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Factory Dairy Farming – the world responds but will we listen?

What do a UK supermarket chain, Michael Pollan and Jamie Oliver all have in common? They all think factory dairy farming is a bad idea for New Zealand.

In the last days of 2009, the prospect of indoor dairy farming gaining a foothold in the pristine MacKenzie basin got more than a few folks hot under the collar. A Facebook Group in opposition to the three applications attracted more than 25,000 members. Environment Canterbury (ECan) received more than 3000 submissions on the first two applications and the third closes this week.

ECan Chief Executive Bryan Jenkins has asked Environment Minister Nick Smith if he can call-in the applications. Dr Jenkins says there is a stronger argument for considering the detrimental effect on New Zealand’s image abroad from factory farming, but it is unlikely a regional council could place significant weight on this issue.

A call-in under Section 142 of the Resource Management Act, which allows Dr Smith to use the powers if a resource consent is causing widespread public concern about likely impacts on the environment.

What’s interesting is that ECan has told the press that submissions have come in from around the world. While trying to paint opposition as misinformed hysteria, those supporting the expansion of intensive dairying in the MacKenzie Basin seem to have underestimated the world’s response to the prospect of NZ allowing factory dairy farming to become established.

Sadly, Dr Smith’s response has been to appoint a project-coordinator to ECan staff to assist with processing submissions so it appears he is not going to step in with any meaningful response. Labour and the Greens have labelled his action “ducking for cover”.

Whatever you feel about the animal welfare or environmental issues associated with this sort of farming, the negative impact on our international reputation is undeniable. New Zealand produce is marketed all over the world on the back of our clean, green image – pastoral farming based on grass and sunshine.

Our agricultural and horticultural trade (and to a similar extent, our tourism) relies on the cultivation of our clean, green image in the eyes of the rest of the world. Whether it’s for the sake of ethics, or to protect local producers, many of our overseas markets will not hesitate to marginalise NZ imports given the opportunity. Once we introduce factory dairy farming (or any factory farming) our products will have to compete on price alone as our unique point of difference vanishes.

Just last week, UK supermarket chain Waitrose has declared it will boycott NZ dairy products that are produced using non-pastoral practices. Waitrose has more than 200 branches throughout the UK and is known for its high-quality retailing and its high ethical standards – arguably the perfect outlet for our high-value products. A spokesperson said “Waitrose would not source own-label dairy products from farmers in New Zealand that did not allow their cows to roam freely outside, or to have the best welfare standards.”

Unsurprisingly, Fonterra have rushed to reassure Waitrose that “they will continue to graze their herds outside” which seems to be at odds with the circumstances under which Fonterra can legally refuse to collect milk. Fonterra can deny collection only from farms prosecuted for animal cruelty or environmental mismanagement, or because of consistently low quality. In their words in this Q&AFonterra cannot…direct business decisions made by shareholders as the business owners.” Tankers collect from multiple farms on a run so unless they can economically separate out milk from farms that Waitrose (and any others) consider unacceptable, their claims look hollow.

Michael Pollan, internationally acclaimed author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food had this to say in a private communication when I asked him for his comments on the MacKenzie basin applications:

John:
Thanks for your note. All I can say is that it would be a tragedy for New Zealand to turn its back on your land’s greatest resource: its grass. This especially at a time when we’re coming to see that putting agriculture on a foundation of petroleum, rather than sunlight, is unsustainable in the long term. The future is in solar agriculture –which is to say grass-based. To move to feedlots is to tie your food system to the petroleum economy, and that will prove disastrous sooner or later. (Argentina is in the process of doing the same thing.)

Jamie Oliver, celebrity chef and a passionate advocate for local, seasonal food took the time to tweet a brief message for NZ:

jamie_tweet

The world is our market (only 2% of Fonterra milk is consumed in NZ), shouldn’t we be listening to them before risking a large sector of our economy so a handful of farmers can scrape a few more dollars out of land that should never have seen cows in the first place?

Prime Minister John Key has told Parliament that the Government has sought urgent advice on factory dairy farming. The Government will need to act quickly if it is to follow ECan’s advice, with a decision on two call-ins needed by January 15 and a ruling on the third needed a week later.

We need to send Nick Smith and John Key a strong message to call-in these applications now and deal with them as a a matter of national importance.

22 Comments »

  1. Neil Forster said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 7:09 am

    Good post John, and submission underway.

    I agree with the key focus on the NZ market place perception, both for our exports and tourism. The local issues of “animal welfare and water quality” can be mitigated (some may disagree) and the “100% pure” image NZ has wanted to portray will be severly impacted by this sort of farming.

    Additionally this level of intensity provides increased argument for our competitors in the primary production markets. That in short, produce from NZ is “just the same as their country”. Many countries, for a number of reasons, produce milk in this nature. The result, with the points you’ve made, is we have dropped our competitive advantage and are now just the same as them. While the individual farmer has improved his output and revenue, NZ will suffer. We will then have to directly compete, without any real differentiation with very large countries farming in this manner (eg. USA, China) and we just aren’t big enough to do this.

    I think Fonterra’s view on this is critical to help prevent any progress of this type of production in NZ. Additionally perhaps we need to look at rewarding production that supports and enhances NZ’s competitive advantage, rather than primarily just being production/Ha based. We have to target high value markets with high value product.

    The worst point, in my opinion is that of Fed. Farmers, they are looking one one point, they appear to have actually changed position and they have forgotten about the country they help represent and it’s position in the world market place.

  2. FarmGeek said,

    January 12, 2010 @ 7:30 am

    Thanks Neil

    I’ll save my comments on Fed Farmers for over a drink some time, but I agree that Fonterra is the most important player in stopping this.

    Right now, the potential factory dairy farming milk output would be a miniscule fraction of the 14 billion litres of milk Fonterra collect annually. I hope we can convince Fonterra the risk to their brand is just not worth indulging a few farmers on the fringes.

    It seems they are currently unable to refuse milk collection from any farm unless they are convicted on environmental or animal welfare grounds so you are right – there needs to be a better mechanism by which Fonterra can reward good production and discourage bad.

    Fonterra (or it’s shareholders) make their money largely on the back of our clean, green mythology. It’s only fair (and smart business) that they play their part in maintaining it.

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