which are available, but not registered here.
Kiwifruit and onions also need such treatments.
Zespri’s head of global public affairs, Micheal Fox, said the EPA’s processes for assessing agrichemicals should be as transparent, evidence-based and efficient as possible to provide the industry with more certainty.
“These areas could all be improved,” he said.
“We would like to see the EPA improve the time it takes to process applications, to partner with industry on study design, and provide clarity on its processes, in order to support the success of New Zealand’s kiwifruit industry and the wider primary sector.”
Vegetables NZ has raised similar concerns over the time taken for approvals, and the cost of applications incurred by companies with new products.
Dr Chris Hill, general manager for hazardous substances and new organisms at the EPA, said the time it typically takes to process applications in NZ is comparable to that in other countries and regions with similar regulatory systems.
“As for many organisations, limited resourcing in recent years, coupled with the flow-on effects from covid-19, have made hiring and retaining the necessary expertise a challenge.
“This has affected our processing time frames and led to a queue of applications waiting to be assessed. This cumulative effect is the major contributor to the current challenges,” he said.
He acknowledged the EPA does typically seek to extend the 30-working day period for a new substance, saying it has never been a practicable period.
“The overall time frames also don’t account for when we have requested and are waiting on supplementary information from the applicant.
“This is also an issue internationally, and often misconstrued as poor performance by the regulator.”
He said in 2022 18 rapid applications usually aimed at biosecurity responses were approved, and the EPA is on track to meet or better that this year.
Stewart welcomed Hill’s confirmation that the EPA has 2023 Budget funding to employ four more staff this year and another three next year.