Dairying muddies NZ's thinking

To us, New Zealand is paradise. It is the place we daydream the most about in our non-New Zealand time (which is most of the time).

This helps us "survive" boring work and harsh winter storms at home in Norway. Our dreams are all related to the purity and beauty of the land - such as the large flat wind-swept plains like the Mackenzie and Maniototo surrounded by snow-covered mountains or the lush rainforests of Urewera or Fiordland.

Common to all our dreams is the omnipresent crystal-clear water in rivers and streams winding their ways through the landscape, as well as the many lakes filling up old craters and crevices.

We readily admit it was the large trout that first brought us here. But over time it has become but a smaller part of the "package".

Now we enjoy just as much to sit by the river and watch the clear water flow by; observe birds that feed on hatching mayflies and feel the cool and humid air of the rainforest or a warm summer breeze blowing across the plains.

However, during our trips in which we have visited more-or-less every part of New Zealand, we have witnessed the fall in water quality with mounting concern.

This seems closely related to more intensive farming practices that have been adopted and especially the high rate of conversion from sheep to dairy.

This would have been fine had it not been for the environmental consequences of the intensified dairy farming. The potential for pollution in terms of waste output to groundwater and waterways is substantial and well recognised.

Each cow produces as much waste as 14 people, which means the waste output of the New Zealand cattle herd of 10.18 million is equivalent of that of 142 million humans. A good part of that waste is washed into waterways.

It's pretty obvious the intensification of dairy farming is to blame. In addition the intensive irrigation of water from many lowland rivers has sucked the lifeblood out of these and worsened the picture. In Canterbury, many former great trout rivers are completely dried up because of irrigation. Further expansion fuelled by $400 million of new irrigation subsidies will make things much worse.

The scientific evidence in support of deteriorating water quality seems unequivocal.

Yet prominent representatives of the authorities as well as farmers' associations deny the facts and apply simple suppression techniques.

In 2011, when interviewed by the BBC, Prime Minister John Key was asked about New Zealand's clean, green image and how that sat alongside comments by a leading environmental scientist at Massey University, Dr Mike Joy, who said "we are delusional about how green and clean we are". Key responded: "That might be Mike Joy's view, but I don't share that view."

The interviewer then said Joy was a scientist and would have based his comments on research, to which Key replied: "Well, he's one academic, and like lawyers I can give you another one that will give a counterview".

In that one statement, he reduced the value of science to mere opinion that is easily challenged. Significantly, Key has not been able to find a single scientist to provide this counterview, but there are many, including the Government's own Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, whose own findings largely support Joy's.

TO US who live in a western European country where environmental issues are now taken seriously, the low water quality in New Zealand is appalling.

The only thing that seems to count is economic growth. Cows produce milk, which is converted to valuable milk powder for profitable exports. The environment is seemingly not a part of the equation and the important interplay between economic and environmental interests seems completely outdated.

Water pollution was also a huge issue in Europe a few decades ago and resulted in the EU Water Framework Directive, which was set in force in 2000. The mantra underlying the framework, which involves very tight regulations, is described as follows:

"Water is life. It is a precondition for human, animal and plant life as well as an indispensable resource for the economy. Water also plays a fundamental role in the climate regulation cycle. Protection of water resources, of fresh and salt water ecosystems and of the water we drink and bathe in is therefore one of the cornerstones of environmental protection."

Interestingly, an important aim of the EU directive is that freshwater should be drinkable and swimmable. This stands in stark contrast to the New Zealand National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management, which aims to "manage freshwater bodies so people's health is safeguarded when wading or boating".

New Zealand and its dairy industry seem to be following a low-cost strategy. It is successful in terms of profits in the short run, but not viable in the long run.

We love the fabulous fishing in New Zealand but water quality is more serious than the wellbeing of the trout. For us, and probably most tourists, the hypocritical 100% Pure branding strategy affects our perception of New Zealand negatively. Who wants to visit a country that does not care about the scenery the tourists come to see?

In our opinion the Government is on a road to effectively ruin both the rivers and consequently the viability of the 100% Pure brand. Water is life. Take good care of it.

Oddvar Vermedal is a board member of the Norwegian Hunting and Fishing Association, and has been visiting New Zealand since 1998.

Geir Sogn-Grundvag is a Norwegian citizen who has been visiting New Zealand since 2001.

The Dominion Post