The dairy dance begins again

How’s the white gold flowing in Aotearoa so far in 2017?

The dairy payout is back up to around $6 a kilo of milk solids, easing financial pressure, but that’s not the reason it’s in the news. It’s the Advertising Standards Authority decision to dismiss a complaint regarding a Greenpeace advert on water quality in late 2016.

We’ve started the year with a “he said-she said” approach, literally. But the ASA believes the opinions expressed in the advert, that industrial-scale dairy and massive irrigation schemes were causing water pollution, “would not come as a surprise to most New Zealanders”. The board said that the advert did not claim the dairy industry alone was solely responsible for the pollution of New Zealand rivers and instead it made general statements about the pollution of New Zealand rivers, which were supported by evidence.

So where are we left? Dairy NZ is appealing the decision, so we can expect more in 2017, including their defence that 96% of rivers and streams are fenced. Tell that to the regular approaches I get from people who see cows grazing unfenced riverbeds and pooing in streams.

That said, we know many farmers are taking action, even if it’s often subsidised or an operating requirement, while some farm with lower impacts and undertake voluntary actions to improve water health (and I want to hear more about the latter).

As a new councillor, I’m facing the complex science, regulations and modelling tools behind the management of this. It presents a cost to farmers (and ratepayers), both in money and time, and puts pressure on some to modernise. I see it simply as a necessary part of running any business with recognised environmental impacts.

Another simple reality is we can’t grow industrial dairy without increasing impacts on water. The statement that we can’t reverse 150 years of damage overnight shouldn’t need response – of course the recovery of our water will take time, if indeed it can even happen in some places. But further expansion is nuts, especially in places that rely on intensive irrigation.

We need a trusted source to explain what’s happening. To me, that should be a public servant, bound by the law to serve without fear or favour. That’s why I’m doubly disappointed with the early performance of the Environmental Protection Authority’s new chief scientist Jacqueline Rowarth.

Late last year, Rowarth was roundly criticised by the science community for claiming the Waikato River was one of the top five cleanest rivers in the world. Already this year, Rowarth has written in the Rural News defending the exclusion of agriculture from the carbon emissions trading scheme and positioning farming on an “us and them” spectrum.

I fear that too much energy is going into defending the status quo, albeit with minor improvements underway, and cynically ponder whether this is to smooth the way for further expansion. This focus comes at the expense of embracing change, or taking a global leadership position and seizing a marketing niche that is more authentic than the damaged 100% Pure.

Threat or opportunity, change is coming and it’s been described as having the potential to make NZ the “Detroit of agriculture”, i.e. the place left behind when technology moves faster than we can adapt. Pure Advantage published a piece by NZ’s Dr Rosie Bosworth in December that described the advances starting to deeply disrupt agriculture. This is not just other countries competing for milk production and pushing down prices, or a lack of diversification and value-add in our export products – it’s the move away from animal products entirely.

We need government, business and environmental leadership to come together and create a vision for the future that gives us what we need to survive and thrive – yes, that means economic success, shared amongst all, and sustaining food production, but not at the cost of progress on fresh water.

As American professor Guy McPherson said “If you think the economy is more important than the environment, try holding your breath while counting your money”.