Comment: New Zealand has been the target of environmentalists decrying the promotion of "clean and green" to tourists. Agriculture, particularly the dairy industry, has been blamed for pollution of our water and atmosphere. But they are presenting a gloomy view of New Zealand that doesn't accord with how tourists actually see it, writes Dr Jacqueline Rowarth.
What constitutes "clean and green" depends upon experience.
Tourists coming to New Zealand admire the beauty of the natural environment.
This was confirmed in The Survey of International Visitors by the Ministry for Business, Innovation and Employment in 2017:
"Most visitors were highly satisfied with their visit to New Zealand
• Overall, visitors reported high levels of satisfaction with visiting New Zealand, rating their visit on average 9 out of 10.
• Visitors were most satisfied with the natural and built environment (9.1 out of 10).
More than 98 per cent of visitors said New Zealand's environment met or exceeded their expectations. Environmentally conscious visitors were more likely to say the environment exceeded their expectation."
This should be reassuring to everybody planning a holiday here.
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It should also be reassuring to New Zealanders ... but ongoing environmental campaigns are undermining their confidence.
This is despite various areas in New Zealand being chosen to represent Tolkien's fabled Middle Earth.
Whether it be rugged mountains or bucolic landscapes, New Zealand was able to provide the film sets, without the motorways, power cables or contrails unavoidable in other countries.
This is possible because New Zealand, just slightly bigger than the UK in land mass, has a population of just under 5 million. The UK has over 66 million.
Despite low population, New Zealand is classed as a developed country. It has prospered by exporting timber, wool, meat and milk.
Originally the timber was from native trees from the "bush". More recently Pinus radiata has dominated.
Wool for carpets lost favour, but fine merino wool for fashion has increased. Where fine wool couldn't be grown, new technologies provided other opportunities to replace the failing coarse wool breeds.
Irrigation on the Canterbury Plains is an example. Overcoming drought improved grain and grass yields and enabled the growth of the dairy industry.
People who believe that the landscape should be as it was when they grew up have objected. Dried grass and scattered sheep being replaced by verdant pastures and herds of cows doesn't fit their concept of what is right.
Listen to Jamie Mackay's interview with Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:
On the plus side is the increase in organic matter in the stony soils. This organic matter holds nutrients and has reduced erosion – a feature late last century when dust-storms were triggered by cultivation in spring and autumn coinciding with strong nor 'west winds.
The change in land use from sheep to cows boosted incomes and expanded employment in the region. Farmers changed their practices because they had to survive – there was little market for carpet wool and sheep meat, but a growing market for dairy products.
This is what any good business owner does – adapts to opportunities and challenges.
On the negative side, some people see irrigation as wrong. It's partly because shelter belts of macrocarpa trees have been removed to allow dairy farms to be established.
The macrocarpa were planted by settlers in the second half of the 1800s because there was no timber for building, firewood or shelter on the Canterbury Plains.
A Fulbright Scholar working at the University of Canterbury in the 1990s wrote a paper on the likely social reaction when these iconic shelter belts, which were already mature, were removed.
His words came true. Despite the falling limbs and fire hazard the macrocarpas posed, people reacted badly.
The shelter belts have been replaced on many farms by native plants, but these do not provide the "thick, dark, belts" which people grew up with.
Another negative has been that increased soil fertility, supporting improved pasture and dairy cattle, has resulted in increased nitrate in the groundwater on the Canterbury Plains.
The most recent survey of domestic wells was carried out by Environment Canterbury in spring 2018. Higher than recommended nitrate was reported in 7 per cent of wells, which was a reduction from 10 per cent the year before.
Farmers have been taking action to improve their farm practices as the science advances.
Precision irrigation and fertiliser application are examples. What isn't being considered on the Canterbury Plains is the increase in housing and septic tanks which will undoubtedly be having an effect on nitrate loading.
Nitrate in rivers has also received attention across New Zealand. Overall, however, the news is good – nitrate is considerably lower than in other rivers around the world, and is decreasing in more rivers than it is increasing.
A diagram from "Squandered; the degradation of New Zealand's freshwaters" by Mike Joy shows New Zealand rivers are very good, except for the tributaries for Lake Rotorua which are already being addressed.
The LAWA data, which is supported by all the regional councils, shows improvement:
Furthermore, the Ministry for the Environment (Our Fresh Water Report 2017) has stated that "More than 99 per cent of total river length was estimated not to have nitrate-nitrogen concentrations high enough to affect the growth of multiple sensitive freshwater species for the period 2009–13".
And water has improved in quality since then.
Environmentalists have raised concerns and the agricultural sector has responded.
As science has advanced, farmers have introduced new technologies that have enabled them to be world-leading in producing animal protein from pasture.
Per kilogram, animal protein from New Zealand has lower water use, nitrate loss and greenhouse gas production than other countries can manage.
Furthermore, the primary sector provides over half the export economy, and operates without the subsidies common in other countries.
New Zealand farmers are proud to be managing the land in a productive fashion.
The land, the earth, is their livelihood and their legacy. It is a responsibility they take seriously.
A 91 per cent rating for the environment given by overseas visitors is something we can all be proud about.
- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, CNZM CRSNZ HFNZIAHS has a PhD in Soil Science (nutrient cycling). She was prompted to write this article in response to 'The Incontinent Cows of Middle-earth' appearing in the New York Times.