Under the Environmental Reporting Act 2015 (the Act), the Secretary for the Environment and the Government Statistician must produce a report on one domain (marine, freshwater, land, air, and atmosphere and climate) every 6 months. 

Each domain report has now been completed once – the recently released Our Land is the second report on arguably our most precious domain. Why “most precious”? Because we have what we have … no more pineapple lumps being handed out! Effectively irreplaceable, the land we have is ours to protect or degrade.

The report covers well every imaginable aspect of our land and how well (or not) we use and care for it to our economic, environmental and social benefit. It’s a ‘must read’ report.

Here, I just want to focus on one aspect – what we use our land for. Because the problem of losing farmland that this report so well documents is happening right here in our Hawke’s Bay backyard.

About half of New Zealand’s total land area is used for agriculture and forestry:

  • 40% exotic grassland (land covered with non-native grasses used for pasture including dairy and sheep and beef farming);
  • 8% exotic forest (land covered by non-native forest including forestry – think pines);
  • 2% cropping and horticulture (land covered by grain, seed, vegetable, fruit, or grape growing).

Most of what we produce off this land is exported. In 2019, New Zealand’s land-based primary industries generated $44 billion in export revenue. However, the report tells us the total area of land used for agriculture and horticulture has been decreasing since 2002 and fell by 2% between 2017 and 2019. Yet the Government has set a target for the primary industries to increase export earnings by a further $44 billion in the next decade to support economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meantime New Zealand’s population grows, driving the demand for food and housing.

More production sought from diminishing – and poorer quality – land. The report indicates that only about 15% of the land is particularly good for food production.

Our Land says that the area of urban land in New Zealand increased by 15% from 1996 to 2018, with 83% of the increase came from the conversion of exotic grassland to urban use. Another 9% was converted from cropping or horticultural land. 

The area of highly productive land that was unavailable for agriculture (because it had a house on it) increased by 54% for 2002–19. Urban land use increased by 31% on land that was potentially available for agriculture during this period, while the area of residential land outside city boundaries (rural residential areas) also more than doubled in this time. 

Consequently, the report warns: “A large proportion of highly versatile land (LUC classes 1 and 2) nationally could be developed into urban zones in the next 50–100 years if current urbanisation trends continue.” 

As we give up land to development – and this is what is happening in Hawke’s Bay – the only way to increase food production is through more intensive farming of the remaining land … with destructive environmental effects.

Nationwide, according to the report, 80% of soil monitoring sites failed to meet the targets for at least one soil quality indicator. Here we tend to think of pollutants like phosphorus and nitrates, but it appears that even more harmful is diminished soil macroporosity – soil compaction.

Our Land says that macroporosity (the number of pore spaces in the soil) was below the target range in 65% of dairy farming sites, 48% of drystock farming sites, and 46% of orchard/vineyard sites sampled between 2014 and 2018 … with no signs of improvement.

When soil is compacted, with few large pores, flow of water and air is restricted, and this can reduce the growth of plants and the yield from pastures, especially in wet conditions. Also, water can pond on the surface then run off, which causes erosion and moves topsoil and nutrients into waterways. Soil erosion is a huge environmental problem in Hawke’s Bay. 

As the report describes, soil compaction can be caused by heavy machinery (like tractors), high animal stocking rates, or stock damaging the soil when it is wet. Low macroporosity in orchards and vineyards can be caused by the use of heavy machinery for harvesting, pruning, and applying fertilisers and pesticides.

Although smarter on-farm practices can mitigate and in fact reduce farming intensification, it is clear that we must protect the volume of productive soils we do have at all costs.

And that’s an issue that our Hawke’s Bay councils need to face squarely as they plan for meeting our current housing needs, let alone projected population growth.

To get involved, check out the website of Save Our Plains

Down the road, the Government is proposing to introduce a Strategic Planning Act this year that would require regional spatial planning and establish a framework for it, including central government and mana whenua involvement. According to MfE, describing the Act:

“Long-term spatial strategies in each region would be developed to identify areas that:

  • will be suitable for development
  • need to be protected or improved
  • will need new infrastructure and other social needs
  • are vulnerable to climate change effects and natural hazards such as earthquakes. 

“The regional strategies would enable more efficient land and development markets to improve housing supply, affordability and choice, and climate change mitigation and adaptation.”

So far no explicit commitment to protect productive soils!

Stay tuned.

Join the Conversation


  1. New Zealand has enough people, and doesn’t need more. Instead it needs to have a massive drive to educate and improve the lives of too large a fraction of our population who need help. Ask yourself, if we continue building more housing and developments, when will it ever end? (as surely it must or this country and indeed the whole Earth will become sterile).

  2. It is time we began building up, not out. Housing currently spreading out is a concern – intruding on productive land.

  3. Re Soil Compaction – The reasons described here are not the only reasons and not the most wide ranging reasons .. Over use of Nitrogenous Fertiliser causes tightness of soil by the unused nitrogen leaching through the soil and pulling other minerals with it off the soil particals causing the particals to hold tightly to others ..
    The imballance of minerals olso causing tightness of soil particles especially following irrigation ..There are simple natural solutions to this.

  4. New Zealand currently produces enough food to feed 40 million people, so if you’ll pardon me playing devil’s advocate, why the angst about less arable land? As you rightly say, most of our food is exported, so we will never run out of food to feed our own people, by that simple arithmetic. The answer in my view to producing another $44 billion of export revenue from primary industries is intrinsically simple, in my view. Stop exporting the raw, low value, materials and add value before exporting them. We have the talent and the skills to do that. Less volume but higher value should be the goal. Does that mean we should allow valuable agricultural land to be further occupied by urban sprawl? By no means – as Edward Hamilton says, we should limit immigration to what our infrastructure can adequately cope with, and seriously implement building upwards, not outwards.

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