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NRT: Dirty dairying and moral culpability

Written By: - Date published: 11:00 am, January 16th, 2014 - 30 comments
Categories: Economy, Environment, farming, sustainability - Tags:

no-right-turn-256No Right Turn put this post up yesterday. There seems to be a divide in kiwi farming at present. On one side those just after a quick buck based on dirtying the cheap resource of water held in common. On the other generational family farmers. The result is a classic tragedy of the commons problem that we will be paying to clean up for many generations.

Gareth Morgan and Geoff Simmons have a piece on dirty dairying in the Herald today. The first of two parts, it looks at the economic reasons why farmers are destroying our rivers. And this boils down to two things: no taxation on capital gains, which encourages dairy conversions so farmers can profit from the increase in land prices, and a whopping externality around pollution, which sees farmers able to pump shit into our rivers without paying a cent. Combined, these mean massive effective subsidies for environmental destruction. So much for our “subsidy-free” dairy industry.

But then there’s this bit:

Let’s be clear up front; we aren’t blaming the farmers. Like the bankers in the GFC they are just responding to the incentives the market presents them.

Sorry, but “responding to market incentives” is not a moral free pass. If I offer you $100 to kill someone, you’re still a murderer if you take it, no matter how much you plead about “market incentives’. And the same is true of bankers and farmers. Obviously we should fix the incentive structure, so that it discourages selfish, immoral behaviour – but that doesn’t make people who follow the incentives any less selfish or immoral. If farmers get rich by taking taxpayer subsidies to pollute our rivers and destroy our environment, they fully deserve our moral opprobrium and condemnation.


30 comments on “NRT: Dirty dairying and moral culpability”

  1. vto 1

    I think it has become quite embarrassing for them

  2. Saarbo 2

    Gareth Morgan and Geoff Simmons have done some brilliant work here, their writing is both courageous and accurate. Government action is needed or our rivers will be ruined.

    Then there is this from Amy Adams

    “Environment Minister Amy Adams supports the partnership. She says farmers can’t grow and intensify without thinking much more carefully about what they do.

    The approach the Government has taken is not, like most places overseas, to tell farmers what to do with their land, but to mitigate the effects of what they do. “That supports much more innovation. To get that to function, a partnership like this is crucial.”

    From this:

    Clearly National are not interested in cleaning up our rivers, the fact that it has been allowed to go this far is a real indictment on our nations environmental record…100% pure, we currently would struggle to be 50%…

    • One Anonymous Knucklehead 2.1

      Those farmers who practice more sustainable agriculture are a slap in the face to those wingnuts who claims that Greens want to shut down our dairy industry.

      Examples abound.

    • Ad 2.2

      Great post and really good link.
      Much appreciated.
      Check out also Jackie Blue’s Accord coming up in Parliament this year re north Otago, South Canterbury and the Southern Alps foothills.

  3. CnrJoe 3

    once again – the sums I did last year for an artwork I made

    1 dairy cow produces the same quantity of excreta as 17 – 20 adult humans
    1.26 million dairy cows in Waikato = excreta equivalent of 17 million persons

    2012 – N.Z Dairy herd – 6.5 million cows = 1.3 billion persons worth of urine, shit, methane etc.

    1.3 billion

    • RJL 3.1


      Using your numbers shouldn’t that be 6.5 million cows == 110-130 million persons?

      Another fun number: the average dairy cow produces about 50 times the milk volume as the typical human mum.

      So, farming cows for milk is unfortunately more than twice as efficient (in terms of minimising shit produced) as farming milk maids would be.

      • CnrJoe 3.1.1

        I’ll wait a couple of years and then my misplaced zero will fit

      • Draco T Bastard 3.1.2

        Another fun number: the average dairy cow produces about 50 times the milk volume as the typical human mum.

        And what has that got to do with the shit that the cows produce?

        So, farming cows for milk is unfortunately more than twice as efficient

        And how much more efficient is it to produce soy milk?

        • RJL

          And what has that got to do with the shit that the cows produce?

          To demonstrate that you can make any number of facile comparisons.

          And how much more efficient is it to produce soy milk?

          See what I mean?

          • Draco T Bastard

            To demonstrate that you can make any number of facile comparisons.

            The problem you have, of course, is that CnrJoe wasn’t making facile comparisons.

            See what I mean?

            And that just proves your willful ignorance as you obviously don’t know what you’re talking about and didn’t bother to read the linked article to find out.

            • RJL

              It doesn’t matter how many people’s worth of shit 6.5M dairy cows is equivalent to or not. 130M people is not equivalent to 6.5M cows: unless you are proposing to actually use those 130M people as input into a dairy industry. In which case, from a milk production vs shit criteria (which is the comparison that CnrJoe is inviting) then you are better off farming the cows instead, even before taking into account any additional environmental problems that 130M people will cause.

              What matters is whether or not the shit from 6.5M dairy cows is environmentally sustainable, in and of itself. It apparently isn’t. End of story.

              As for growing soy instead: if you think that swapping one poorly regulated agricultural monoculture for another lower value one is a solution to NZs environmental problems, then you haven’t thought very far.

              • HI RJL,

                I didn’t take CnrJoe’s comparison as anything to do with dairy production. I took it as a means of understanding the effect of untreated excrement leaching into the waterways. Sometimes it’s hard for people to grasp the reality of large numbers without an example ‘closer to home’.

                That is, your talk of dairy production seems, to me, quite beside the point.

                The comparison with 130m people I took as a means of conceptualising/ visualising excrement load, not “input into a dairy industry“. (i.e., I don’t think CnrJoe’s figures ‘invited’ the comparison with milk maids at all – it wasn’t about producing milk; it was about producing excrement).

                So, we could replace the dairy industry with 130m people, provide no sewerage treatment and still have no worse effect on the waterways from excrement. (In fact, given that we probably wouldn’t massively irrigate the land that people toileted on, the leaching might not be as rapid.)

                None of this means that I’m advocating a New Zealand population of 134m, of course – and I don’t think CnrJoe’s comparison implies that as an alternative economic strategy although, arguably, 130m people could provide more economic benefits than 6.5m cows, even with commodity prices at current levels.

              • Draco T Bastard

                What matters is whether or not the shit from 6.5M dairy cows is environmentally sustainable, in and of itself.

                And thus, neither is having 110 to 130 million people. There are limits and, even now, we’ve surpassed them.

                As for growing soy instead: if you think that swapping one poorly regulated agricultural monoculture for another lower value one is a solution to NZs environmental problems, then you haven’t thought very far.

                I didn’t say it was a solution but, going on the figures in the article I linked to, it would garner more income for less input and would be less environmentally damaging.

    • Macro 3.2

      Each herdof 200+ is the equivalent of a small town – and that doesn’t count the excess fertilisers that are constantly poured on pastures, nitrates and phosphates being the worst offenders. Of course we will be informed by some here that farmers do not use excess fertilisers, but that is to coin a word – pure bullshit. There is plenty of evidence to show our aquifiers becoming polluted with the leaching of these compounds being constantly added.
      Intensifying dairying means adding more and more towns to the countryside. As you drive through the country (living in a rural town I do at least once a week) and notice a small town (herd) followed by another 500m down the road, and then another, and another and on and on you realise that our countryside is very much under stress. It looks nice and green (at the moment there has been a wet summer), and then you drive over the new Kopu bridge and you think – there is really no need for this bridge – you can practically drive your car over the water – it is so full of shit. DoC says it is one of the most polluted in the country. I see the effects from my window every morning – a brown streak of mud flowing out into the Firth.
      Previously it was the foresters cutting the Kauri and then the miners dumping their waste that filled the Firth with mud. You traveled to Thames by ferry in the1890’s. Now the mud stretches out for about a kilometre. The emergent mangroves will protect the town from sea surge and to some extent from tsunami should that unfortunate natural disaster occur and provides a habitat for the numerous coastal wetland birds – but try telling that to the “drill baby drill” brigade. The Firth is also one of the main breeding grounds for our favourite fish – Snapper. But the high levels of nitrogen and phosphate fertilisers pouring into the sea here is having a debilitating effect. Not just over fishing will see the demise of this fish from our menus.

  4. Chooky 4

    +100 …good post

    the rivers and waterways belong to us all and future generations of New Zelanders

  5. Philj 5

    Finally Dr Mike Joy, river quality scientist, from Massey University, is beginning to be heard. Now if we can only get a cost to the damage done to the environment…. (sigh)

  6. Melb 6

    Have you looked at the urban harbours into which stormwater drains after heavy rain? Absolutely disgusting. It’s not water, it’s rubbish, oil and a whole lot of other chemicals washed off the streets. I don’t think the urban population is paying their fair share for water use/rights either. Unless they have a right to pollute.

    • Draco T Bastard 6.1

      And that is something else that needs to be addressed but it in no way detracts from the fact that farmers are polluting our water ways.

      • farmboy 6.1.1

        and so are you fuckstick

        • Murray Olsen

          John Key has called on one of his scientists, by the look of things. Well written report, farmboy. You shot that other hippy bastard down in flames.

      • Melb 6.1.2

        Both are incredibly important and need changing. But I never see blog posts drawing attention to the waste that is flushed out from city stormwater.

        • vto

          Well you should read more blog posts.

          I can’t dump the shit and rubbish from my business in the public estate so why do you?

          What is your answer? Why do you dump your shit in the street? The street where we get our water, btw? Nobody else does this with their business waste? Everybody else has to take it to the dump. Why don’t you? Why do you dump your shit in the street?

          What is your answer?

        • wtl

          That’s because you didn’t write any.

    • Ad 6.2

      Unlike dairy farms, cities have water treatment entities devoted to cleaning water up.
      About time dairy farmers and dairy companies did the same as cities did, if not better.

      • Melb 6.2.1

        I’m talking stormwater, which doesn’t go through treatment plants, but should.

        • Ad

          Applies far more so to farmers, then, who generally do a whole lot less to separate stormwater from sewerage (ie effluent) than cities do. Your pointing at cities is simply wrongheaded. Our streams and waterways would be a whole lot cleaner if the great amjority of dairy farms took runoff as seriously as cities do.

  7. Brokenback 7

    We need some clarity on this issue which is a clear & present danger to the long term survival of our community.
    Dairying practices have changed markedly in a generation.
    “profitability ” has increased & will continue to increase with rising demand from a more affluent middle class in China /India/ South America.
    Business unit /Farm Herd sizes are larger – 120 in 1981 , 480 in 2011.
    Farm /herd/Business unit ownership is capital intensive and producer unit ownership has changed from the “Family Farm” to mostly Private corporate operations.

    Day to day presence on the farm , in the race , in the shed of the owner/farmer has diminished.

    The training /education/technical expertise of the Farm management/Operation personnel has decreased dramatically and the inability to attract Kiwis to the industry has seen an influx of foreign nationals onto particularly the larger units.

    Farm/Business unit management philosophy is increasingly accountant/consultant driven and not based on land/animal care best practices.

    The fertility management practices are barbaric at best and have become the norm with little public scrutiny.
    Pasture [mis]management is in dire need of rigorous scrutiny , the practice of applying Urea to boost dry matter production is destroying soil biota at criminal rates and turning our waterways into eutrophic /toxic timebombs that will inevitably destroy our one true diamond in this fucked up world – our marine ecosytem.

    Then there’s the shit………


    Fully support a system of enviromental regulation for dairy farms. Their bussines is profitable and could easily afford to meet compliance costs. Most of them have been irresponsible for years. I can’t see a justifiable reason not to impose a set of better standards.

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