Sandra Kyle, Lynley Tulloch: Dairy downturn chance to change

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New Zealand can become a new land with different farming objectives such as cropping, argue Sandra Kyle and Lynley Tulloch.
The dairy decline means New Zealand has a chance to move to a more sustainable, climate-friendly, people-friendly, animal-friendly, economy. Picture / NZME
The dairy decline means New Zealand has a chance to move to a more sustainable, climate-friendly, people-friendly, animal-friendly, economy. Picture / NZME

In Enid Blyton's children's book The Faraway Tree, the world is made of milk and honey, fairies swing from the branches and new worlds spring up on top of trees that you can access through a porthole. If only it were true. While mystical lands may be convincing when we're children, as adults we realise we create our own worlds and they're not nearly as flash.

It is true that we live in a land of milk, albeit one that is rapidly declining in value. The writing has been on the wall for the dairy sector in New Zealand for some time before this, the third year of low prices bearing down on farmers. Our hard-working farmers are hurting, coming under pressure to pay their mortgage and facing a loss of their livelihoods. The fallout, like ever-increasing ripples in a pond, is already reaching their suppliers, and soon rural towns and urban areas all over the country will feel the effects.

There is divided opinion on whether the Government should wait for things to come right, bail farmers out, or have a crisis summit. The first two will be a waste of time and prove disastrous. It is true that we are in a crisis, but in every crisis is an opportunity. We need to pause, step back and look at the bigger picture to see where that opportunity lies. What other land can we create at the top of the Faraway Tree?

Well to begin with, it would have a stable climate, the basis for future survival of our and every other species. Few would disagree that the single most important issue of our time is climate change. We are hurtling towards the agreed maximum of 2.0 above pre-industrial levels.

Worldwide, a staggering 51 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions are caused by livestock farming (Cowspiracy.com). This is because meat and dairy are the most costly and least efficient forms of food production.

Even though New Zealand livestock are mostly grass-fed , we need to use a lot of land and water to maintain them. They waste most of the energy and protein value of their feed in bodily maintenance, and their digestive and waste processes produce a lot of methane, the most potent greenhouse gas. Rather than using vast areas of land to prepare and grow crops for animal feed, it would be much more efficient, and slow down global warming, to obtain food by cultivating crops directly for human consumption. The nearly one billion people who suffer from hunger and malnutrition would also benefit.

This new world would be a kinder one for animals. Included in the various factors contributing to the reducing demand for dairy products worldwide is one that is rarely mentioned- a growing awareness of the way animals are "farmed". Although factory farming of dairy cows has not taken off in New Zealand, dairying relies on practices that are concerning; for instance the separation of calf from its mother and the killing of four to 10 day old surplus calves, mainly male: more than two million last year alone in this country.

Contrary to what we have been told, cow's milk and its derivatives are not necessary for human health. In fact, there is a large body of research that implicates both meat and dairy consumption in the developed world to ill health and morbidity. This is because these foods make up the greatest percentage of saturated fat intake leading to coronary artery disease and type 2 diabetes.

The opportunity now exists to begin to transition New Zealand to a more sustainable, climate-friendly, people-friendly, animal-friendly, economy. It is a complex issue that will involve diversification off the land but also to substitute existing livestock farming with crops. This would involve deciding which areas of land are better for which uses (long and short-term cropping, forestry etc) providing supplementary income sources and other factors. But it can and should be done.

Kiwis are inherently resourceful, and this is especially true of those who farm our land. Let us keep our land for farming but let's farm crops rather than animals.

We can see the evolution of a new land on top of the Faraway Tree. But if we don't act soon it will be too late.

Sandra Kyle is a Waikato-based writer and teacher and Free FM broadcaster. Lynley Tulloch is a lecturer in environmental and sustainability education at the University of Waikato and a Free FM broadcaster.

Dialogue Contributions are welcome and should be 500-700 words. Send your submission to dialogue@nzherald.co.nz. Text may be edited and used in digital formats as well as on paper.

Debate on this article is now closed.

- NZ Herald

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