Dairy milking New Zealand

Big dairy’s effects on the biosphere, and all of our back pockets, are sucking the country dry — a net picture less positive than the PR paints it

Soil, water, and air: the stuff of life. Dairy compromises them all, to the point where you have to ask if the good things it does for the country are good enough.

Dairy NZ has a new PR campaign. Some countries have more cows, but we have more Kiwis, it says: exporting to over 140 countries, feeding 100 million people every year, creating a third of the world’s dairy trade.

It pushes all the right bucolic buttons; it also dangerously pushes up the smug in the atmosphere.

In 2009, Landcare Research assessed soil quality for the Environment Ministry. [Update: the data is reproduced online here. The Landcare report was the basis for this soil health environmental snapshot, dated January 2010.] Only 29% of dairy sites met all soil quality indicator targets and were ‘satisfactory’, the second-lowest percentage of the types of sites sampled.

Overall results, from all sites, were little better at 35%. However, soils on about half of dairy sites were compacted, from intensive stocking and grazing, to a degree that risked inhibiting pasture growth; perhaps, it wasn’t therefore surprising that there was high fertiliser use, too. The conclusions?

“soil compaction from intensive animal grazing practices under pasture … along with increased levels of N and P in dairy and some drystock sites, continues to be a major concern … The observed trends in organic status and fertility are consistent with the increase in the number of dairy farms in all regions coupled with higher animal stocking rates and greater production, and the increased use of N and P fertiliser…”

And: “the trend in increasing soil nutrient status (and increasing stocking rates) cannot continue indefinitely”.

Other research says intensive dairying degrades soil carbon more than any other land uses. This is relevant to global work, assessing soil as a carbon sink: in other words whether, like forests, it should count for carbon emission and sequestration, and therefore whether it could cost or save us money.

National water quality and allocation issues are dairy issues, with stoushes in Manawatu and Canterbury in particular, but more generally, on the Land and Water Forum, farmers’ effluent discharge compliance, and nutrient leaching.

Almost half of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions are agricultural emissions. When the government was negotiating its 2020 target, it leant heavily on the assumption that it would not be possible to do anything about this, short of culling all the cows. Successive Ministers, from both governments, have said so. They argued for a soft target, on the basis that the IPCC-indicated target of 25-40% of emissions reductions on 1990 levels by 2020 would require all other industrial and transport and stationary energy emissions sources to be stopped.

But the Sustainability Council’s Simon Terry says the government and its advisers have seriously miscalculated agriculture’s emission abatement potential and, in particular, dairy abatement potential. In advice to the Emissions Trading Scheme Review Committee in April 2009, he argued dairy farmers could, profitably, reduce agriculture emissions enough to wipe out a substantial share — more than two-thirds (16Mt of a 22Mt bill) — of New Zealand’s 2012 Kyoto deficit.

He compares the cost-effectiveness of nitrous oxide emission reduction for dairying, with other options (energy efficiency, and electricity generation). The use of a nitrification inhibitor was the most cost-effective, by a big margin. More recent work concludes that three-quarters of the next few years’ economic (ie, cost-negative or profitable) abatement potential is agricultural.

But instead, the risk is farmers will use nitrification inhibitors and other new technologies to make money by their other favourite method: more intensification.

And that means the rest of us lose money. Complaining about the cost to farmers of power and petrol price rises, Fed Farmers spokesperson Don Nicolson explained that, although he owns a pine forest block, he will not participate in the ETS: he objects to the scheme so much, he cannot stomach benefiting from its subsidies.

But whether he signs up for the forestry part or not, Mr Nicolson should get down on his knees and beg the government and taxpayers’ pardon — and then spend a while longer down there thanking Mammon.

On the Sustainability Council’s figures — and Simon Terry and his colleague Geoff Bertram have done more work than anybody on this, over a period of years and, in Bertram’s case, decades — pastoral farmers would gain a $1.1 billion subsidy in the current Kyoto period to 2012. Agriculture, with 49% of emissions, would pay only 3% of the costs. Over the full eighty-year transition period from 2010 to 2089, the proposed changes could deliver subsidies to agriculture and large industries of between $100 billion and $200 billion (depending on the carbon price). Two thirds of this would be paid to pastoral farmers.

Of course, not all of these are dairy farmers. But it makes South Canterbury Finance’s $400 each, divvying up a paltry $1.6 billion, look small; and worth noting, too, that the late stages of that lending, one of the things that helped push it over the edge, was funding dodgy dairy conversions.

There’s the cosmetic effect of dairy conversion: turning New Zealand’s landscapes, literally, green. There’s forest felling for dairy conversions, replacing something that absorbs greenhouse gas with something that emits it.

Dairy’s such a big part of the economy — such a big fat sitting target — that it takes no particular skill to fire off a grumpy salvo and hit it. However, when something looks too good to be true, as they say, it usually is.

Dairy NZ’s campaign hypes production capacity, and credits it to our native wit. There’s nothing clever, though, about exploiting the environment, and you and I, the taxpayers, except that for too long they have got away with externalising costs, two and three times over, dressed up in different clothes. Which probably proves we’re actually not that bright, because in fact, the dude is nude.

What public ‘under-appreciation’ of the industry shows is a growing grasp of that fact.