New dairy accord needs to show teeth

A tougher dairy farming accord will be a welcome, albeit overdue, boost for the country's waterways.

The Sustainable Dairying: Water Accord is set to be in place for the start of the dairy season in August. It will set new environmental targets to get cattle out of waterways, reduce nutrient loss from farms, and comply with effluent rules.

It will also, for the first time, cover all the country's 12,000 dairy farmers, not just Fonterra's 10,500 farmer shareholders.

On the surface it sounds promising, but it will have to be backed by action that was not always apparent under the previous framework.

The Dairying and Clean Streams Accord, between Fonterra and central and local government, achieved just one of its five national targets when it expired after 10 years last December.

That was getting culverts and bridges built on 90 per cent of regular stock crossings.

Progress has been made in other target areas, but even the industry acknowledges it has not been fast enough.

For example, full compliance with regional council effluent rules - a regulatory requirement - sits at 73 per cent, well short of the 100 per cent goal. A stubborn 10 per cent of farms still have significant non-compliance.

Also worrying was that when the Ministry for Primary Industries did its own checks on fencing waterways last year they found dairy farmers had significantly over-reported their efforts.

The accord reported an 87 per cent compliance for that target; the ministry found it was just over 40 per cent.

That makes the requirement for a robust auditing of the new accord a priority. The dairy farmers representative body, DairyNZ, has acknowledged this by including independent audits in the new framework, though details of who will conduct them and how often have not been outlined.

The accord also needs a more effective way to prod the minority of reluctant farmers into action. The most obvious is to tie the new accord targets into dairy farmers' supply contracts, rather than the previous system's voluntary approach. In other words, milk will not be picked up from poor performers.

Fonterra and other companies have signalled they are looking at this, but just what conditions they will include in their contracts is unknown.

The rapid expansion of dairying in the past decade has not been matched by action to stop it polluting rivers and lakes.

The dairy industry says it has been unfairly singled out, and councils also need to lift their game to improve sewerage systems.

That is a fair point but there is no escaping that dairy farm run-off is a major contributor to the problem, and the industry has had at least 10 years to clean up its act. It says education and voluntary efforts are more effective than regulation such as the disputed Horizons Regional Council One Plan that sets tough conditions such as nutrient loss limits.

The new accord will have to demonstrate the tough talk is matched by action.