By Mike Joy*
A few months back New Zealand’s dairy farming industry players mounted another attempt to block the legislation intended to save the Manawatu River from further degradation.
A few years ago dairy industry groups including Federated Farmers, Fonterra, and Dairy New Zealand managed to thwart the implementation of the River protecting plan, Horizons Regional Council ‘One-plan’.
However, that was overturned with a recent environment court decision to reinstate the legislation.
The One-plan approach was motivated by a requirement to do something about the degraded state of the Manawatu River.
The region has long been the butt of travel guide jokes, and the negative publicity around its polluted river added to the already poor reputation of the region.
The bad publicity eventually drove the Regional Council to come up with a scientifically robust plan to reduce nutrient losses from farming as this is the major cause of most of the problems for the River.
The resulting ‘One-plan’ was courageous and novel, a regional attempt to do something about the freshwater crisis facing New Zealand.
However, the farming industry saw it as potentially the thin end of the wedge, legislation to be ‘stamped out’ before it spread to other councils.
Consequently, they threw everything they had at stopping it, eventually succeeding in diluting the strategy into ineffectiveness during the plan setting process.
Two years of expensive and hard work by Fish and Game and the Department of Conservation through an appeal to the environment court saw the plan restored. In his decision the judge voiced very unambiguous and strong findings in favour of the river guardians and praised their clear scientific evidence revealing the causes of the degradation of the River, and the protections in the One-plan.
The plan reinstatement was a win for the environment but also for farmers as they would have more certainty and could go forward to a more sustainable future whilst being allowed time to make changes. As the judge pointed out; many studies presented at the hearing showed that reducing inputs and nutrient losses mean increased profitability for farmers, thus, the minor changes required in the plan could result in more profitability.
The changes required by the plan are essential to make dairy farming sustainable while simultaneously limiting the decline of rivers, lakes and groundwater.
By simply imitating nature and cycling nutrients instead of allowing them to leave the farm and pollute waterways, the plan will reduce expenditure and make farms more sustainable both economically and environmentally.
The present-day extreme intensification of dairy farming practised in New Zealand gives rise to the loss of precious, expensive, irreplaceable resources such as nutrients and soils.
Obviously this cannot be allowed to continue.
The transition will not be easy, especially on heavily indebted farms. It is however an inescapable reality and consequently it would be preferable that it is a managed retreat rather than waiting for the inevitable crash.
The world is becoming more and more aware that our clean - green claim (crucial to all our primary produce sales) is little more than a tourist poster image. The future of this country depends on truly sustainable farming; an aspirational clean – green image will not suffice.
Given this pressing need for sustainability, recent claims by Agriculture Minister David Carter and Federated Farmers Connor English that the One-plan should not go ahead because its implementation would cost Manawatu farmers 20 – 40% of their profits is appalling.
If as claimed, complying with the minimal requirements of the One-plan will cost farmers so much, then it follows that almost half of their profits must come from being allowed to pollute waterways. Or does the dairy industry expect the rest of society to subsidise their businesses by allowing the continued degradation of the Manawatu River?
The challenge for the New Zealand dairy industry is to nail their environmental colours to the mast.
They must stop indulging in blame, denial and excuses.
Instead of wasting time fighting legislation like the One-plan it is crucial for all New Zealanders that they get on with becoming genuinely sustainable, so we can start to claw back the right to claim that we are clean and green.
Dr. Mike Joy is a senior lecturer in Ecology and Environmental Science at the Ecology group in the Institute of Natural Resources Massey University, Palmerston North. He researches and teaches freshwater ecology, especially freshwater fish ecology and distribution, ecological modelling bioassessment and environmental science. You can contact him here »