Little Government support for phasing out controversial synthetic nitrate fertiliser

Most of the Government’s environment committee oppose a bid to end controversial synthetic nitrate fertiliser use by 2024, but Green Party representatives are still backing further action.

In January last year, Greenpeace delivered a petition signed by more than 33,000 people to the Government, asking it to phase out the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser.

The Environment Select Committee, which has members from four parties, has now finished its report back to Parliament on the petition.

Greenpeace says use could be stopped by 2024, but the Government needs to provide support and infrastructure to help farmers transition to regenerative practices.

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About 90% of the synthetic nitrate fertilisers used in New Zealand, which are added to soil to boost plant growth, are used by livestock farming nationwide.

The select committee’s report said dairy had been the main driver behind increased use over the past 30 years. In 2009, 218,000 tons was used, compared with 343,000 tons in 2020 – a 57% increase in a decade.

But not all nitrogen was taken up by plants – some traveled underground and polluted aquifers and rivers. Grazing animals also ended up excreting some through their urine.

Nitrates could have serious impacts on freshwater health, with excess nitrate-nitrogen in water toxic to aquatic life, and contributing to algal blooms.

There was also a growing body of evidence that high nitrate levels in drinking water could have adverse effects on human health, including links with bowel cancer and premature births.


Environment Minister David Parker told Morning Report there are no plans to “immediately reduce the New Zealand standard for nitrates in drinking water”. (First published February 23, 2021)

The committee heard from Greenpeace, the Ministry for the Environment (MfE), the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), the Fertiliser Association, Federated Farmers, and independent experts – but was unable to reach a consensus.

Last year, the Government capped synthetic nitrogen fertiliser use for farms over 20 hectares at 190 kilograms per hectare per year.

The plan would be reviewed in 2023, to see whether it was set at the right level, and most in the committee agreed that would let the Government evaluate the petition’s concern, but the Green Party raised strong opposition.

Environment spokesperson Eugenie Sage wrote the “current overuse of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser farming beyond environmental limits, causes environmental degradation, and contributes to greenhouse emissions”.

“Farming can occur without its use,” she said.

Eugenie Sage, Green Party spokesperson for conservation and the environment, wants synthetic nitrogen use to be phased out.

Eugenie Sage, Green Party spokesperson for conservation and the environment, wants synthetic nitrogen use to be phased out.

“We need to progressively phase out synthetic nitrogen use to encourage a shift to regenerative agriculture and use of natural nitrogen-fixers such as clover and legumes, once widespread in Aotearoa New Zealand.”

The Green Party wanted further ideas considered in the 2023 review.

That could include a four-month “close down” period in autumn and winter, requiring councils to identify nitrate vulnerability zones, turning the new limit into a sinking cap to phase it out, or a sales levy – with money going towards management improvements.

The most recent state of the environment report showed between 1999 and 2018, nutrient variables “likely” or “very likely” lived at 27% to 49% monitored river sites, and from 2014 to 2018, 19% failed to meet drinking water standards on at least one occasion.

“The Green Party believes measures to reduce urgently and then phase out synthetic nitrogen fertiliser are required,” Sage said.

A Greenpeace block outside a synthetic nitrogen fertiliser plant.  (File photo)

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