Dairy leadership has a lot to answer for freshwater pollution

Dairy industry leaders respond to public concerns with arrogance and a business-as-usual attitude, Angus Robson says.

Dairy industry leaders respond to public concerns with arrogance and a business-as-usual attitude, Angus Robson says.

OPINION: New Zealand dairying is in a full scale environmental crisis, which is getting worse by the day.

The crisis is not about a huge amount of recent pollution, it is because the public has finally woken up to the loss of water from many of our rivers, the pollution of lakes, and knowing that our groundwater has been contaminated with nitrates and germs from farm animals.

This is what it looks like for an industry to lose its social licence to operate.

Loss of social licence means a terrible price is paid by farmers, good and bad, because their industry no longer has public acceptance of the water pollution which is a byproduct of farming.

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It's like watching a slow-motion train wreck, and completely unnecessary.

This loss of social licence can be laid squarely at the door of dairy leadership. At every turn, the leaders of the dairy industry respond to public concerns with arrogance and a business-as-usual attitude.

Greenwashing by dairy leaders is rife in the media. Their tactics can be summarised as: deny, delay, deflect, and, above all, sow doubt.

An example of this is constantly pointing the finger at urban waterways when it is a fact that 95 per cent of lowland waterway pollution is from farming.

A real fear is that instead of recognising that their handling of the problem to date has been a disaster, the dairy leaders continue the same path, trashing the remaining goodwill which exists towards the farming community and hurting many wonderful farming people and businesses, while protecting those who are causing the bulk of the water pollution problem.

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There is time to step back from the brink, but we need dairy leaders to recognise the issues and address them in a positive way rather than constantly trying to defend the indefensible.

There are solutions to most of these pollution problems. They can be done in a timely way and will not break the bank, and if our dairy leaders got away from their bunker mentality and allowed the discussion we would get somewhere.

It must be very difficult as a farmer to know what to think about the way forward. When your leadership casts the public almost as the enemy, and rubbishes their legitimate concerns, there must be a temptation to do the same.

When that same leadership does all it can, and encourages farmers to do all they can, to maintain business as usual when that is the very problem that got us where we are, it is hard for farmers to see the positive alternatives and discuss them.

The problem is not "the farmer" – it is pollution.

We must at all costs avoid demonising farmers and farming, while at the same time going after polluters, and enables of pollution.

Dairy industry leaders are missing this important point, and seem to cast attacks on pollution as attacks on farming. This dooms the low impact farmers along with the high polluting ones.

It is easy to say, "Why don't the good farmers call out the bad ones?" If you have ever lived in a farming community, you would know the biggest polluter might be the footy coach or neighbour you would need to call on in an emergency.

This is why we have rules, which should be monitored and enforced by the regional councils. We don't police any other aspects of the law ourselves, so why should we be expected to dob neighbours in?

Unfortunately, dairy leadership has a long track record of trying to minimise rules, monitoring and enforcement in the mistaken belief that they are doing their members a favour.

Now we can see where that favour got them – a polluted country and badly offside with the public. The real favour would be to support proper rule making and action, and support the regional councils in getting on with the job of dealing with the worst polluters.

Einstein said insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting to get a different result.

Our dairy leaders have taken farmers down a dangerous path and there is limited time to rescue the situation. More of the same from them will make things worse. I really hope that the grassroots see this and take action with their leaders, or dairy leaders themselves wake up, realise what they have done, and finally start working for positive change.

I trust they will reply to this article, and we will know then if the social licence is heading for renewal or destruction.

  • Angus Robson is the president of Save Lake Karapiro.

 - Stuff

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