Government ignores horticulture industry's calls to protect soils from urban sprawl

The horticulture industry has issued a warning to the Government that Auckland could soon rely on vegetables imported from overseas if the city's urban sprawl continues.

Pukekohe soils are the city's food basket, and the threat of urban development has Horticulture New Zealand pushing for a food security policy to protect them.

Bharat Jivan is a third-generation grower in Pukekohe who's witnessed the creep of housing into the land he crops. A paddock he hoped to buy has been zoned as 'country-style living', which means its value has tripled.

"That makes it uneconomical to crop on, which is a real shame."

He says not enough is being done to preserve the high-value soil that provides produce to New Zealanders all year round.

"Early potatoes and spring carrots come solely out of this region. The land needs to be identified as a valuable resource for future generations and preserved for rural production.

"To put houses on it would be a complete waste of a precious resource."

In 2003 agricultural land made up 67 percent of the total land use in Auckland. That fell to 50 percent in 2014, and horticultural land use has fallen from 15,000ha to 13,600ha.

In the next 30 years, Pukekohe's population is expected to more than double. That's got growers like Mark Ball worried about the future of their land.

"What we would like is for the Government to get in behind us growers and primary industry people and support us in terms of valuing what is important, and for us it's the versatile soils and the water."

Just 5 percent of New Zealand soil is suitable for high-value vegetable production, and about a fifth of that is in the Franklin district. Recently 2000ha in Pukekohe was protected in Auckland's Unitary Plan, but Horticulture New Zealand says another 6000ha needs to be included too.

"All sorts of terrible things can happen and you need to be able to feed your own country without importing," Horticulture NZ CEO Mike Chapman says.

Horticulture NZ met with the Ministry for Primary Industries in May last year to discuss the development of a "national food supply and security policy".

Notes from that meeting include the need to highlight "many countries have such a policy and the development of one for New Zealand is urgent to ensure that New Zealand can meet its own domestic supply needs", and that "local food supply is under threat in some key areas".

But the ministry told Newshub in an email: "MPI has not been in discussions with HortNZ regarding any proposals for a food security plan."

Then after further questions about the meeting were sent: "While MPI is aware of Horticulture NZ's concerns, we have not worked with them on this issue."

Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy says there's no need for a policy.

"I think we've got the balance about right - yes, we export a lot of what we produce here, but we import it as well and consumers expect us to do that."

Mr Ball says there is no substitute for fresh produce.

"Well it's about freshness isn't it, and it's about knowing that the product they're eating has been harvested yesterday and it's in the stores this afternoon."

Housing Minister Nick Smith says it's up to landowners whether they sell up to developers.

"No, I'm not overly concerned - I think landowners are quite capable of making decisions themselves."

It's not just housing threatening Pukekohe's crops; new land use rules designed to protect waterways implemented by the Waikato Regional Council are putting pressure on growers too.

"Environmental rules are going to make it very difficult for growers to operate in the Waikato region, so on one hand we're losing land to houses in the Auckland region and we're unable to expand our production into Waikato," Mr Jivan says.

"The authorities need to get their head around how we're going to cater for population growth."