Early in June a story appeared in our local community paper, the Katikati Advertiser, that caught my attention. So much so that 3 weeks after I first read it I have rummaged through our recycled paper box to find it again.
The story heading is: “Study Reveals the True Cost of D airying”.
It reports on a paper published in the USA in the scientific journal Environmental Management. The paper is titled NZ Dairy Farming – Milking our Environment for All It’s Worth and was written by Kyleisha Foote, Dr Mike Joy and Professor Russel Death of Massey University’s Institute of Agriculture and Environment.
You can access the report at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25900603. The abstract is free but you’ll have to pay nearly $60 for the whole report.
I’ve spent a significant part of my life working in farming districts. I love the land and the people who draw a livelihood from it. And I am very aware of the hard times now facing dairy farmers, times which I suspect will continue rather longer than the pundits at Fonterra and the Beehive hope. So I read this report with both interest and concern.
The paper documents the dramatic change NZ dairy production has undergone in recent years from a low-input, low-cost and low-impact system, increasingly dependent on imported feed and fertiliser.
Increases in pollution and costs to the community through lost recreation opportunities and clean-up costs are the result of hugely expanded intensification of farming. And they are growing, and are paid for not by the dairy industry but by the wider community, according to Dr Joy.
The net effect of this is that the costs to society are approximately equal to the revenue gained and the contribution to the GDP, according to the report.
The report documents the four-fold increase in milk production and the doubling of the number of dairy cows in recent decades. Huge increases in imported of fertiliser and animal feed have driven this increased production, which unfortunately has been mirrored in a massive increase in pollution.
Accompanying this has been the accumulation of large areas of productive dairy land in fewer hands, and the shattering of the fibre of former close-knit rural communities in the quest for economies of scale. This social cost has a large price tag.
I have personally seen this while working on the Canterbury Plains several years ago.
What the report does highlight is that it is many times cheaper for farmers to reduce their pollution than to clean up the mess after it has occurred. The clean ups of the Rotorua Lakes, Lake Taupo, the Manawatu River, Lake Wairarapa and a number of lesser known sites have cost the NZ taxpayer millions of dollars.
Dr Joy says: “The degradation is far more extensive and will increase due to delays in pollution effects being seen; this is because nitrogen can take years, even decades, to move through the subsurface to waterways.”
The dairy industry is not the great provider of goodness to all New Zealanders that many of us believed, myself included, when the overall costs are taken into account. It is entirely reasonable for the dairy industry to be held to account for its impact on our environment, even while we appreciate the hard work of individual farmers and the care that most of them now take to protect local waterways.
Ultimately no-one benefits if we have the most productive dairy industry in the world but ruin our share of the world’s most valuable and fast diminishing resource – water.