Reply to Jon Morgan

A reality check for Jon Morgan in response to his editorial “Dairy farmers unfairly cop the blame over water quality

I’m not sure how factual events, like the Selwyn River being declared unsafe to swim in, or DairyNZ not having a complaint against Greenpeace upheld, represent “unfair attacks on dairy farming”. They are simply reality.

It’s a shame that Mr Morgan has tried to derail the discussion by interpreting any criticism of the impacts of the dairy industry as a personal attack on “dairying families”. No industry should be above criticism, and while I don’t believe it’s fair to attack all farmers, we have to be able to have these conversations if farming is to retain its “social license” to operate. The dairy industry (especially its commentators, leaders and industry bodies) ignore public perception at their peril.

Mr Morgan makes the claim that we have inherited the current state of the environment from 150 years of farming. That’s true to a degree, but our knowledge has increased exponentially over that time, so ignorance is no longer an excuse. Likewise, the overall impact of the dairy industry in recent decades is much larger than previously. Nobody is suggesting that we can undo that damage overnight, but we at least need to accept the reality of the situation and acknowledge the causes.

We have seen a rapid expansion of the national dairy herd over the last fifteen years – from just over 3 million cows at the turn of the millennium, to five million today. To put that in perspective, it took twenty years to grow from two million to three million cows between 1975 and 1995.

There are a good number of farmers doing huge amounts to reduce their impact on our land and water, or mitigate what they can’t avoid. Some of them are spending six, or even seven figures on voluntary environmental work, above and beyond their consent requirements. They do what they do for all the right reasons, and it’s fair to say they should get a lot more publicity and credit for it.

But here’s the problem: it’s not enough. Those good efforts are undermined by two factors. First – and you can can argue the ratios until the cows come home – those farmers going above and beyond are a percentage of the whole; not all of them. 

Second, and most importantly, individual farmers’ efforts are being swamped by the impact of an ever-growing dairy industry. Put simply, the collective damage done as an industry is happening faster than individual farmers can reduce their impact.

In their response to the Greenpeace case Mr Morgan mentioned, DairyNZ trumpeted the $1 billion spent by dairy farmers over the last five years on environmental initiatives. It’s a great headline, but the reality is, the majority of that spend was to reduce their impacts to comply with consent conditions. Now it’s better that the work was done than not, but expecting a pat on the back for what most of us would see as largely a cost of business won’t win any points with the non-farming public.

The bottom line is this: in spite of all the mitigation that has been undertaken so far, we are still seeing a steady degradation of many of our lowland rivers and lakes, unquestionably linked to the intensification of farming in their catchments. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright was unequivocal that there is a “clear link between expanding dairy farming and increasing stress on water quality.”  That is not a question up for debate – it’s reality.

Many of the impacts we are seeing now have varying lag times between when they occur on the land, and when they show up in the water – decades in some cases. This means it’s difficult to accurately say exactly when the nitrogen and phosphorous hitting paddocks from the back end of cows now, will impact water quality in adjacent groundwater or rivers. What we do know, is that in many of our catchments, the full effect of the last 15 years of dairy expansion may be yet to be seen. 

In closing Mr Morgan asks what the critics of the dairy industry have to gain, and if they have agendas. The answer is pretty simple: This critic wants an agricultural sector that lives up to its promise, that provides fulfilling careers, and grows nutritious, high quality food, while leaving our land and water in a better state, not worse. And honestly, I don’t know anyone that doesn’t agree with that.

When Mr Morgan tells us farmers “have accepted the science.” I say great news! Let’s stop pretending we can continue to grow New Zealand’s population of dairy cows indefinitely if we want a shot at healthy rivers in the future. The science tells us anything else just isn’t reality.