National Policy Statement: wholly happy cows

We need a national debate on cubicle dairy farming, and dairy farming in general – is it the backbone of this country, or the boil on our behind? And what's it worth to us?

After a bit of noncommittal burbling, Prime Minister John Key has finally found something he feels strongly about: cubicle dairy farming in the McKenzie Basin. That doesn’t, however, mean the government will do anything about this; I’m afraid it might take a cattle-strength prod to get them moving.

Three companies have applied for resource consents to establish sixteen new farms around Omarama, housing, in total, nearly 18,000 dairy cows. The cows would be kept indoors from March to October, and overnight in the summer months. Permission is sought for effluent discharge, at a whopping cumulative total of 1,743,000 litres per day, and effluent holding ponds with 414 million litres of storage capacity.

In short: this is a large scale industrial venture, in pristine tussock country. The buildings, their supporting infrastructure, associated water use, and contaminant discharge, cannot help but change the nature of the country.

You might yet ask why anyone should expect or want the government to intervene. This is no different in principle from any other private or commercial use of land: you buy it, and use as you choose. In fact, the approach could have some environmental advantages, such as methane and nitrous oxide containment, and management of run-off. If there are issues with the scale or nature of the proposal in that particular location, or questions about the sustainability of a venture heavily dependent on water, electricity, and fossil fuel, Environment Canterbury’s consent process can address them. That’s why we have the Resource Management Act: to mediate when private or commercial claims collide with the public and environmental interest.

But this is a novel development in New Zealand. It poses philosophical and strategic questions, with irrevocable consequences. We ought to take this opportunity as a country to decide what we think, in a way that has never been offered to us with the expansion of dairy to date.

There are two philosophical questions, or – abandoning the pretext of balance – let’s say reasons to be philosophically opposed.

First, this proposal, and any of its kind, will facilitate dairy intensification and expansion. Dairy effluent, even if managed, has to end up somewhere: these are extra cows. The single minded pursuit of the dairy dollar threatens the diversity of our landscape. It is a greedy selfish stupid threat to our other big foreign exchange earner, tourism, and to the more ephemeral interest still worth preserving in its own right, the environment. Our efficiency as dairy producers is too often dressed up as a humanitarian endeavour, feeding the world. But primarily, we are feeding the rich fat world, and dairy land use is inefficient.

Second, factory farming is unacceptable, in principle and in practice. The Pork Industry Board is being forcibly brought around to the view that intensive farming systems are commercially unpalatable. It makes no sense for the dairy industry to move in the opposite direction. We know what the outcomes have been, for pork and chicken, of treating animals like production units – hence the sobriquet, “factory” farms. I am not sure why we fool ourselves that dairy would be any more successful in finding a compromise.

Questioned in Parliament, John Key was explicit as regards lack of government support for the proposal. He was, however, equivocal about whether the government would call it in, utilising the Resource Management Act provision for proposals of national significance: “I have not received any advice [he said] that it is the Government’s intention to do that”. Asked if he could supply a date by which the government would decide, he said “no,” and changed the subject. The following day, Environment Minister Nick Smith said that a call in was unlikely.

I can tell Mr Key what the date is: under the Act, the deadline for government intervention is January 15, 2010.

This proposal probably meets half a dozen of the criteria for determining that an activity is of national significance. In fact, the Minister may have regard to any relevant factor, but examples in section 142 include any proposal that has aroused widespread public concern or interest regarding its actual or likely effect on the environment (including the global environment)” or that “involves or is likely to involve technology, processes, or methods that are new to New Zealand and that may affect its environment”.

Proposals called in by the government are referred to either the Environment Court, or a specially appointed board of inquiry. Suggestions that government would call it in and “put a stop to the proposal” are wrong. The former power of ministerial veto was repealed a couple of months ago. The call in process is very much about streamlining and expediting: cherry picking infrastructural projects of national significance, and easing their progress by limiting appeal rights and the number of hearings. The government might be quite happy for these applicants to wallow along in expense and undesirable publicity, if it does not support the proposal.

And of course, called in proposals are still decided under the Resource Management Act. That act’s purpose is broad enough to address questions about whether dairying is the best way to use limited land. But it is not capable of addressing all of the issues. For example, section 104 of the RMA expressly excludes consideration of trade competition issues – such as whether this would tarnish New Zealand’s free range pastoral reputation – and animal welfare is probably an irrelevant consideration too. Indications are that the government will look to deal with the animal welfare aspect by way of a welfare code: a new draft code is currently being considered by agriculture minister David Carter.

So, even though it might intuitively seem that a board of inquiry would be better suited to the job, it is not entirely clear that calling in these applications would result in much fuller, or more holistic, consideration than Environment Canterbury would be able to give them. The purpose would be mainly symbolic. It would recognise the significance of the proposal. It would be a forum to have the conversation as a country. It would satisfy my urge to do something... anything.

Then I started wondering: what happens next time? What would stop a similar application in an ordinary Waikato paddock, that is currently used for dairy farming? The balance of considerations might change quite a lot.

There is something else that the Resource Management Act allows for, that nobody has mentioned so far. The government may choose to issue a National Policy Statement, that is heard before a board of inquiry and then, once issued, would govern all applications under the act. It may not be politically feasible, and it is far from clear what the outcome of such an exercise would be – probably yet another facile “balancing” of our economy against the environment. But for all its limitations and imponderable difficulties, maybe that is the vehicle I am looking for. This must be at least as important as fresh water quality and electricity transmission – other candidates for such a statement.

But overall, I’m a bit dismayed, at our tenuous grip on sources of our national identity and pride – how easily they might be lost, for no better reason than lack of vigilance. And I'm quite angry with Federated Farmers, too.

According to Federated Farmers, it was inevitable that applications of this kind would be made, because farmers are being tested by environmentalists, and told that they need to be innovative under threat of global warming. It’s not very long, a matter of a few months, since I heard them sounding the alarm about where the Greens’ advocacy of herd homes for cows (bad weather shelter) would lead, saying that it was but a short step from there to factory farming. They were opposing it then; they’re supporting it now.

They are playing opportunistic political games: this is a ruse, to get people up in arms in defence of the status quo, and start a backlash against the Greens. I am sick of farmers’ perpetual sense of grievance and entitlement, demonstrated in everything from emissions trading to this issue. If farmers want to position themselves as the backbone of the country, they ought to get used to doing some heavy lifting.