The release of a Strategy for New Zealand Dairy Farming slipped quietly under the public’s radar this week, with few media picking it up.
At the Strategy launch, the PM and Ag Minister David Carter mooed in the direction of the environment: the PM said, “It is important that farmers step up and take leadership on meeting some of the environmental challenges that will shape the future of your industry”, and his Minster repeated that, “no farmer has a right to pollute”. But NZPA noted that, “Despite the two politicians’ comments, there was limited mention of cleaning up “dirty dairying” in the five key goals set out for the next decade”. Fish and Game said similar scoring the Strategy 2 out of 6.
The Strategy is indeed pretty weak on environmental commitments. However, what is refreshing is the admission, finally, that environmental degradation is a big issue for the industry, and that the responsibility for fixing it lies with the industry itself. This is a step forward, even if their main rationale is the threat to their brand image. I didn’t see much recognition that water is a public asset, swimming and drinking a public right, and that commercial activity that takes that away is a public subsidy to the industry.
It is pleasing also that the whole industry is now acknowledging their environmental impact. The Greens think that the voluntary Clean Streams Accord, by only including Fonterra, effectively lets the other companies off the hook. It also means that Fonterra is afraid to be too progressive with sustainability measures (carrots or sticks), hence the weakness of the Accord targets, lest their suppliers simply move to a rival company without such measures. Questioned on this, the Minister remained obstinate.
New Zealand needs effective regulation that mandates best practice across the whole dairy industry, reduces effluent discharge non-compliance to near-zero, and rolls-out riparian planting, fish-passage culverts and fencing to protect waterways. There’s a lot of jobs in that type of work, and other opportunities to improve agriculture’s sustainability like shifting to low input systems, tree-planting to stablise soil in the hill-country, and energy-saving technology like biodigesters and solar water-heating for the dairy shed to reduce energy demand and reduce emissions.
The Minister has again said, like Ministers before him, that if the industry does not lift its environmental performance, the government will step in with regulation. Just how many years of woeful performance under voluntary measures do we have to wait? What is not clear from the new Strategy is how the industry actually intends to lift its environmental performance. This allow the Minister to sit on his hands forever, making his threats also all talk and no action.