Dart River Valley. Image credit: Jeff Hitchcock via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 3.0)

The state of New Zealand’s natural infrastructure – Expert Reaction

A just-released report highlights how New Zealand’s communities and economies are at risk if we do not protect our natural ecosystems and landscapes.

Our Land 2024 is a three-yearly update about the state of land in Aotearoa New Zealand, published by the Ministry for the Environment and StatsNZ.

The SMC asked third-party experts to comment on:

Please feel free to use these comments in your reporting or follow up with the contact details provided.

Nikki Harcourt, PhD (Ngāti Maniapoto), Kaihautū-Strategic Lead Māori Research, Manaaki Whenua-Landcare Research; and Te Ao Māori Lead for Whitiwhiti Ora: Land Use Opportunities and Whakatupu, Our Land and Water National Science Challenge, comments:

“‘Our Land 2024’ is a timely acknowledgement that you can’t have a healthy economy without a healthy environment. The use and adoption of the term ‘natural infrastructure’ is a reference to the interdependence between humans and our environment. This report is a call to action for investment and resourcing to address critical issues including pests (both animal and plant) and diseases, pollution, and land management practices that degrade our environment. Clear evidence is provided that demonstrates the role of healthy natural ecosystems in mitigating extreme weather events. The report makes a clear case for the need to take a comprehensive view of environmental systems to gauge their health state.”

No conflicts of interest.

Professor Amanda Black, Director – Bioprotection Aotearoa, comments:

“The Ministry for the Environment report ‘Our land 2024’ presents another collection of facts around changes in our landscapes. It is hard to know if these numbers are unusually high but comparing to the previous report ‘Our land 2021’, there seems to be no projected improvement to the outcome of the state of our landscapes and the ecological infrastructure that supports our way of life.

“Once again, land intensification and fragmentation continue to be the main factors driving impacts on our natural resources, with irrigation increasing and urban development expanding – increasing the pressure on our most highly productive land. This has also been covered by a 2023 report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

“It will be interesting to see how this government balances these contributing and often competing economic interests of land intensification with urban sprawl with the proposed introduction of the Fast Track Bill – the government’s proposed legislation that will give government ministers the power to override relevant legislation without any consultation and due process.

“If we want to continue to enjoy our unique landscapes, including our unique biodiversity, then what we need to see are polices that provide clear pathways to improving land resilience and solutions that can be readily implemented to balance our needs and the need to maintain the integrity of our whenua.”

Conflict of interest statement: “Member, Mātauranga Māori and Science Advisory Panel, MfE.”

Dr Nick Cradock-Henry, Principal Scientist GNS Science, comments:

“Our natural infrastructure – those landscape features, and services that support, enhance and enable long-term wellbeing and sustainability – is vital to all aspects of lives and livelihoods in Aotearoa New Zealand. In recent years, we have seen first-hand the destructive potential of extreme weather realised. The adverse effects of Cyclone Gabrielle – including some 300,000 landslides – for example, were a function not only of the intense rainfall, but of current and legacy land use, environmental, and economic change over the previous century. Our Land 2024 delivers new, and vital information about the state and future of our soils, productive land and forests, floodplains, dunes and wetlands. While often unregarded, they are fundamental to our collective wellbeing, underpin many of our leading economic activities including tourism, and deliver a range of benefits. The difficulty of adequately accounting for these is immense: methodologically, and conceptually complex, it is hard enough to determine the likely economic value derived from a wetland that provides flood protection; let alone, the intangible, subjective benefits many of us derive from seeing and experiencing our vital landscapes, to say nothing of the deep cultural and social significance of taonga species.

“The report is comprehensive, and unsparing. We face significant challenges. Across these natural assets and infrastructure, decades of cumulative pressures are being revealed. The erosive effect on natural capital of unsustainable, in places – unsuitable – and intensive activities, is being revealed, and there is an urgent need for action. Life-supporting systems are just that: fundamental to all aspects of our individual and collective wellbeing. There is an urgent need therefore, to address key knowledge gaps – as the report makes clear – we monitor, but not nearly enough. Furthermore, we must develop new ways to account for the value of our natural infrastructure and assets, that enable deeper appreciation for the diverse ways in which the land looks after us. By caring for the land, we are, in a way, helping to protect ourselves and those who come after us.

“Aotearoa New Zealand will not be immune from environmental challenges. Our land is critical to underpinning secure and resilient lives and livelihoods. The message is clear: the future is ours to choose. This report provides an invaluable record of what we have, what the land provides, and what may be lost.”

No conflicts of interest.

Honorary Professor Troy Baisden, School of Environment, University of Auckland; Principal Investigator in Te Pūnaha Matatini Centre of Research Excellence; and an Affiliate at Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, comments:

“Among the different environmental domains such as water, or climate and atmosphere, observed changes to our land are often slow and feel very incremental when environmental reports emerge on three year intervals. This time there is a big story: the damage storms like last year’s Cyclone Gabrielle caused across wide areas of erodible land.

“This report highlights the degree to which the storms have damaged our natural infrastructure, undermining the support that soils provide for productive land use such as forests and farming as well as nature itself. Cyclone Gabrielle’s impacts were similar to the impacts of Cyclone Bola in 1988, raising concerns that policies put in place to protect the natural infrastructure of fragile hill country landscapes.

“In particular, production forest does not appear to have provided the intended protection for soils and landscapes, particularly in the years after harvest. Two developments in the reporting series will aid in tracking the challenge of better protecting steep landscapes. The first is an indicator of highly erodible land. When overlaid with maps of weather land cover provides sufficient protection for the most vulnerable landscapes, it provides a helpful tool. It should guide progress before the next big storm comes.

“A second development in the reporting series is the more explicit inclusion of values. Our values as a society have changed during the decades between Bola and Gabrielle, and they will continue to change. Values of tourists or international corporations and consumers who buy our products and services will be worth considering too.

“Considering the values in our society helps evaluate the importance of trends in our natural infrastructure and assessment of what we want to leave for future generations. In addition to the challenge of sustainable hill country land use, the report highlights a worrying trend in the availability of greenspace in many cities. Urban green space is an example worth considering to ensure the future natural infrastructure continues to provide for our society.

“On top of the worrying trends and long-term challenges facing the natural infrastructure around us, we need to consider how they intersect with the additional challenge posed by climate change. Then national scale trends are worth reporting but can be abstract for many people in our society. A case study of Te Auaunga, Oakley Creek restoration illustrates that rebuilding the natural infrastructure benefits of urban greenspace will help cities respond to the flooding threat posed by climate change and increasing storm intensity.

“The case study example illustrates what is possible, yet it is clear that there are many gaps in our knowledge. This report and its indicators mainly harvest existing data, such as land cover which was last updated with 2018 observations. Better support is needed for data that is timely and fit-for-purpose, especially when considering that climate change may be intensifying. At present, it appears that funding for environmental monitoring is at threat in the widespread cuts to funding across government.”

Conflict of interest statement: Troy Baisden is on the Ministry for the Environment’s Scientific Advisory Group for this report.

Dr Robyn Dynes, Senior scientist, AgResearch, comments:

“We know there is an ongoing tension and trade-offs between the use of land to feed a growing global population and the resulting impacts on that land and our broader environment. We can’t shy away from the significant growth in livestock numbers and irrigated land for food production since the beginning of this century, noted in the Our Land 2024 report, as New Zealand has built itself into a leading international producer of animal protein such as cow milk. Those industries have undoubtedly made a huge contribution to our quality of life in New Zealand.

“The report notes that the growth of dairy cattle numbers has stabilised in recent years. This is partly about the recognition of pressures on the natural resources in certain catchments and areas of New Zealand, and partly about the fact that farmers are learning to produce more from less as we grow our knowledge.

“A critical point made in the report is that there are ways we can offset the environmental impacts of food production, such as nutrient management – for example, ensuring we are using the right amount of nitrogen fertiliser at the right time, and reducing the losses of those nutrients into our lakes and rivers that can impact on our freshwater quality. There is no question in my mind that we are going to see more diversified use of our productive land in future as we grapple with our environmental challenges and changing consumer and market demands around the world.

“The report also assumes the potential for change in technology to offset negative impacts of land use, and technological advances are undoubtedly going to influence the way we produce food. We are now able to breed livestock that naturally produce less methane as the result of our world-leading research, and new sensor and precision technologies will increasingly allow farmers to manage their stock in a way that reduces impacts on the land and freshwater. The Coalition Government has clearly signalled its intention to liberalise the use of genetic technologies in New Zealand and this also presents opportunities for food production to become more efficient.

“The likelihood of increased pressure from pests and diseases is also noted in the report, and a lot of great research is being done by my colleagues at AgResearch and other organisations to stay ahead of the next biosecurity threat and avoid mounting costs for our food producers.

“The health of our soils remains a critical factor as acknowledged in the report. Here the research is increasingly focused on a more integrated view of soil health, which goes beyond just testing for nutrients and soil fertility, to include measures like organic matter and biological activity.

Conflict of interest statement: “I work for a Crown Research Institute that receives funding to do science from both the government and industries that include food producers.”