Comment: Agricultural footprint risks getting out of balance

Allan Barber

While not exactly a new or revolutionary call for action, Fish and Game’s call last week for an independent review of water use and leaching into waterways was another bit of pressure on the future development of New Zealand farming, says meat industry commentator Allan Barber. The organisation has long been agitating for such a review, but the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s critical report on land use and nutrient pollution in waterways has provided it with further ammunition.

Inevitably, dairy is cited as the main culprit for the increase in pollution because stocking rates are higher and there is more runoff into rivers and waterways from dairy than from sheep and beef. Fonterra says it has collected nutrient data from nearly 4,000 farms which will provide information on how to mitigate the impact of nutrients; in addition fencing of waterways is now an obligatory condition of milk collection, although Fish and Game questions how rigorously this is being audited.

According to modelling by NIWA and Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, by 2020 a further 400,000 hectares of sheep and beef farm land will have been converted to dairy. There will be a large increase in nitrogen runoff in most regions including Canterbury, Southland, Otago and Wellington.

This conversion rate is made possible by the dramatic increase in water storage and irrigation which has already changed the face of New Zealand land use and farming over the last 20 years.

Irrigation New Zealand chief executive Andrew Curtis has said the report by NIWA and Motu failed to take into account recent innovations in land use management plans which hold farmers accountable for meeting plan requirements to minimise environmental risk. DairyNZ’s environment policy manager Mike Scarsbrook said the modelling also missed factors like regulated water nutrient limits in some plans, citing the management of the Manawatu River as an example.

New Zealand Freshwater Sciences Society (NZFSS) president Professor David Hamilton stated: “Best agricultural practice has to become the norm. We also need a long term vision about what sort of land use is appropriate according to the sensitivity of the receiving waters.”

In a media release, NZFSS strongly endorses many aspects of the National Policy Statement in Freshwater Management (NPS), particularly in addressing the present inefficiencies of water use in New Zealand and in setting limits for both water quantity and quality that will ensure there is not continued degradation of freshwater resources.

But there is serious concern about the uneven speed of adoption of the NPS by regional councils with only four out of seventeen councils having a set of operative or proposed limits for water flow and quality. Hamilton says the devil is in the detail as well as a potential ‘gold rush’ of land use changes before implementation of the NPS.

He also draws attention to the unacceptability of making communities and taxpayers bear the costs imposed by industry, comparing the government’s $400 million investment of taxpayer money to fast track irrigation schemes with $15 million in additional funding over two years to be provided by the Fresh Start for Fresh Water Clean-up Fund to help communities clean up waterways that are affected by historical pollution.

Hamilton is adamant New Zealand cannot afford to continue at the present rate of degradation of waterways and bodies of water even if, in the Environment Minister’s words, the “economic benefits outweigh the other costs.” NZFSS welcomes the recommendation to conduct a review of the NPS in five years, although it notes councils can request an extension till 2030 to achieve implementation, by which time: “One hesitates to guess what sort of state some waterways may be in …based on current trends provided by scientists in the Society.”

Against this background, the inexorable increase in dairy payout may be seen not just to pose a growing threat to the country’s waterways, but also to the survival of the sheep and beef sector. Irrigation has provided, and will continue to facilitate, the opportunity for conversions in country not previously suitable for dairy production.

However, it will take a dramatic decline in the dairy payout from its present peak, although there are signs of some reduction, or a substantial increase in red meat returns, for there to be an incentive to reduce the rate of land use conversion. Nor am I convinced the mitigation measures put in place by government, regional councils or Fonterra will be enough to discourage the trend.

I would not be so naïve as to expect farmers to put the survival of the red meat sector or the environment before their own financial circumstances. But a slowdown in global demand for our commodity based dairy production would certainly help to achieve a more balanced use of land and put less pressure on the sustainability and health of our waterways.

This could just be the incentive the sheep and beef sector needs to get its act together and provide farmers with a financially justified choice of farming activity.

Allan Barber is a meat industry commentator. This column has appeared at NZ Farmers’ Weekly. He has his own blog Barber’s Meaty Issues and can be contacted by emailing him at

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