The Waimakariri River with Christchurch in the background, Canterbury, New Zealand. Credit/Greg O'Beirne

Changing the signposts for more sustainable farming systems

Photo credit: Greg O’Beirne. Waimakariri River, Canterbury, New Zealand. 

*A version of this column appeared on and in The Dominion Post

Where have you been swimming this summer? The beach? A river? Or have you avoided swimming because you’re not sure about whether the water will make you sick? Or maybe your local swimming hole has dried up.

In recent years, the custom of heading to your nearest river for a dip on a hot summer’s day has all but died out.  My inbox has been cluttered with health warnings, toxic algal bloom alerts and water restriction notices over the past month. Potentially toxic algal blooms in rivers and lakes mean these water bodies are off limits for swimming.

Identifying the causes of low flows and polluted rivers is critical to tackling the pollution, cleaning up rivers and lakes and protecting our aquifers. There is extensive scientific and other evidence that pastoral agriculture, dairy farming and intensive sheep and beef and arable farming are the major contributors to declining water quality in New Zealand over the last 25 years.

A recent opinion piece by Jon Morgan said dairy farmers unfairly cop the blame for poor water quality. This criticism could ease if the industry recognised that there are enough, and in many places, too many cows, and if the sector’s major focus was to add value to the existing milk supply while reducing its substantial environmental hoofprint.

Many dairy farmers are trying to do the right thing. Yet as a landmark 2013 report by Parliament’s environmental watchdog, Dr Jan Wright made clear, even if every farmer used best land management practices – planting stream banks and closely monitoring soil moisture levels to avoid flushing excess nutrients into waterways – water quality in many catchments across New Zealand would continue to decline. This is because of the large scale of land-use change to uses which leach nutrients.

We have reached the limit of dairy cow numbers in New Zealand but neither Fonterra with its aim of growing milk supply, nor Dairy NZ, will acknowledge this. While total dairy cow numbers have dropped slightly with the decline in dairy pay outs, the national dairy herd of 6.5 million in June 2015 is the equivalent to a human population of more than 90 million but without the sewage treatment.

In the last decade, 600 cow dairy farms have been established in drought prone areas such as the Mackenzie Basin. Here large amounts of artificial fertiliser and water have to be applied just to grow grass, while the light, stony soils leak nutrients into aquifers. This landscape was not made to sustain dairy farms; so why are we bending nature to our will to make it happen?

People are still allowed to choose a land use and a livelihood that we know is unsustainable because of weak Government policy, regional plan provisions under the RMA and misleading signals.

The emphasis in National’s Primary Growth Partnership is on increasing primary sector exports and on technological innovation, and it has spent more than $271 million to date.  Government funding help for agriculture should focus much more on understanding natural systems; soils, climate, waterways; and how we use them to grow food and fibre sustainably within environmental limits.

Massive public subsidies for irrigation through the Crown Irrigation Investment Ltd with its $400 million budget and its support for mega dams such as the proposed Ruataniwha scheme send the wrong signals. They promote further dairy expansion in areas such as Hawke’s Bay despite the area being better suited to horticulture.

Instead we need a stronger National Policy Statement for Freshwater which sets a national bottom line of rivers being suitable for swimming not just wading and which has tighter controls on nutrients. This would require regional councils to better control land uses that affect waterways and provide better guidance for farmers.

Phasing out the use of palm kernel expeller, a by-product of rainforest destruction, as a supplementary feed should encourage a return to less intensive stocking, and grass fed farming systems. Less intensive systems with lower input costs can increase farmers’ returns.

If dairying and the rest of the agricultural sector had to account for their climate pollution, this would help level the playing field for climate positive land uses such as forestry. Currently there is no requirement to account for climate pollution in decisions about whether to add another 100 cows or use land to grow timber or apples.

We could work to give integrity to our “clean and green” brand by implementing a sustainability strategy for New Zealand food and agriculture, as Ireland is doing with its Origin Green programme. In Ireland each producer commits to having a five year sustainability plan with measurable targets to reduce their environmental impacts, provide social benefits to local communities and make their business more sustainable. The plans are independently assessed and audited annually. Around 55,000 Irish farms and 95% of food and drink manufacturers are now involved.

We need to change the signposts and Government incentives to encourage a more diverse and resilient primary sector, one which is less reliant on environmental degradation and financial debt. That’s success for everyone.

Sign on for swimmable rivers

swimmable rivers