Is Fish and Game right to call for the prosecution of milk companies if their poor performing farmers fail to step up environmentally?
When Fish & Game made public the results of the independently conducted research we commissioned into public perceptions of farming and the environment a level of debate around the issues and findings was anticipated.
OPINION: Unfortunately that never materialised.
Instead the response from primary sector critics and certain government ministers was all sadly reminiscent of what Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright was subjected to when she recently publicised her findings on the toll unconstrained dairy growth has had on the environment and is predicted to have in the future.
Deny the extent of the problem. Discredit the research or the commissioning agency. Divert attention away from the issues. The tactics are all too similar.
The article Survey doesn't tell full story, says dairy boss (published here on Stuff.co.nz on March 15) is a case in point. The dairy-industry figureheads trundled out vast sums supposedly spent on "environmental investment" in an attempt to dazzle the reader but provided absolutely no indication of what has actually been achieved in terms of measurable improvements to water quality, which professionally conducted polls now show the public clearly demands.
Indeed, Dairy NZ's Tim Mackle, the very person defending the sector's "'commitment" to the environment in your article, is the same person on the record elsewhere in the media informing an industry meeting that "nationwide limits around nitrogen [to protect waterways] had to be avoided at all costs".
And on the subject of not telling "the full story", unsurprisingly there is no mention of the vast amounts of money taxpayers and ratepayers are forking out to clean up after intensive agriculture. Indeed, it was quite coincidental that on the same day your article was published Canterbury ratepayers were being asked to foot the bill for the Canterbury Water Management Strategy via an almost 5 per cent rates hike.
The fact that the dairy industry is reaping massive corporate welfare from the Government, via taxpayers, is an inconvenient truth they would rather remain buried. Because Fish & Game has highlighted such issues, and more particularly how the New Zealand public feels about paying such subsidies, we've been accused of taking a "cheap shot" at the industry by Federated Farmers' Willy Leferink.
Yet, in the same breath, he says he "respects the results" of the research findings. This is a classic example of the confused logic symptomatic of the industry's response to the public demand for environmentally sustainable dairying. Leferink argues that the sector is "doing everything under the sun to get these people to follow the rules". Why then is he, and others, so opposed to regulation, which is arguably the cheapest form of accreditation in the market place?
Surely this argument proves it is time for the dairy companies to be made formally responsible for the environmental performance of their suppliers - if the poor performers fail to step up environmentally the dairy company gets prosecuted. If they are happy to take the milk from their poor environmental performers then surely they must inherit the accountability for the adverse environmental effects. This would internalise the responsibility, the accountability and the cost where it belongs, rather than have the burden fall on regional councils and their ratepayers. We asked this very question, and 72 per cent of the public agree!
As for the "new" Sustainable Dairy: Water Accord, it only applies to streams "wider than one metre and deeper than 30cm". This replaces the original accord which set the voluntary stock exclusion preference for streams at only "wider than a stride and deeper than a Redband [gumboot]". So it has actually got worse. And let's not forget the previous accord failed to meet key objectives, even after more than a decade of being in place.
The support by the industry lobby groups for weak bottom lines in the national policy framework for water quality also sheds some light on their real level of dedication to reducing the adverse environmental impacts.
Finally, and for the record, our research is a survey of the public's views on farming and the environment - it is not "Fish & Game's opinion", as some factions have tried to imply. Despite all the attempts to downplay and discredit these findings, what is resoundingly clear is that the dairy industry has lost its public licence to operate; the critics can ignore such sentiment at their peril.
Industry needs a new strategy to farm smarter - Tomorrow's Farming Today.
And in this regard it is encouraging that there is a growing body of evidence and fresh-thinking experts promoting a shift away from the dairy companies' push for volume towards individual farmer profit: fewer cows, on the same amount of land, requiring less fertiliser, labour and animal health inputs, resulting in higher profit. This is the future of environmentally sustainable dairying in New Zealand. This is the future Kiwis want.
Fish & Game has previously committed its support to a New Zealand dairy industry that is environmentally sustainable to an agreed and accredited standard.
* Bryce Johnson is chief executive of Fish & Game NZ.
- The Press