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Guy Trafford and IrrigationNZ's Andrew Curtis argue irrigation and agreement on water policy will be crucial for food production in the future

Rural News
Guy Trafford and IrrigationNZ's Andrew Curtis argue irrigation and agreement on water policy will be crucial for food production in the future

By Guy Trafford

My commentary on irrigation earlier this week brought out some fairly strong opinions. However most seem to come from the basis that land-use will continue on the same pathway it currently is on and that irrigation equates to more cows or at least pastoral systems.

My view is that the future will be (at some stage) totally different. Cocoa, coffee, tea, mangoes, avocados, citrus, kiwifruit, apples, pears, grapes, walnuts, hazelnuts, small seeds, vegetables and arable crops (and the list goes on) all require irrigation. Mostly at rates equal to that of pastoral systems.

Dairying and meat systems will eventually be pushed back to less ‘prime’ areas as demand for ‘higher’ land use options become viable. Most agree we have already hit peak cow (or at least close to it, cow numbers have decreased recently), but future land use options require reliable access to water.

Andrew Curtis (CEO Irrigation NZ) made his views known in a brief comment, however he has provided a more detailed paper in relation to the Government’s Zero Carbon discussion and has consented to have it reproduced (below). Critics and others need to start to see water as part of the solution to New Zealand’s viability going forward and not the problem.

The article below is by Andrew Curtis, CEO of IrrigationNZ;

                                          Achieving #zerocarbon agriculture requires access to water

The government’s Zero Carbon discussion paper constitutes a major rethink about the future of farming in New Zealand. Seeking to achieve a lower carbon economy, the discussion document suggests that the amount of land used for horticulture and crop production could double or triple over the next thirty years, while sheep and cow numbers reduce slightly and forestry expands.  

Future national planning around access to labour, technology and support to reach international markets is needed for this shift to be successful, as well as policy around how land use changes might be supported.

Access to water is another key issue which underpins the zero carbon discussion but hasn’t yet been debated. The majority of fruit, vegetable and wine production in New Zealand today is on irrigated land. Irrigation will become even more important with more frequent droughts forecast as a result of Climate Change. In the future, even rainfall rich regions will be subject to regular droughts.

The drought conditions affecting a slew of regions (Southland, Northland, Wellington, Canterbury, Otago, Hawke’s Bay and West Coast) last summer was a foretaste of things to come. Drought like conditions were followed by heavy rainfall and flooding in many regions. Food prices went up, farmer incomes went down, with a flow on impact on the government’s tax take.

The importance of water for food production is highlighted by the fact that according to the United Nations, irrigation helps produce 40% of the world’s food supply on just 20% of the world’s agricultural land. If we want to become more productive and more efficient with our land use in order to generate more jobs, we need to recognise the value of irrigation. Currently we eat nearly all of the vegetables grown in New Zealand and in 50 years time we will need to feed an extra 2 million people, so we also need to be planning for this situation now.

Water is commonly seen as being in short supply in New Zealand, but we actually receive around 550,000 million m3 of rain each year according to NIWA. About 80% of this flows-out to sea, supporting river ecosystems. 18% of rainfall evaporates after it lands and 2% of our national rainfall total is used by humans. While there is regional variation and some areas where water is fully allocated, the United Nations rates New Zealand as having ample renewable water resources. 

We are already capturing and using some of this valuable water, and Northland is an example of what the future of Zero Carbon farming in New Zealand could look like.  The Kerikeri Irrigation Scheme has been operating for over 30 years and mainly helps produce kiwifruit and citrus fruit.  An Impact Assessment of the schemes value showed that the scheme had created 1,300 additional jobs and added $106 million per year to the Northland economy.

The assessment found no adverse environment effects from the scheme on local waterways. People living near the scheme had higher home ownership rates, higher household incomes and higher full-time employment rates than the rest of Northland. Having seen the changes in Kerikeri, the Northland Regional Council is now looking at a range of options to develop irrigation to grow crops like avocado, oranges, potatoes, kumara and lettuce. Up to 2,700 jobs could be created. The Council is looking for water storage options which provide multiple benefits – like suppling water for townships, providing water to supplement river flows and offering flood protection.

According to the Ministry for the Environment climate change will result in heightened demand for water in dry, hot summers with reduced soil moisture and groundwater supplies, increased risk of drought and changes to river flows. Collecting rain and river water in dams for shared domestic and agricultural use will help reduce the devastating impact of the climatic changes. Developing water storage also allows for water to be released into rivers when low flows occur over summer which is beneficial for water quality. There is also the potential to improve the water storage capacity of our existing infrastructure and modernise older infrastructure to become more water efficient.

To be successful internationally, each country should specialise in producing what it has a competitive advantage in creating. We don’t have minerals like Australia or an abundance of workers like China or India, but we do have a  combination of a temperate climate, good soils and ample water resources which makes us ideally suited to agricultural production.  Alongside this, the ecological role of waterways needs to be recognised and protected.

As only a small percentage of land is suitable for horticultural production, pastoral farming will continue to play an important role in our future economy too. With more frequent droughts occurring, irrigation helps provide enough pasture to meet animal health requirements. 

Irrigation is estimated to add over $5 billion to New Zealand’s GDP. Whether we have access to irrigation will affect our future food prices, and the income of rural economies which has a flow on impact on how much money is available to fund schools, hospitals and superannuation.

If we want to make the shift to different farming models we need a pathway forward to adapt agriculture to operate in an low emission but increasingly volatile climate. We need to invest in water storage to allow increased horticulture and crop production to occur. And we need to value the role irrigation plays in future proofing our food supply and protecting our national economy from the buffers of climate change.

The starting point for any of these changes is a clear strategy towards water, along with a much needed bipartisan approach to this issue which enables policies to be set based on the best long term outcomes for New Zealand.

If we don’t have agreement on water policy trying to develop future water infrastructure becomes extremely difficult. And if farms don’t have water, we can’t make significant expansions to horticulture and crop production, meaning #ZeroCarbon farming is not part of our future.

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Fully agree with the need to irrigate in order to open up options for horticulture and higher-value ag production.

But getting the Greens and Labour to recognise their inherent policy contradictions is gonna be a Long March, indeed.

And then there's the cultural element: irrigation frequently mixes several water sources and that's currently a taboo for essentially religious reasons. So we have ourselves a policy environment that's all over the shop, so to speak, and with entrenched positions along the battlefront.

But hey, Zero Carbon is such an easy-to-recall sound bite that it's gonna be regurgitated, along with a decent puff of that 'Orrible Pollutant (but, inherent contradiction warning - plant food...) Carbon Dioxide in every politician's speech for the forseeable future.......


You misunderstand the Zero carbon concept. It is not to reduce carbon in the atmosphere to Zero, or anywhere near it . It is to reduce the net carbon output from manmade activities per year to zero, to rebalance the Co2 % in the atmosphere to where it was , in say 1990 . We are talking 1 -3 % reduction in C02 levels. .


Sweeping statements, blue sky promises and government assistance so typifies the agriculture lobbyists.
Its fonterra all over again.
We have a water infrastructure in place called the lakes and rivers, lets leave it that way.


Read this in its entirety.. printed in NZ-herald today.

There can be a problem...with too much heat and careful what you all wish for.


Interesting stuff,
I think the logical outcome of the assumption that the land is there to be exploited any way we can is ...china...
we can probably achieve it in just a few hundred years with modern methods...


With CPW situated on the flat of the Canterbury plains, is there a business case for setting up a horticultural hub to diversify the food production output there?
Christchurch has a readily available international airport that could serve as the base of a supply chain extending to Aussie, Singapore, China and North America.

What might be some of the barriers? Is it the upfront capital cost of glasshouses? Is it the transport costs? Is it the operational costs and energy needed to run hothouses that makes it cost prohibitive? Is it too difficult to set up and hold onto markets? Do we not have suitably scaled supply chains yet to adequately set things up? Or is our problem one of sending coal to Newcastle, in that our nearest markets already produce food at a lower price point? What? What is it?

I've found food costs here are awfully high. Higher and more diversified food production would benefit NZers greatly. Plus, I think horticulture would be the best way to "export" our water resources.

What if we cleaned up Lake Ellesmere and used it for aquaculture instead? No need for it to languish as a festering wharepaku. Would be great to partner with Ngai Tahu on this kind of initiative.


Thanks for your comment Jock. There is a project that will hopefully soon get underway to look at how to support the diversification of land use in Canterbury. Your thinking is along the lines of what will be investigated as part of this project – what are the issues with doing this, the market demand and any potential barriers or issues. Food production close to Christchurch does benefit from good infrastructure links internationally (through the airport) and domestically.

With regards to food costs, most of the cost consumers pay currently is not passed on to the farmer. KPMG says that the farmer receives around one sixth of the value that food products are sold for. So there is also some more work that also needs to be done around how farmers can be involved with and benefit along other stages of the value chain which might also have benefits for consumers in term of fewer middle men and some reduction in food prices.
Andrew Curtis.


if there was better use of water, those struggling dairy farms with irrigation would have already changed. The reality is that processed crops will have more leeching than dairy, that our distance from markets and high cost structure are stopping farm use change.