Dairy clean up costs in US environmental journal

Dr Mike Joy - Massey University freshwater ecologist.

Dr Mike Joy - Massey University freshwater ecologist.

A Massey University study that looks at the environmental costs of cleaning up waterways after dairying has been published in a United States journal.

NZ Dairy Farming - Milking Our Environment for All Its Worth, written by Kyleisha Foote, Dr Mike Joy and Professor Russel Death of Massey University's Institute of Agriculture and Environment, has appeared in the scientific journal Environmental Management.

The paper  reveals Statistics New Zealand figures that show the dairy industry in 1990 produced 13 per cent of the country's export, while in 2012 it produced 25 per cent.

Joy said this showed there was no incentive for dairy farmers to stop polluting.

"We have twice as many cows and produce four times as much milk - the difference is inputs, such as palm kernel feed and nitrogen, on pastures."

The peer-reviewed paper highlighted how dairy production in New Zealand has undergone a radical change in the last few decades, from a low input, low cost and low impact system to high intensity, high cost, high impact system, increasingly reliant on imported feed and fertiliser, he said. 

"This virtually uncontrolled intensification has led to exponential increases in pollution and costs to the community in the form of lost recreation opportunities and clean-up costs."

He said the cost of cleaning up fresh water, such as that found in rivers and lakes, would fall on future generations "who will not be able to drink the water or use it for recreation".

At the moment, Joy said the costs of cleaning the environment up were not borne by the industry but rather by society at large, and those costs were building up.

He said the results were not welcomed by many and were a wake-up call for the dairy industry.

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"A strong message from the study is that avoiding pollution is far cheaper for everyone than trying to clean it up afterwards and there is now ample evidence that farmers can make more profit and pollute less when not myopically chasing increased production."

Joy, Death and  Foote said the New Zealand situation was different from most of the rest of the world where cows were in barns; New Zealand's were outside so it was virtually impossible to stop their waste leaking into the environment.  

Recently, taxpayer funds have been directed at multi-million dollar clean-ups, for example in the Rotorua Lakes, Lake Taupo, the Manawatu River and Lake Wairarapa, Joy said.

"These are just the tip of the iceberg. The degradation is far more extensive and will increase due to delays in pollution effects being seen; this is because nitrogen can take years even decades to move through subsurface to waterways "

He said the paper was the first time research had been done at a national scale, rather than region by region.

Joy said the paper showed the range of costs to fix water was estimated at between $2.1 billion and $15 billion on a national scale.

"This raises questions about who should be paying for pollution – the public or the polluters."

 - Stuff

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