Sunday, March 3, 2024

Integrated thinking will save our soil

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Rural and urban strategies must back up policy on productive land
Illustration by Chris Slane.
Reading Time: 2 minutes

The long-awaited National Policy Statement for Highly Productive Land has been released, promising protection for New Zealand’s most precious soils.

It’s something the horticulture industry has been seeking for years. We’ve watched as cities like Auckland spread south, onto land that’s traditionally kept the supermarket shelves stocked with fresh vegetables.

There’s a finite amount of this precious soil.

According to the recently published The Soils of Aotearoa New Zealand, NZ’s most valuable, productive soils comprise only 5% of the total available.

Of that, a mere 0.7% of NZ’s land is classified as falling into the highest-quality Land Use Category (LUC) 1, and 4.5% into LUC 2.

Despite this, over 10% of these most highly productive soils have already been lost to lifestyle blocks and housing, with a shocking one-third of the best land in Auckland and Waikato lost for good to urban expansion under an accelerating process.

The case for protecting these soils from further losses to housing and roading is raised as a compelling one by the authors. 

At a time when food security is top of mind and the price of food is skyrocketing, protecting our nation’s vege garden has never been more critical.

Houses can be built on almost any soil, or even on top of other houses. Food, on the other hand, needs the best we’ve got.

But while this all sounds like common sense, getting the settings right is tricky.

The policy hasn’t gone down well with some of the people who, right now, rely on those precious soils for their livelihoods.

They say it restricts their ability to achieve the highest returns should they choose to sell up in future.

The government is well aware of this issue. Property rights need to be respected to a certain extent within any regulation.

It’s a story we’ve seen play out with other land classes in recent years. 

Some in the farming community want restrictions put on what land can be purchased for forestry so that good sheep and beef country is preserved.

That again would affect the ability of landowners to cash out at the market price.

Recent figures from the Ministry for Primary Industries show that plantings registered with the Emissions Trading Scheme have shot up recently, but most of it has been on marginal land.

There have been a number of iconic stations sold to foresters, which sparked concern and even outrage, but the data doesn’t support wholesale land-use change – yet.

What is evident is that NZ needs to grow its housing stock drastically to meet the future needs of the population.

In the cities there is powerful opposition to intensification and councils are baulking at implementing government directives.

But those same councils have also baulked at putting in the infrastructure to support the urban sprawl.

Christchurch, for example, doesn’t have the public transport network you’d expect of a modern city.

And a nice house in the suburbs becomes a lot more expensive if the cost of filling the supermarket trolley each week is rising sharply.

It doesn’t make sense for NZ to try to grow enough bananas to sate local appetites.

But for broccoli and lettuce? That equation is easy to solve – and the solution is local.

What’s also evident is that every decision we make is linked. Delivering the life New Zealanders want at a price they can afford calls for integrated thinking that allows us to build thriving communities with access to quality housing, infrastructure and food.

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