Sam Judd: Death to dirty dairy?

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Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

Almost any environment writer would have some kind of gripe about Fonterra - the biggest dairy company in the world and a seriously powerful player when it comes to New Zealand policy.

I have copped plenty of flack for bringing up topics that blame intensive land use for environmental degradation. While I maintain the position that our rapid conversion to dairy has had significant impacts, today I openly applaud Fonterra for what I believe is the biggest industry-led environmental decision that our country has ever seen.

In December last year - in a move that essentially recognised the ineffectiveness of the voluntary nature of the Dairy and Clean Streams Accord - Fonterra gave its farmers 18 months to fence off their waterways as a condition of supply.

I guess when you market your exports as coming from "clean and green" New Zealand and a dirty few are ruining the good work of others, action is required.

FROM 'DAISY' TO DOLLARS

It is no surprise that dirty dairying has come to be a big issue. There has been so much criticism of its environmental effects that Fonterra had to do something.

In the last twenty years our dairy cow numbers have almost doubled, to a staggering 6.2 million units and in 2009, the Manawatu was awarded the embarrassing title of the most polluted of 300 waterways in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand that were studied by the Cawthron Institute.

A retired farmer recently lamented to me that industry pressure to maximise production has lead to cows becoming "units" rather than individually known animals. Herd wellbeing and the environment is now often secondary to profitability.

But now that the public spotlight is shining on dirty dairy, pressure has mounted for Fonterra to clean up their act.

This industry-led decision represents a major paradigm shift on behalf of our dairy giant.

To be fair, there were already a great deal of farmers out there doing their best to manage land responsibly and Fonterra has now taken the first step to bring those who lagged behind into line.

CLEAN STREAMS ARE NOT A DREAM

Fencing off waterways from stock prevents direct erosion of soil, reducing the flow of silt, which will make a significant difference to the health of our waterways. It will not, however, stop the flow of nutrients (fertiliser and effluent) that pour off dairying land - a further effect of short-term profit being prioritised over the environment. Going a step further and planting out the riparian strip can improve this.

Farmers like Fred Lichtwark of Whaingaroa Harbour Care are a success story for sceptical farmers out there. Lichtwark and others have fully restored Raglan's waterways, which has increased his profitability and he is now able to catch whitebait on his own farm. This award winning Whaingaroa Harbour Care group now offer their services to other farmers wanting to improve their productivity and environment.

While many farmers will baulk at any added expense beyond what they are forced to do, there are ways to reduce the cost. Riparian planting gives instant satisfaction and volunteers - such as those from Lantern Insurance who have been coming with us to the Waihou River. They love getting their hands dirty doing work that they know is helping the environment.

Never before has such an example of the economic benefits of environmental best practice been of such pertinence in New Zealand. If farmers put the fences up, plant out the streams and manage their land carefully (minimising nitrogen inputs and maximising organic matter), then people who want to swim in a clean river are not the only ones who will be better off: farmers will get richer and possibly appreciate a whitebait fritter after a hard days graft.

If any readers, organisations or business groups out there are interested in participating in a riparian planting activity, please drop me an email: sam@sustainablecoastlines.org - you will be surprised at how satisfying it can be.

Sam Judd is Co Founder and Events Director of the multi award-winning charity Sustainable Coastlines

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