The new President of Fed Farmers compares current science with the "romanticised ideal of past farming practices" and finds it is the urban critics who are in denial

The new President of Fed Farmers compares current science with the "romanticised ideal of past farming practices" and finds it is the urban critics who are in denial

By William Rolleston*

Being the new President of Federated Farmers I want to ensure our discussions are informed by the facts no matter how unpalatable they may be.

But facts in isolation do not always paint the whole picture.

If we are to be truly informed, we need to look at all the available information and place it in context.

That is why I must ask if the perception of farming’s impact on the environment is justified by the factual reality.

Some will say our dairy industry has led to ‘cowmageddon,’ which is unsurprising, given the weight of coverage about dairy cattle numbers, irrigation and a host of dairy issues.

With the finger pointed farming’s way, the Green Party claims “more than 60 percent of our monitored river sites are too polluted to swim in.”

This number was recently used in a Dominion Post editorial, which saw Guy Beatson, the Ministry for the Environment’s Deputy Secretary Policy write in rebuke: “You repeat a fiction that ''a report has concluded that 60 percent of the country's rivers are unsafe for swimming ... Our analysis shows that more than half of the monitoring sites are within 2km of urban areas. Ninety per cent are within 10km. In other words, most monitoring occurs on large rivers near towns. Around 60 per cent of monitored sites may be considered poor or very poor for swimming, but these monitored sites are not representative and should not be scaled up to make conclusions about the health risk in all of New Zealand's waters”.

Let me clear that water quality issues related to farming exist but the primary industries are not in a state of denial.

As Lake Rotorua has shown there has been an amazing proactivity.

Where a problem exists and we have a share of the responsibility, our industries are into solutions boots and all.

I have experienced this first hand near where I farm, which has, in a very short space of time, assimilated and understood the problem and initiated a smart way forward.

The common reference point for talking water is NIWA’s National Rivers Network, which has used consistent measures since 1989 across 77 sites.  It represents the most comprehensive snapshot of water quality we have.

If the thesis of deteriorating water and dairy cattle is solid, then NIWA’s data should reflect that.  Instead, NIWA’s National Rivers Network tells us that we are largely treading water, neither going forwards or backwards, despite a major increase in dairy cattle numbers; around 900,000 in the five years to May 2013 alone.

Is stable a good enough outcome?  Frankly, no it is not. 

DairyNZ has given us the past five years of NIWA data to May 2013 and it shows that Nitrate levels are stable in 87 percent of the national rivers network.  The six percent of the sites which deteriorated was balanced by the six percent which improved.

In areas of major dairy expansion we are seeing trends that are not positive, especially with Nitrates.

Then again, the newly minted National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management is designed to arrest the decline of freshwater water quality.

This seminal policy involves the input of more than 60 freshwater scientists and most importantly, represents the first time such a policy has existed.  Instead of perception, the numeric values involved in the National Policy Statement are based upon evidence.

The NIWA data shows that across five major indicators – Total Nitrogen, Ammoniacal Nitrogen, Dissolved Reactive Phosphorus, Total Phosphorus and e. coli – 78 to 95 percent of rivers had remained stable with the balance improving or deteriorating in equal measure.  The exceptions being Ammoniacal Nitrogen and e.coli, as the table below indicates.

TABLE: NIWA National Rivers Network site trends in 7 indicators over the last five years (June 2008-May 2013):
per cent Nitrate Nitrogen
Ammoniacal Nitrogen
Total Nitrogen Dissolved
Reactive Phosphorus
     Clarity      E~coli
NS 87 78 88 95 92 95 96
Improving 6 3 4 3 4 5 0
Deteriorating 6 19 8 3 4 0 4
Source: DairyNZ            

The ending of direct discharge of effluent into rivers some years ago and more recently, a focus on riparian management, is recognised as making a significant impact on halting the decline of phosphorus and bacteria in our waterways. 

DairyNZ scientists have also plotted the excreted nitrogen load, or Nex, for each livestock type using the New Zealand Greenhouse Gas Inventory.

When put against StatisticsNZ data for the past 22-years to 2011, DairyNZ found the total Nitrogen load to land from farmed animals increased by seven percent.

While dairy cattle numbers have doubled, we have seen the numbers of sheep plummet with a sharp fall in beef cattle too. This ‘swings and roundabouts’ helps to explain why the annual Nitrogen load to land increased from 1.45 million tonnes in 1990 to reach 1.56 million tonnes in 2011. 

While the overall Nitrogen load has increased by a modest seven percent, it seems at odds with the claim and counterclaim involving intensification and change of land use.

Have we allowed perception to become reality?

Alternatively, does it show a romanticised ideal of past farming practices to be just that, a romanticised ideal? 

With science increasingly informing better farm practice and farmers taking on the challenge of water quality, we have a responsibility to move away from sweeping generalisations to better frame our discussion around water.


Dr William Rolleston is the new President of Federated Farmers

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.


Why has Dairy NZ given Federated Farmers the NIWA data? Does this mean Dairy NZ funded the collection of the data? Also is it possible Dairy NZ cherry picked the data that would suit their argument.?
The problem with worshipping empirical data is that unless you get to see all the data - including data from unpublished studies - you don't get an accurate result. Most studies are funded one way or another. If the results suit the bent of the funders the results are published. If they don't they are not. Also in meta data results can be consistently correlated with the funders objectives proving bias.
The only rational conclusion from this is anecdotal evidence likely to be more reliable and accurate than empirical evidence. Fact is rivers are more polluted. Go have a look.

Anecdotal  evidence you want. I grew up beside a stream west of Tauranga in the 70s, there were three dairy farms and five sheep and beef farms in its catchment. Two poured effluent into drains 50 metres or less from the stream. By the time it passed the last dairy farm the rocks were covered in this ugly dark green smelly slime. At the same time the native bush which was logged ten years or so previous plus a heap of new farm tracks meant the runoff was huge and the silt loading was massive, such that I never realised the stream was totaly rock bottomed due to the coverage of silt. The stream used to flood over a wide area quite spectacularly.
Today that stream with pretty much the same stocking rate is silt less and slime less and there's heaps of houses built beside it waiting for a decent flood like we ues end to get every year. And the council have a water intake near the bottom end.
Now that's evidence.

DairyNA is a national good organisation, part funded from dairy levies on milk supply.
It will give everything away if it helps Dairying in New Zealand, often for free.

It takes 80 years (average one assumes) according to an expert scientist for Nitrogen leeching to flow to river sources.  Therefore it will continue to get worse for some time yet.

Phosphate use in Dairy has reduced considerably, in last 10 and 40 years, so the runoff there is likely to have been and gone.

eColi, in most streams is significantly reduced in Dairy source.  Mike "insanity" Joy is the only one  I have heard of who claims he can tell if Dairy animals are polluting by their type of eColi.  (most others admit they can't tell the difference between Dairy cattle and other Cattle....).  Hopefully Drystock farmers have been paying attention to the news over the last 3 years, and expect that they will have to reduce ecoli and fertiliser issues.

So where are the pollution coming from?
could it be that all those regulatory control fencing offs have resulted in _higher_ hydrophyte growth, which take nutrient out of soil and air...and return it to ...  well it used to be grazing animals and back to land, meat and milk... but I suppose it's now fueling stream based life cycles and more stream plants, and that's excellent composting for more bacteria and small animals.  I suppose none of the wild life poo, I suppose the plants don't rot...  I suppose the water doesn't sit in the riperian zones and absorb the nutrients therein.
-Gosh- I wonder who might have forseen that -not- removing plants by grazing would have a deterorating effect on water quality?  Who would have foreseen that the equivalent of fencing off thousands of km's of streams and effectively turning them into open drains that flow through composting piles, would have resulted in poorer water quality!  I wonder who...they must be some real impressive science expert...

that and your cities & towns are still growing and dumping their crap into rivers, I wonder how many years before those nutrients exit the stream system.. 

I don't think anyone is in denial - we need to improve our environment and not continue to degrade it. Full stop, Period. 
Lets have the facts and work together on implementing solutions! 

.... it'd be safer for you to go to Egypt and swim in de Nile , than in any waterway chosen at random in New Zealand ...
100 % Pure Baloney !

Great article.
The way forward is a combination of three converging streams:

  • Good science and hard data:  the essence of what Mr Rolleston is saying
  • a Trillion Sensors to tell us what's actually going on (the TSensors movement)
  • Big Agricultural Data (BAD) to mashup the data streams and present an actionable context to farmers

So I take it from this article that the Greens are focussing mainly on the rivers close to urban areas. Makes sense to me, given that they're talking about people being able to go and swim in the local river.
But did they intentionally mislead people into thinking they were talking about "all of New Zealand's waters"? This article suggests they did.
Anyone got the facts on that one?

You won't get good science if it is funded by industry or if the scientists are funded by industry for other projects, or if the professors are sponsored or the universities funded by industry.
So where is the good science going to come from? Government funding is no better if the government has an agenda. We saw that with the Ruataniwha dam.

William Rolleston refers to using facts not emotion, Real.  Do you live in Hawkes Bay?
NZ is a small place scientists rely on funding from a wide range of funders.  If you take industry, universities and government out of the mix you will have no science. There is much more collaboration of groups such as DairyNZ, DoC, Regional Councils,NIWA, AgResearch etc now, of water science, as it is an expensive exercise. 
DairyNZ funds approximately $1million for water science in Southland alone - much of this is used for collaborative science projects and can involve total catchment science - not just that which relates to dairy.

'If you take industry universities and government out of the mix you will have no science'. That is precisely what has happened. Fonterra and related interests have taken them out of the mix by buying them, and William Rolleston wants us to believe the data as if it is fact. I consider the data to be worthless because of the subjectivity of those designing the studies, collecting the data, interpreting the data and deciding whether or not to publish.

You choose to ignore science, that your choice.  Back up your statement  ' Fact is rivers are more polluted. Go have a look.'  ​Which rivers and where on those rivers, and what is the basis of your 'pollution' of those rivers?

I choose to ignore bad science. Bad because it is fixed.  Take a drive between the (ex) Selwyn river and Oamaru. But try not to get emotional - remember we want facts not emotion.

Hi Real,
If you want some science you can trust, you can ask the people at your local council.  The Waikato regional council, for example, are hot on testing the health of the waterways e.g. Nitrogen levels, silt etc, and also the ecological health of the waterways e.g. fish, etc. You can have a look at:
In saying that, I don't doubt the science mentioned in this article and I don't think you can say the data is fixed.  The truth is, almost all farmers are motivated to protect the environment they live and work in.  All the dairy farmers I know are fencing off waterways (yes, you could say they are required to if they want their milk picked up), but that's only part of the solution - they are also actively finding ways to keep nutrients from getting into the waterways - it makes economic sense to keep the fertilizer in the soil and into the grass than be washed away. 
You mention a bad part of a river that is not nice to swim in.  I have lived in Hawkes bay and can tell you the Tukituki is in a bad way too.  The regional council would like the Ruataniwha dam built to help improve the overall health of the river, and yet there are so many people (who don't even live in the area) set against it.  I personally think we need to work with the local farmers and councils (with the aid of the scientists) to improve the waterways so we can swim in them again.

Good science is good science no matter who does it. Bad science is bad science no matter who does it. It is the science that matters, not who does it or how it is funded. Dismissing any science based just on how it is funded or who does it is just politics. If you have criticism, it should be of the scientific method and conclusion drawing from the data, rather than how labs are funded.
It is just too easy to smear based on mind-made-up philiosophy.
I am not defending the NIWA or DairyNZ work; I wouldn't know. But I am reacting to the cheap conclusion jumping about serious work that has obviously been done. However, if you have evidence, fair enough. Show or link to it. We need to know - and compare with what Rolleston is referring to.
Academic prejudice is no more or less a problem that general population prejudice. It is the science itselt - contestable science - that can guide us through the politics of it all.

Read Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre. Dismissing commercial imperatives forced on scientists as just politics is, well, just politics.

by buyinh them?

Where do you think the funding comes from for your "real science" research projects?

The louder the voices cry out that dairy isnt polluting, the less I believe them.

So what is Beef and Lamb doing about getting their farmers to clean up Belle?  Other than only recently appointing sustainability officers to their fold.  Because as an industry they also have a resaponsibility to clean up their act.  Dairy doesn't deny it has a part to play in water improvements.  Dairy has accepted it a hell of a lot earlier than Beef and Lamb has. The more I hear Beef and Lamb farmers tell me they are squeaky clean, the more I realise that some truly have their heads  in the sand.  Like the one that told me they tested a stream that their woolshed runoff and dog kennel etc runoff goes in to 'and its ok, the e-coli reading is only 5000'!!  Made me realise that Beef and Lamb have done their farmers a huge disservice in not educating them about what nutrient levels are acceptable. I quietly advised them that even for stock water our RC has a limit of 1000 for e-coli.

Don't worry CO, our time is coming, Im hoping that by stocking at 2 stk units to the acre I can minimalise any problems. Ypstream from me two large feed pads with over 2500 cattle are a bigger problem than I'll ever be. If I have to I'll run my stocking down to zero and plant more trees.
  As always its the few that give a headache to the many.  There are some very good dairy units around here and some not so good ones.

Aj at a recent meeting that concerned only our catchment we were told not to go and spend capital in the belief that we would be getting ahead of nutrient regulations.  We were told that part of the catchment nitrogen was the issue but in the other half it was phosphorus.  So depending on what nutrient they decided to target, it would mean very different mitigation strategies and they said we could be spending capital only to find it was spent in the wrong place. Don't know what if any limitations you have up there, but if none are regulated yet, wait until you know what you will be dealing with.
It was interesting at our meeting that there was a general feeling from farmers that any strategies that simply shifted effluent/problems in to another catchment was not a solution. Whatever happens in our area has to be contained in our area.  A bit of a shift from a few years ago, but shows how flexible farmers are becoming in their thinking. :-)  As you say, there will always be those that let the side down, and that is in every sector of communities
Feedpads can be nasty things for the environment.  Just like some dairy barns can be.  It usually means substantially higher intensification - something Joe Bloggs public don't realise.
Hope the winter is treating you well up north.

The Dairy Board and many farmers have always been way ahead of the Beef and Sheep counterparts when it came to foreign branding and image.  Partly, I think because NZ originally succeeded on off the wool and mutton from the sheeps' back, which allowed an industry to grow up in rather primative times.  Dairy had much tighter competition, and tighter rules, and had smaller more intesive cost structure (ie all within a few hours walk, not in a few days ride).  That encourages Dairy to be more progressive in their image approach.

Go talk to Mike Joy David.

Or look at some of the drench research funded by  manufacturers, all all about what they don't tell you.

At a local Mike Joy talk, the reception a well respected farmer got when trying to inform them what some of the  initiatives he has employed, could only be described as feral.  It was abundantly clear that Mike Joy and his supporters were only interested in listening to/and believing Mike Joy.  Kinda explains why he isn't always invited on to scientific panels as he isn't interested in listening to anyone who may have a different opinion.
Look at the make up of the Land and Water Forum - that will give you an idea of how NZ will eventually resolve water quality issues.  - By sitting around the table with a diverse group of opinions and coming to a place where all can agree on the way forward. Mike Joys way belongs in the age of the dinosaurs and as such has little credibility - even if his message may have some basis in fact.

I was listening to Mike on RadioLive this week. His point was pretty basic. Things are bad now, but farmers are trying to sort it. Yet onward we roll, more and more conversions, so despite what is currently being done, the sheer volume of shit and piss and fertiliseer added far outweighs any benefit of riparian fencing and planting.

Don't blame the farmers Belle, blame the communities that allow this to happen.  In our community there is a growing movement for requesting the RC to place a moratorium on new conversions - and this is coming from farmers.  We aren't quite there yet but Ibelieve it will happen.  Don't worry about other communities - just look after your own.

On their website NIWA has this to say about its River Water Quality Network
"The NRWQN  river catchments together drain about one half of New Zealands total land area. The catchments (of fairly large rivers) within the NRWQN are somewhat weighted towards the uplands. Therefore, the data from the NRWQN is usefully augmented by a study, published by Larned et al. (2004), specifically of lowland rivers in NZ - which have generally lower water quality. Collectively, these data provide an integrated picture of the nations water quality."
Most of the dairy expansion over the last 20 years has occurred in the South Island and has been concentrated on the lowland plains. Using NIWA's river data to draw conclusions about the overall effect of this expansion on water quality by Dairy NZ scientists is flawed, to say the least, because this data is weighted towards upland catchments and not catchments where dairy intensification has actually occurred. I have one word for this behaviour. Typical.....

From the link Rolleston included in his article. 
The 23 sites showing deteriorating trends in nitrate concentrations were
spread throughout New Zealand. The Grey River (West Coast) showed the
largest trend (4.7% per annum), followed by the Oreti River in Southland
(4.5% per annum) and the lower Waimakariri in Canterbury (4.3% per annum)

The simple fact is that it is economically good to have poluted rivers.
If we have poluted rivers then
We can have more cows
The government can hire more staff to look into this pollution and then privatise the department.
We can make fillters to filter the dirty water
Private water companies can justify rasing the cost of clean water
And so on
You get none of this with clean water.
We have to acept dirty water is good for us.

The NZ Dairy industry it is often stated carrys the NZ economy on its back. The NZ farmer is a very capable animal indeed. However how does NZ dairy really compare when matched alongside the global dairy giants in Europe & the USA ? If we look at say a large dairy farm operation in the USA; Fair Oaks Farm which has 36000 (yes thirty six thousand cows) and manages to collect all the cow dung and process it , turning it into fuel to power its massive dairy truck fleet. No dairy cow pollution there at all. Now the cows won't be roaming free all over the land there i might imagine ? Here in NZ the public must get over the notion that cows are harmed by housing them if the NZ public are truly serious about wanting clean waterways to swim in totally unpolluted by the dairy cows.I don't think housing our dairy cows it would garner very many votes here ! Rather we would probably see a group like " Free Our Cows" protesting against clean farming practice. So the hypocrisy of some in the public is the real problem not the hardworking NZ Dairy Farmers.