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Overseer Review

Overseer Review

Stuff on Wednesday 11th August published the results of an independent panel’s review of Overseer© (the country’s main farm pollution management tool) as shown in the edited copies below.

[Major tool for managing farm pollution gets a fail from reviewers

Eloise Gibson and Jono Galuszka17:29, Aug 11 2021

An independent panel in charge of a long-awaited review into Overseer, one of the country’s main farm pollution management tools, concluded it could not be confident in Overseer’s ability to estimate nitrogen loss from farms.

The scientific panel cited “overarching structural problems” with the tool, which has been used to help manage water quality in some of New Zealand’s most troubled catchments.

A 2018 review by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Simon Upton found the tool was seriously flawed, opaque and open to gaming by farmers. Upton recommended the Government urgently review the software, which has been relied upon for years by several regional councils to determine whether farms are breaking water pollution limits.

The review found Overseer was user-friendly but not designed to accurately estimate nutrient loss – despite this being something councils use it for.

Overseer could only provide a “coarse understanding” of nutrient loss, it concluded.

But Overseer’s chief executive, Caroline Read, said Overseer was being judged for something it had never claimed to do.

It was never designed to provide real-time estimates of nitrogen losses, Read said, and she argued it did not need to do this to be helpful to farmers and councils.

Instead, she said, it gave farmers an annual estimate of whether their management practices were reducing run-off.

The software was originally designed as a commercial tool to help farmers maximise the milk or meat they gain from using artificial fertilisers.

Upton described the latest findings as “devastating” but said he was relieved they were finally public.

“I acknowledge that this places the Government in a very difficult position.

“While the … options outlined by the Government for further consideration are encouraging, I remain concerned about the continued use of Overseer,” the parliamentary commissioner said.

“An amended version may have a limited application in specific parts of the country but it can no longer be a central pillar of freshwater quality management.”

Federated Farmers environment spokesperson Chris Allen described the review as “scathing”.

“It basically says Overseer should never have been used for anything other than general on-farm nutrient use management.”

Despite that, more than 6000 farmers were strictly regulated by Overseer and millions of dollars had been spent on council and court hearings, he said.]

The Primary Land Users Group (P.L.U.G.) had identified problems with using Overseer as a regulatory instrument as far back as 2016 and in a press release dated 29th January 2017 in relation to Waikato Regional Council’s, Healthy Rivers Plan Change 1, made the following points in relation to Overseer:

[Overseer is notoriously inaccurate with a very wide margin for error and was never designed for use as a regulatory tool. It is used in other areas but only as an advisory tool to indicate possible levels of discharge.  

 The use of Overseer and the requirements for Nitrogen Reference Points as the criteria for discharges under PC1 produces a number of perverse outcomes;

  1. It grandparents the rights to discharge based on the NRP’s measured by Overseer thereby rewarding the worst polluters
  2. It allows people to use the inherent inaccuracies in Overseer to game the system and in effect make the initial outcomes worse rather than better in some cases.]

Whilst it is good to have the vindication of our claims in regard to Overseer from an independent review panel, why has it taken so long to confirm something which has in fact already been acknowledged by both PLUG and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment as far back as 2017?

Over the last four years as stated by Federated Farmers environment spokesperson Chris Allen Overseer should never have been used for anything other than general on-farm nutrient use management.

Despite knowing that Overseer was never designed to be used as a regulatory tool, more than 6000 farmers were strictly regulated by Overseer and millions of dollars have been spent on council and court hearings, as a result of these regulatory requirements based on the use of Overseer.

This is just another example of a bureaucratic system that is out of touch with reality costing taxpayer’s money with no real justification.