Editorial: dairy lobbyists don't help their cause by protesting too much

Dirty dairying
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Dirty dairying

Dairy farmers hate the "dirty dairying" tag. They claim they are doing their best to clean up our rivers and lakes and that the critics are being unfair.

DairyNZ is now unwisely taking its "clean dairying"  campaign into the world of advertising. It is furious that the Advertising Standards Authority has rejected its complaint against a Greenpeace advertisement.

Sometimes lobbyists are better to quit while they're behind.

The ASA said the statements in Greenpeace's ad "would not come as a surprise" to most Kiwis. 

Everybody knows that we have a serious water quality problem, and that it is hurting our national claim to be clean and green and (absurdly) "100 per cent pure."

Dairy farmers can rightly say that they are not the only source of water pollution and (more controversially) that they are doing everything they can to clean up their corner of the problem. But as Parliamentary Environment Commissioner Jan Wright said in her ground-breaking report on dairying in 2013, there is a "clear link between expanding dairy farming and increasing stress on water quality." So dairying does have a particular responsibility to help clean up the part of the mess for which it is responsible.

The industry will complain in vain about Greenpeace's taunt that dairy sought to suppress the environmentalists' message. "We're not covering anything up," insists DairyNZ boss Tim Mackie.

Maybe not, but it is protesting too much, which in the PR game is almost as bad.

Behind the argument over a mere ad is a deeper and wider argument about New Zealand and its interests. On the one hand is an immensely powerful economic interest, dairying, which continues to be a major source of our prosperity despite the recent hard times.

On the other hand is another powerful economic interest, tourism, the largest single earner of overseas funds. It is rightly concerned about the image that continues to bring millions of overseas visitors here. It knows that if our clean green image is badly damaged, it could cost the country billions.

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Amidst all this it is possible to disagree both about the scale of the problem and about what the industry and the Government is doing about it. The brute fact is that many of our rivers are dirty and not even officially "swimmable".

In the midst of this argument, it is foolish for dairy lobbyists to think that they will win the public debate by scoring a victory over a Greenpeace political ad.

Meanwhile, as Wright herself says, cleaning up agricultural  pollution of our waterways cannot be done quickly. It would be better for farming lobbyists to get on with that difficult task rather than continuing to fight back against the critics.

 - Stuff

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