“The New Zealand dairy industry will be dead in fifteen years.” Coming from a well-informed and highly placed investor source met recently in China, these words made me sit up. His reason – nitrate-poisoned pasture product will be increasingly unacceptable to environmentally conscious customers. Here at home corporate farmers and the National government seem to want to accelerate the process. It’s a recipe for disaster.
The issues are very well laid out in an excellent article by Rebecca McFie in this week’s Listener (paywalled). Farmers on the Canterbury plains between the Rakaia and the Rangitata have grown rich from free water. But the leaching from nitrates has progressed to the point where “nitrate levels in groundwater are higher than World Health Organisation drinking water guidelines.”
As McFie says, the horse has now bolted “but neither the farmers nor the government-controlled regulator ECan want to kill the golden goose that has delivered the region such prosperity” so the rules devised by ECan are designed to give farmers more time. But McFie concludes “In the tug of war between environmental and economic concerns, the proposed rules have come down squarely on the side of dairy-led wealth.”
And it’s not just in Canterbury. McFie goes on “On the dry east coast of the North Island, civic and farming leaders want what Ashburton has. They, too, would like to turn water into agricultural gold, and they want environmental rules that don’t stand in the way.”
As does the National government. “Support for big irrigation schemes is a central plank of its economic policy..up to $400 million has been tagged fro investment in new water projects over the next few years, with $80million appropriated in 2013 and further $40 million in the 2014 budget.
“At the same time ‘bottom line’ rules have been drafted by the government. The proposed National Objectives Farmework gives a nod to public concern about the impact of intensive farming on rivers and lakes, but leaves ample room for further agricultural run-off. According to Parliamentary commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright, the proposals would allow for levels of nitrate toxicity 10 times the current median concentration in the lower reaches of the Waikato river.”
The standard-bearer for the Government’s ambitions to use water as a driver of economic growth is the proposed $300 million Ruataniwha Water Storage Scheme in Central Hawkes Bay.
It has been subject to a Board of Enquiry which to the dismay of the scheme’s promoters have “delivered a possibly fatal blow to the plans to use irrigation. At the heart of the debate is whether environmental regulation should be for toxicity or for ecosystem health. But the Board has till June 28 to make its final decision and the corporate farmer promoters who have the ear of the government are fighting back.
Yesterday’s DomPost carried an extensive article showing that the limits set by the board are already exceeded in the dairy farming areas. In fact the data is from 2006-2010 so the probability is that they are already well exceeded. Corporate farmer interests argue that because existing farms will need to be regulated, the limits should be relaxed! You can have your say on Stuff – there’s an on-line poll.
If my well-informed source is right, short-term thinking by farmers and the government may mean it won’t take fifteen years for the dairy industry to become defunct.