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Published: 2009-03-13 00:00:00

Former Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Morgan Williams has told Environment Waikato councillors that sustainability is no longer just a "nice to have".

At a briefing for EW’s policy and strategy committee on Wednesday 11 March, he quoted from the summit of the Global Agenda World Economic Forum in January. "It [sustainability] has become a human security and survival issue and we must envisage ways for humanity to thrive, not just survive."

Dr Williams – who currently has Adjunct Professorships at the University of Canterbury and Queensland and a consultancy business called FutureSteps - said regional councils had a key role to play in ensuring that communities thrived as they tried to ensure a healthy environment and a healthy economy in their areas.

A key challenge for New Zealand was to help meet the growing global demand for higher quality, higher value food, particularly animal protein, while sustaining the health of ecosystems, and reducing the contribution of food production to climate change, Dr Williams said.

He believed New Zealand needed to focus on changing whole farm systems to dramatically increase the efficiency of inputs (such as energy and fertilizers), fodder production and livestock performance, and therefore impact on our natural capital, rather than have too much focus on one component, such as greenhouse gas emissions.

Praising EW’s understanding of the region’s soil and water resources, Dr Williams said the recent global economic meltdown underlined the importance of good regulation, compliance monitoring and quality governance. He suggested declining water quality could affect the region’s reputation: "From a marketing point of view it's a nightmare - how do you explain to customers at home or abroad that your waterways are so polluted stock can't drink from them, people can't swim in them."

It was therefore important that EW didn’t "drop the ball" on monitoring and measuring environmental indicators, and the council needed to work with its community to improve everyone’s capacity to manage the weather extremes that are already a reality (as global insurance claims indicate) of climate change, he said.

Dr Williams also said that allowing subdivision of prime agricultural land was like "pulling the rivets out of the wings of a 747 - do we want to allow that to happen?"

Policy and strategy committee chair Paula Southgate said she agreed that EW, the Waikato agricultural sector and other agencies needed to work together closely to better manage the impact of farming on the environment.

"We collectively need to identify measures we can take to make sure we maintain a healthy rural economy while, at the same time, doing more to protect the environment," said Cr Southgate.

"I agree with Dr Williams that more sustainable management of natural resources is no longer just a ‘nice idea’. It’s something we need to do to better so as to support the natural resources which underpin activities like farming and tourism, and the great outdoor way of life we enjoy in the Waikato.

"These types of issues will be looked at closely in the forthcoming review of our regional policy statement and in the development of our sustainable agriculture strategy."