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Greenpeace: New research finds dairy industry making Canterbury water “undrinkable”

Written By: - Date published: 6:05 am, May 30th, 2022 - 35 comments
Categories: disaster, farming, water - Tags: , , ,

Greenpeace NZ press release

29 May 2022

Newly published research has found that every litre of dairy milk produced in Canterbury requires up to 11,000 litres of water to dilute the pollution from its production.

The grey water footprint of milk due to nitrate leaching from dairy farms in Canterbury, New Zealand,” published in the Australasian Journal of Environmental Management, also finds that there are not sufficient volumes of rain and river water to dilute nitrate pollution in Canterbury to acceptable drinking standards. Therefore, Canterbury groundwater drinking supplies are on a trajectory to extreme levels of nitrate contamination of 21 mg/L – nearly double the allowable value for drinking water of 11.3mg/L – rendering much of it “undrinkable.”

The research states:

“Dairy farming will result in steady state nitrate concentrations on average of 21.3 mg/L (NO3-N) in groundwater originating from dairy farming areas in Canterbury, rendering much of it undrinkable. The groundwater drinking water supply of Christchurch, the second largest city in New Zealand, will also become significantly polluted with nitrate from dairy farming in the Waimakariri River catchment.” 

Already 8% of groundwater wells monitored by Environment Canterbury exceed the drinking water standard for nitrate, and 68% of wells have worsening contamination. Nitrate in drinking water is linked to Blue Baby Syndrome, preterm birth and colorectal cancer. Rural communities on household bore supplies are most at risk from nitrate in water.

Lead author, Dr Mike Joy, says “Growing use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and imported feed such as Palm Kernel Expeller has dramatically increased nitrate levels and the water pollution problems New Zealand faces.”

“There isn’t enough water falling from the sky or pouring down Canterbury’s rivers to actually dilute the nitrate contamination produced by thousands of tonnes of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and over a million dairy cows across the plains,” says Joy.

“The large footprint for milk in Canterbury indicates just how far the capacity of the environment has been overshot. To maintain that level of production and have healthy water would require either 12 times more rainfall in the region or a 12-fold reduction in cows.”

The research concludes that:

“Very large reductions of nutrient leaching of the order of 96 per cent are needed to reduce elevated groundwater nitrate concentrations…Unless this environmental degradation is reversed and current dairy farming significantly reduced and/or replaced by low-nitrate emission non-pasture grazed systems, dairy farming on the Canterbury Plains will remain unsustainable and seriously damaging to the local freshwater environment, including local drinking water sources. This degradation could continue to pose a significant human health risk and threat to our global market for dairy products.”

Greenpeace Senior Campaigner Steve Abel says, “This research starkly shows the need to phase out synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and reduce stocking rates if we are to protect people’s drinking water.”

“The harm done by dairy production is far reaching. Not only is the industry our worst climate polluter and cause of river degradation, but it is rendering groundwater drinking supplies – which 40% of New Zealanders rely on – undrinkable.”

Greenpeace is calling on Associate Environment Minister Kiritapu Allan, responsible for proposed regulations to protect sources of drinking water, to stop nitrate contamination at source.

“Access to safe drinking water is a basic human right – yet for an increasing number of New Zealanders this right is being denied,” says Abel.

“In light of the overwhelming evidence that synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and too many cows are a critical risk to safe drinking water, Associate Minister Allan must put in place catchment-wide stocking limits and a sinking cap on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser use to stem the tide of nitrate leached from fertiliser and cow urine from entering our drinking water.”

35 comments on “Greenpeace: New research finds dairy industry making Canterbury water “undrinkable” ”

  1. Mike the Lefty 1

    I draw a parallel situation with the residents of Bromley being plagued with air that is near unbreathable at times due to sewage contamination of the damaged waste water plant.

    The residents expect something to be done about it and (eventually) something starts to happen.

    If people in Canterbury started taking action about their drinking water being poisoned by nitrates I wonder what the response would be?

    More duck shovelling by councils and denials by farming interests, I would wager.

  2. Tiger Mountain 2

    Grow Hemp, Soy and Cannabis instead of continuing to torture and exploit sentient beings–cows–on an industrial basis perhaps…

  3. Gosman 3

    I suspect the research would apply to almost ALL Dairying activity in NZ. One of the authors was calling for a 12 fold reduction in Dairying to counter this so it would essentially decimate our Dairy industry.

    • DB Brown 3.1

      Each catchment would vary though I'd expect overall stocking rates to need to come down regardless. Canterbury isn't really suited to dairy.

      Decimate the industry, or down-size to realistic levels and introduce various new industries? We really could do other products. All manner of options, many more suitable to the environment.

      There's serious issues with being a one-trick pony in global markets. The dairy industry have dodged a few bullets already. Dare I say it, these farmers seem a bit 'cocky'.

      Diversity's not a bad thing. Investor types crow about it all the time. It's an insurance of sorts.

      • Belladonna 3.1.1

        I'm fully prepared for this analysis to have been overcome by changes in farm fertilizer practices – but this analysis of Pukekohe south of Auckland, shows that some vege farming is a much greater source of nitrate leaching, than dairy.


        So, I suspect that conditions do vary.

        Having said that, the extensive use of synthetic nitrate fertilizers seems to be an extraordinary cost, well over and above the 'old fashioned' nitrogen fixing clover grasses. I'd love to hear some discussion from people who know about why this change has happened?

        • DB Brown

          Not the answer you require, that’d take some digging or an expert… but:

          In the corner for fertiliser we have: Overall Production.

          And in the sustainable corner we have: Lowered Costs.

          While synthetic fertilisers remain below a certain price, despite the cost, profits can be higher with synthetic fertilisers.

          As the market has been dictating the play for some time, and fertilisers were cheap, synthetic fertilisers rule(d).

          A savvy farmer might easily make the same income on the same land with a smaller herd and less external inputs (like synthetic nitrogen) – that's all good and well. So, why the resistance?

          The problem is (as I see it) all the ticket clippers downstream from farms want to keep production as high as possible as it directly affects 'their' share. That is the government, Fonterra, refining outfits, exporting outfits…

          The expectations of those earning money can be very shrill.

        • weka

          Having said that, the extensive use of synthetic nitrate fertilizers seems to be an extraordinary cost, well over and above the 'old fashioned' nitrogen fixing clover grasses. I'd love to hear some discussion from people who know about why this change has happened?

          My guess (rather than being in the know) is the desire to increase production, and the decrease in natural soil fertility from conventional farming practices.

          I'm fully prepared for this analysis to have been overcome by changes in farm fertilizer practices – but this analysis of Pukekohe south of Auckland, shows that some vege farming is a much greater source of nitrate leaching, than dairy.

          The solution isn't replace meat with plants. The solution is replace industrial ag with regenag.

          • Gosman

            Regenerative agriculture is less productive and therefore you have to accept lower living standards. If you can convince people to accept that then that is all good.

            • weka

              climate catastrophe ag is the least productive of all. I'll take a lower standard of living over watching people starve any day. The closer we get to the catastrophe affecting us directly rather than people far away, the more we will be motivated to change. Some of us are early adopters.

              The trick is to have alternatives that people will be ok with or find attractive. Regenag does this, as does Transition Towns, the Powerdown and so on. It's all there, we can be grateful for that.

            • Robert Guyton

              "Who has to "accept lower living standards"?

              Cockies? The general public?

              What might be lost?

              The batch at (insert name of gorgeous beach here)?

              The boat (insert macho name here ("Fish Slayer" etc.)

              Which " people" do "you" have to convince and who is "you"?

        • Poission

          Having said that, the extensive use of synthetic nitrate fertilizers seems to be an extraordinary cost, well over and above the 'old fashioned' nitrogen fixing clover grasses. I'd love to hear some discussion from people who know about why this change has happened?

          In a word bloat,It reduced the vet bills.

          • DB Brown

            Does synthetic nitrogen decrease bloat? I thought it was largely a genetic thing.

            Many regen ag folks claim decreased vets bills. There are various mechanisms that explain it. Competition and predation of problematic microbes with soil food web microbes helps considerably.

            e.g. trichoderma fungi eating pythium and phytophthora.

            Look at rye staggers. This increases with increased synthetic N, overstocking, and over-grazing. All practices of conventional ag. It decreases with diversity (in ruminant diet), and in particular including clover in the pasture, less synthetic N, and longer pasture turnover times – all practices in line with regen-ag.

            The endophytes causing livestock to get ill are trying to protect plants from perishing. When they're weakened by salts, overgrazing, and trampling – they make a lot of poison. When they're part of a healthy mixed sward they make amounts that are insignificant to production. Also, the lolitrem B toxin is mostly found in the basal portion of grass – hence overgrazing causing issues.

            Of course, as plants get more stressed e.g. as weather extremes increase, they'll (their microbial counterparts at least) make more toxins. Trees will help protect pastures and animals from weather related stress. Mixed pastures will dilute problematic compounds in mammals diets.

            The conventional farming mob (and their advisors, always) largely ignored common sense as all this emerged in the literature. They've been pushing for a GE ryegrass monoculture that doesn't have an endophyte.

            A return to more natural methods is not only ecologically sound, it's scientifically sound too. As for economics… when farmers finally have to pay for the indirect costs of their activities, regen ag will make conventional look like a daft idea.

            • Poission

              Clover increases bloat.(which can be managed ) Grasses and soils have co evolved with grazers (as have the microbial base)

          • Robert Guyton

            In the background, the regenerative community have developed plant-based solutions to the nitrogen requirements of livestock farming. The major players in keeping to synthetic nitrogenous fertiliser use are the Fert companies and the banks through their rural advisors.

  4. Kiwijoker 4

    It’s OK, we can always drink money.

  5. Janet 5

    We knew back in the 80s, and clamoured, when diary farmers were moving south and converting sheep farms to dairy farms that it was not the right way to use Canterbury,s porous soils… but what did the governments and regional councils of the day do to stop that ?????

    • satty 5.1

      I guess this article provides some answers:

      NZ Powerful Farmers

      Starting paragraphs:

      For decades, many of New Zealand’s most influential people didn’t hold seats in parliament. They didn’t pass legislation or regulations. They often didn’t even work in the capital, Wellington.

      Yet this group – the elected leaders of advocacy groups Federated Farmers, DairyNZ and Beef + Lamb – exercised immense power over parliament.

      “It wasn’t that farmers affected the government. Farmers were the government,” says Dr Hugh Campbell, a professor of sociology at the University of Otago.

      Now that power – already weakened by shifts in farmers’ share of exports and changes to New Zealand’s electoral system – is critically threatened from within.

      This will take a while to get right.

    • Scud 5.2

      They sacked ECAN!

  6. Maurice 6

    Meanwhile we will all just keep living High off the Cow until some other mechanism for harvesting Overseas Funds appears ….. Or perhaps we will all turn 'Blue' holding our breath waiting?

  7. Ad 7

    So far it looks impossible for the left to ever get its head around farming as a business in New Zealand. At least Mike Joy was at pains not to slag off the farmers on RNZ this morning.

    This week New Zealand and the full agribusiness players will launch our world-first system to incorporate agriculture into the carbon management system. There's a good article about it in the NZHerald today.

    In 2020 Labour won all the South Island electoral vote, and the solid National seat of Rangitata.

    The political question is whether all this hard 5-year sheep-sorting of industry into a believable climate mitigation position will be recognised by media or by the left.

    • DB Brown 7.1

      Show me a believable clean model not a shiny Fonterra brochure. What they say vs what we find in our water…

      I've gone to bat for farming here. It's not that the left has no taste for it, it's the distasteful extractive stuff that's never going to wash. Heck I'm vegan now I still don't begrudge them farming.

      But the environmental and social costs of an industry must be shouldered by that industry. Smoke and mirrors accounting won't wash. Planting pines somewhere will not clean Canterbury's aquifers.

      Refusing to account for, or take responsibility for, indirect costs (e.g. to environment, diversity, air, water, earth, people, etc) – that is the problem, and many industries should be better held to account.

      • Ad 7.1.1

        There is no government come within a bull's roar of this one in regulating the real power of dairy, and that's in the 3 Waters reform.

        Within months there will be very, very little further use for regional councils at all.

        • DB Brown

          Interesting. I'd love to hear your take of that mechanism (regulating water to regulate dairy?) as it may play out. Is that what all the hullabaloo's about.

          Sometimes I need to just tune out. Have I been asleep at the wheel?

          I'd read some of the stuff here about 3 waters but not caught a whiff of that action.

        • pat

          3 waters dosnt address nitrates in private bores.

          "The three waters service delivery reform is proposing to reform council-owned drinking water, wastewater and stormwater supplies. It is not designed to reform privately owned supplies. It does not impact single household self suppliers."


          • theotherpat

            my own bore has gone from very drinkable to a level considered dangerous. thanks to the Greenpeace test your water efforts that helped a lot of us realise…..its a crying shame…..lots of us yelled real loud down here but no one listened.

            • pat

              If you read the 3 Waters literature you will note the lack of reference to nitrates throughout….the real question should be what will they do when a major metro water supply nitrates exceeds the current considered safe ppm….I suggest the response under 3 waters will be as equally can kicking as the current regime because the solutions are both physically and politically insoluble.

              And it is highly deceptive to continue to link 3 Waters with dairying when there is absolutely no intention for one to impact the other.

  8. Stuart Munro 8

    This has been coming for quite some time – certainly since the largely ineffectual freshwater legislation we saw from David Parker, allowing the Gnats to make some of that vanishingly rare thing for them, valid criticism. Shame they had to overegg it by blaming ideology – BAU is destined for a screeching halt, whether through serious regulation, or public action from the families of blue babies and bowel and gastric cancer sufferers.

    Living in NZ and watching government actions always leaves one with the impression we are sleepwalking off a cliff.

  9. "" Associate Minister Allan must put in place catchment-wide stocking limits and a sinking cap on synthetic nitrogen fertiliser use to stem the tide of nitrate leached from fertiliser and cow urine from entering our drinking water.”"

    And if she doesn't will Greenpeace break the law again to make her?

    I'm sorry but their propensity for hijacking ships and climbing buildings to hang flags has destroyed all credibility that I might have had for me

    • Patricia Bremner 10.1

      Robert, are these the same voices who were against chlorine?

      • Robert Guyton 10.1.1

        I don't know. The subject wasn't mentioned. They were focussed on nitrates.

  10. Grumpy 11

    I think that blaming dairying for Canterbury’s high nitrate levels (in places) is deceptive. Obviously high synthetic nitrates will have an effect but high groundwater nitrate areas do not always correlate with high intensity dairy locations.

    The issue is more complex and likely to get worse. I suspect that the high levels we see currently are historic or natural.

    • Robert Guyton 11.1

      High synthetic nitrate use does correlate closely with dairying.

      Some dairy farms might be "fortunate" in having good flushing, but that doesn't change culpability.

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