By Bridget Gourlay
Chemically ridden streams, dirty rivers and poisoned fish are threatening New Zealand’s clean and green image and the finger is being pointed squarely at the dairy industry.
The Green Party and other environmental groups are urging the government to start regulating dairy farmers after a report released in March revealed that 15 percent do not comply with the voluntary targets to minimise dairy farming’s effect on the environment.
Accusations are also being levelled at the industry for meddling with statistics and not presenting the full picture.
But Federated Farmers has hit back, saying the dairy industry is open and accountable and has never been more committed to reducing its impact on the environment. So the question is; Is it time for the government to regulate the dairy industry? And if so, how?
Currently, a charter between Fonterra, the Ministers of Agriculture and the Environment and regional councils, called the ‘Dairying and Clean Streams Accord’ exists. It aims to minimise the negative impact of dairying on New Zealand’s water. It specifies voluntary targets to keep dairy cattle out of waterways, to treat farm effluent and to manage the use of fertilisers and other nutrients.
A damning snapshot report from the Dairying and Clean Streams Accord released in March showed 15 percent of dairy farmers did not comply with the voluntary targets in 2008-09, up from 12 percent in 2007-08.
Forest and Bird Advocacy manager Kevin Hackwell says poor environmental management of dairy farms is a huge problem.
He says discharge of dairy effluent and run-off nutrients from dairy farms has led to rivers and lakes that are not safe to swim in, clogged waterways due to flourishing algae levels and the destruction of some fish and other other freshwater species.
The Agriculture Minister, David Carter says the March report was “unacceptable” and immediately issued a press release saying he was putting non-compliant dairy farmers on notice. “Regardless of whether this is because farmers don’t have the right tools, don’t know how to comply, or simply don’t care, behaviour has to change. Once we have supported the farmers who want to comply, we can look at whether existing regulation needs to be strengthened to target those remaining farmers who blatantly pollute.”
Carter has not said whether he will be changing the standards from voluntary to compulsory.
Green party co-leader Dr Russell Norman says Carter told the public last year the Government’s preference is for voluntary industry-led environmental management, but if the sector was not responsive, they would act.
“It’s time for the Minister to make good on his promise. He is talking tough, but this means nothing without action.
“It’s time for the Government to regulate the impact of dairy pollution with enforceable water quality standards. Voluntary measures, which rely on individual farmers to make improvements to their practices and report their own progress, are simply not enough of an incentive.”
Forest and Bird is also calling for the Dairying and Clean Streams Accord to be tougher. It wants clearly defined timelines, targets and outcomes for improved water quality and established nation-wide benchmarks for assessing progress. The environmental group also wants to strengthen enforcements so that poor performers face sanctions.
Federated Farmers dairy chairperson Lachlan McKenzie says he’s also disappointed with the recent rise in non-compliance.
“Yet while our news is disappointing, the dairy industry is fronting it publicly. Disclosing our environmental footprint, good or bad, is all about being open and accountable because our performance is out there for all to see.
“Wouldn’t it be encouraging, for once, if the vast majority of dairy farmers actually got positive reinforcement for the big strides we’ve made.
“We have one or two percent of recidivist bad fellas, those are the guys that need to be taught a lesson. You’ll always have one or two bad people in any community unfortunately.”
The Greens and Forest and Bird say they are also concerned the dairy industry is damaging the environment to a larger extent than it is claimed.
Norman says an earlier Clean Streams report claimed, based on self-reporting from farmers, that dairy cattle had been excluded from 70 percent of waterways in the Auckland region, when a report from the Auckland Regional Council, which randomly surveyed stream sites in the same area, found only 26 percent of dairying sites had an effective fence on both sides.
Forest and Bird has also questioned the statistics used in the the report and believe the figures are unreliable as a benchmark of the dairy industry’s environmental performance.
Lachlan McKenzie says there’s no need for central government to regulate the industry; improvements simply need to be made in the system that currently exists. He says some areas of the country had high compliance rates and others had low ones, and that largely comes down to regional councils.
“One area where the compliance rate was high was where the service and the attitudes were good and where they worked through issues. The area where they have a focus on straight out prosecution without dialogue has a low compliance. They have a complete lack of understanding of what’s good, bad and ugly.”
McKenzie says environmental regulations being presented to farmers in clear, concise language would also help matters, but generally the industry is switched on to the problem.
“The dairy industry is working hard, as we speak, on the very issue of standard and code on effluent management. In collaboration with DairyNZ, scientists, technical people, we’re all looking at developing solutions. The dairy industry has never been more focused or more co-ordinated in its endeavours to reduce its environmental footprint.”
However, McKenzie says New Zealanders need to understand water quality will always be compromised to some degree by agriculture. “We need to look at what is achievable given that we want to have food production as the primary income for New Zealand.”