It's time dairying dumped denial

BRYCE JOHNSON: Fish & Game chief executive says dairy farmers need to realise that they are not doing enough to halt, let alone reverse, the decline in water quality.
BRYCE JOHNSON: Fish & Game chief executive says dairy farmers need to realise that they are not doing enough to halt, let alone reverse, the decline in water quality.

It is time to stop bashing the messenger and avoiding the message.

Dairy farmers need to realise that they are not doing enough to halt, let alone reverse, the decline in water quality in the Southland region.

Unfortunately, they have not been supported by their industry "leaders" who, until very recently, have denied the water quality issue, while carefully cultivating the perception that if we fence our streams we're sorted. Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright's recent report on land use and nutrient pollution is confirmation.

Encouragingly, the last fortnight has seen a shift by Fonterra and Federated Farmers in recognising the plight of fresh water nationally, and admitting we cannot continue with the "business as usual" attitude.

However, having read Southland Federated Farmers president Russell MacPherson's comments (December 5) I can only assume he didn't receive the "come clean" memo.

Mr MacPherson's views differ significantly from those of his organisation's national president, Bruce Wills, who last month said "the pendulum had swung too far in intensive dairying" - a pleasing departure from Federated Farmers' previous rhetoric about the need for "more science".

Similarly, Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings recently conceded that the company needed to lift its game, pointing out that the industry's environmental sustainability is 10 years behind where it should be: "We have to get our act together."

Last week there was a further development in Canterbury, with ECan commissioners tabling the revised Canterbury Land and Water Regional Plan, a small step in the right direction of maintaining and enhancing the region's water quality by finally, after years of neglect, addressing the nitrate leaching problem.

As nutrient (pollutant) loss limits become a reality, as they just have in Canterbury, farmers will have to address their most polluting practices. Because dairying typically loses more nutrient than sheep and beef operations, the more dairying there is in a catchment, the more existing operators are likely to have to change their practices.

If farming operations are economically and environmentally fragile, they may not be able to amend practices to fit within the limits. Consequently, it is in the interests of existing operators to ensure that any further dairy expansion is cautious, and has much better environmental standards.

Dairying desperately needs a new model, starting from the environment and working up, rather than maximising production and making ineffectual environmental concessions. Reduced stocking rates with better-fed cows that live longer, get in-calf easier, suffer less disease and require less inputs, can be as profitable as the current high-stocking rate regime.

"Best practice", as Mr Spierings has acknowledged, will vary case by case, and will sometimes require comparatively costly investments in mitigation options.

Just as the PCE report identifies dairying as not environmentally sustainable, another recent report suggests economic sustainability is also fragile.

Rabobank identified New Zealand dairy farmers losing their low-cost advantage as they move from pasture-based systems and further intensify.

Whereas 20 years ago alternative feeds contributed 10 per cent of farm expenses, that's now risen to 25 per cent. This year New Zealand imported over twice as much palm kernel extract as in 2008, a staggering 1.5 million metric tonnes, making us the world's second-largest importer.

Such reliance must increase our country's susceptibility to a biosecurity disaster. Worryingly, foot and mouth disease is one reported possibility.

And using palm kernel is about as far from the image of our pasture-fed cows as you could get, further distancing the reality of our dairying from our 100 per cent pure brand.

Mr MacPherson is incorrect when he states that the PCE's report fails to take into account existing or future mitigation measures. Dr Wright notes that "recent trends in mitigation and industry commitments were used as a starting point".

She also assumes that by 2020 reductions in nutrient loss from mitigation will offset increases from more intensive use of the land. Yet she acknowledges that "this assumption is optimistic". Her analysis is actually pretty conservative.

The PCE convened a group of experts, who concluded that widespread adoption of capital- intensive mitigation in the dairy sector was unlikely by 2020. If the experts don't believe it, why should the public?

Mr MacPherson makes the fantastical claim that dairying has reduced its impact in the Southland environment since 2008. I'm not sure what he's basing his claims on, but the recent rapid decline in the state of the New River estuary next to Invercargill is graphic and irrefutable evidence to the contrary.

And yet he still believes the PCE's report is "not a wake-up call for dairying in Southland". Perhaps he doesn't want Southlanders to realise that, one way or another, they are going to foot the bill for his industry's environmental impacts.

The dairy industry has to take a new direction and accept full responsibility for avoiding, remedying and mitigating its adverse effects. Use of public natural water for private benefit is not a right - it's a privilege that comes with responsibilities.

* Bryce Johnson is chief executive of Fish and Game NZ.

The Southland Times