Dairy farmers unfairly cop the blame over water quality

Dairy farmers are doing all that is asked for them to stop the pollution of waterways, says Jon Morgan.

Farmers have planted the banks of this tributary of the Oeo Stream west of Mt Taranaki..

Farmers have planted the banks of this tributary of the Oeo Stream west of Mt Taranaki..

OPINION: The year has opened with renewed unfair attacks on dairy farming.

An opinion piece by an aquatic scientist lamenting dying rivers and lakes was widely circulated, followed by a story about the dirty Selwyn River in North Canterbury and the news that a complaint against Greenpeace's anti-dairying advertising was not upheld.

In the comments on these articles, readers spouted the anti-dairying vitriol we've become used to seeing.

A school-farmers' planting bee on a tributary to the upper Pomahaka River in Otago.

A school-farmers' planting bee on a tributary to the upper Pomahaka River in Otago.

It must be very upsetting to dairying families to read this and feel the hatred directed at them. Because it is clear: All this is not their fault.

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Yes, according to the science, dairying is a major factor in a decline in water quality. The science also shows this is the result of 150 years of farming, albeit escalated in the past 20 years.

Dairy farmers are doing everything asked of them to reduce the loss of nutrients from their farms. They have bridged stream crossings, fenced waterways, planted riparian strips and built highly technical effluent treatment systems. They want clean streams as much as any other New Zealanders.

But those with their own axe to grind don't want to know this. And the ignorant follow along. 

The opinion writers and the commenters seem to think that clean streams and lakes can be accomplished immediately, that 150 years of pollution can be erased overnight.

It can't be – even if all farming was banned and the land converted to trees and bush, the leaching would go on.

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It's a poor state of affairs, undoubtedly, but it is our inheritance – from people who didn't know better.  They thought they were doing us all a favour, creating a thriving economy that gave us high living standards. Don't forget, we're the beneficiaries of that, too.

Actually, the instances complained of in the recent articles – Lake Tutira in Hawke's Bay and the Selwyn - are not entirely the fault of dairying. Tutira's algal bloom has been traced to phosphorous in sediment washed off the land by heavy rain. The Selwyn's poor state is due to not enough rain. Don't blame farmers for the weather.

The good-news stories of farmers' environmental stewardship don't get the same coverage, even though there are more of them every year. The opinion writers ignore them in their haste to rubbish farmers.

They also ignore the stories of regional success – the biggest being Lake Taupo. As soon as high nitrogen and phosphorous levels started showing up in streams leading into the lake, measures were instituted to stop dairying and retire land to forestry.

I know, it's ironic that where one area was planting trees on farmland another was cutting them down to create more dairying. But those conversions have stopped.

A lot of these changes – the on-farm measures and the region-wide reforms – have not come about without being challenged by farmers. That is their right and they can't be blamed for wanting a say in moves that affect their lives so profoundly. Now, they have accepted the science – although questions remain, particularly around the use of a flawed nutrient-measurement system – and they should be applauded for this.

When I read the criticism I ask myself, what have these people to gain. Is it funding for a pet project, more votes, or more donations?

Or do they just relish the chance to put the boot into someone they perceive as enjoying a better lifestyle and earning more money than them?

Jealousy can be a powerful stimulant.

- Jon Morgan is the editor of NZ Farmer

 - Stuff


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