Opinion: The Milk and Money television series has a noble aim, but how might it affect the perception of dairy, Dr Jaqueline Rowarth asks.
Dairying has become such an easy target it isn't surprising we now have a six-part Milk and Money series on TVNZ On Demand.
Anything labelled "the true cost" is bound to attract interest as people check to see if they have or haven't been duped, and when the topic is dairy farming, it is a double attraction.
Milk and Money says it "can help to get us all on the same page, with at least a shared baseline understanding of how the industry operates, what the issues are, and what the barriers are to fixing them. Perhaps then we can work together to create a more sustainable and equitable Aotearoa".
It is a noble aim with which few people would argue, but in my opinion alienating the people you want to make change is unlikely to be a successful strategy. Ask any good teacher. If the target feels hopeless, it will give up.
Good teachers don't return an assignment with comments about "most of this is rubbish; you've got to do better".
Instead they point out the parts of the assignment that are good and work with the student, asking questions and suggesting ways of developing the rest of the assignment to meet the same good standard.
The result is the student feeling supported and encouraged.
At the beginning of each of the six parts of Milk and Money, the same words set the scene and they are neither positive nor encouraging. Nor, in my opinion, are they supported by facts.
The show says dairy has filled the country, but the actual figure is 1.7 million hectares in the dairy platform which is less than 6.5 per cent of the area of New Zealand. It says cows are the most polluting animals that can be farmed, but most calculations put beef cattle ahead and, of course, the "winner" depends on what metric is being used: per kilogram of food, per unit of protein, per animal, per hectare, per herd? Per unit of food or protein, dairy cows have low impact.
The show uses words such as excessive, pollution, industrial, degrading soils and high emissions. These words create anger, anxiety and distrust. They evoke emotions known to promote sharing. Wharton Business School has done the research.
Further research (MIT Sloan School of Management) has shown that things that aren't true travel farther and faster than things that are.
Although the news about dairy farming in New Zealand is mostly positive or neutral, the 7 per cent (on average) that is negative dominates.
Social media, created in the mid-2000s, has made an extraordinary difference in terms of impact.
False news is novel, and people on social networks can gain attention by being the first to share previously unknown (but possibly false) information.
MIT David Austin Professor of Management Aral Roy has stated that "People who share novel information are seen as being in the know".
Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:
Facts that are true should be shared and people sharing them will be in the know.
With that in mind, here are a few facts about the New Zealand dairy industry.
Dairying actually occupies a small proportion of New Zealand.
In that small area it employs people on farms and in processing and transport.
The dairy boom on the Canterbury Plains and in Southland reinvented the rural economy – country schools reopened and rural businesses, including medical services, were reinvigorated.
New Zealand farmers have been building soil quality – research over the decades has shown them how it can be done.
On the Canterbury Plains, the use of fertiliser and strategic irrigation has enabled an increase in soil organic matter which in turn has improved soil quality and reduced erosion.
Far from being excessive, the nitrogen and phosphorus applied has been an integral part of the soil improvement.
Concerns about nitrate in water have been allayed by the Professor of Colorectal Surgery at University of Otago, Canterbury. Alarmist headings are simply false news seeking attention.
Statements that regenerative and organic are better ways to farm are not supported by research for the New Zealand context.
The extra emissions, including nitrogen loss, per unit of food production are not offset by potential increases in organic matter. Further, a shift from conventional farming will not reduce the price of product to the consumer – evidence shows the reverse is true.
Milk is more expensive in the supermarket than farmers are paid because of processing and distribution – and the supermarket system.
Farm incomes are being eroded by the escalating costs of compliance. Industrialisation in America has helped with keeping costs down, but in New Zealand over 90 per cent of dairy farms are family-owned.
Although some farmers have benefitted from inheritance, the increase in dairy debt supports the fact that most have had to purchase the land (perhaps from siblings).
Most farmers have done what they can to follow the research. As it develops they will do even better.
Acknowledgement and encouragement enable engagement.
• Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Adjunct Professor Lincoln University, is a farmer-elected director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions above are her own. firstname.lastname@example.org