Minister turns hose on dirty dairying

BY EMILY WATT
Last updated 05:00 19/03/2010
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Agriculture Minister David Carter has lashed out at dirty dairy farmers over a report showing "totally unacceptable" levels of effluent management.

An audit of the industry shows an increasing rate of dairy farmers is failing to properly treat the toxic runoff from their land, which in turn poisons waterways and streams.

The issue continues to blight New Zealand's clean, green image, our ability to swim in our streams, and potentially tourism markets.

Dairy farming earned $9.9 billion in exports for the year to March 2008. Tourism earned $9.3b.

Last November, the British Guardian newspaper lambasted the country's green image in an article entitled "New Zealand was a friend to Middle Earth, but it's no friend of the earth" which criticised, among other things, the agricultural sector.

The same month, the Manawatu River was named one of the most polluted rivers in the Western World.

The Dairying and Clean Streams Accord report issued by the Agriculture and Forestry Ministry yesterday shows that while farmers are mostly doing well at keeping cows out of rivers and building bridges over waterways, their treatment of effluent wash-off has gone downhill.

The average level of significant non-compliance – which increases the risk of environmental harm – of effluent treatment rose from 12 per cent to 15 per cent in the past year. Compliance also dropped four points to 60 per cent.

Mr Carter, Fonterra and Federated Farmers describe the results as "totally unacceptable", "completely unacceptable", and "disappointing".

Mr Carter put polluting farmers on notice and called on regional councils to work harder at identifying farmers breaking the rules.

He warned of stronger regulations "to target those remaining farmers who blatantly pollute".

"You can argue the merits of dairy to our economy until the cows come home – but until every farmer takes responsibility for improving effluent management, the environment and dairying's reputation will suffer."

Dairy giant Fonterra said it would spend up to $3m and provide five more specialist staff to check every farm every year to force those not complying to meet standards.

Its trade and operations managing director, Gary Romano, said there were reasons for the decline in performance but no excuses. Increased monitoring meant more rule-breakers were being identified, and monitoring had been extended to feed pads and stock underpasses, not just farms as before.

Massey University scientist Mike Joy, director of the Centre for Freshwater Ecosystem Management and Modelling, said the failings in the report underestimated the real and growing impacts from dairying on the environment.

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"The real question is: Is the accord working? Has there been any improvement in the state of rivers and streams? The answer is emphatically no and nor is there likely to be given the accord is too weak."

Federated Farmers dairy chairman Lachlan McKenzie insisted the report, while disappointing, showed the industry was open and accountable. "We mustn't lose sight of the fact that 85 per cent of dairy farmers are either fully compliant or guilty of no more than an administrative breach."

DAIRY REPORT CARD

The Dairying and Clean Streams Accord was signed in 2003 between Fonterra, the ministers of Agriculture and the Environment, and regional councils, and aims to minimise the negative impact of dairying on waterways.

It set targets to keep dairy cattle out of waterways, treat farm effluent, and manage the use of fertilisers and other nutrients.

Two out of the five targets have been met.

The rate of farms properly treating or discharging their dairy farm effluent dropped from 64 per cent to 60 per cent.

Regional rates varied from 39 per cent in Northland to 96 per cent in Taranaki.

Significant non-compliance (which would result in potential for environmental harm) increased from 12 to 15 per cent.

Farmers are mostly doing well at keeping cows out of rivers and building bridges over waterways.

Any farmer given an infringement notice or fined by a council is also fined by Fonterra, which then spends the money improving their farms.

Last year, the company threatened to stop collecting milk from 11 farms that were breaching the rules, and followed through on two of those threats.

- The Dominion Post

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