Opinion: For New Zealand to attempt an economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic without utilising the most lucrative sector - dairy - defies logic, Dr Jacqueline Rowarth writes.
Allocation of Covid-19 recovery money is being discussed in Wellington and privileged people have already been invited to do their elevator-pitches.
We've learned from many reality TV shows that it is sometimes the most extreme that attract attention – so perhaps the suggestion that economic recovery would be possible without dairy cows was simply meant as a "grabber". Or perhaps it wasn't…
In a report of one of the elevator pitches, current dairy production, which occupies 1.7 of New Zealand's 26.8 million hectares, and is responsible for over a quarter of the export economy, was described as the "worst possible land use for this country".
The Prime Minister was urged to use Covid recovery money for supporting farmers in a change to regenerative agriculture because "a low intensity, highly diverse farming model is our only future".
The rationale offered was impacts of nitrogen use on freshwater, greenhouse gas emissions, animal welfare, use of antibiotics, pesticides and herbicides, "and now the emerging issue of human health issues with drinking water".
The pitch went on to say that "research will soon be published about the link between nitrogen in drinking water and cancer rates"
From a scientific perspective this list is disappointing because it perpetuates misunderstanding – the information cascade which then creates fear and uncertainty. This is particularly the case with the mention of colon cancer.
Dr Graeme Coles, Canterbury-based nutrition scientist has made it clear: the assertion that "elevated groundwater nitrate concentration" causes colon cancer cannot be sustained because the Danish Study on which the statement is based:
• was on a population study derived for non-metro data from Denmark, but the outcome of the study shows that low to moderate levels of groundwater nitrate could be protective against colon cancer.
• reported that daily intakes of nitrate from water consumption was about one-tenth of the intake from food, and the variation in food-derived nitrate intake swamped variation in intake from potable water.
• is nonsense because no dietary nitrate reaches or passes through the colon, so there is no plausible causative mechanism (shown by the fate of 15N labelled nitrate and measurements in terminal ileal flow in human ileostomates).
In my opinion, using the C-word creates anxiety.
So does the inclusion of pesticides and herbicides on the list, reminding people of the high-profile legal cases involving glyphosate in the United States.
It ignores the $300 million or so that are spent by developers ensuring that their products, when used as recommended, are safe in terms of humans and environment. It ignores the extra checks done for New Zealand before any chemical is approved for entry.
It also ignores statements by the World Health Organization that "when used as recommended" it can find no link to problems in human health.
Antibiotics was another concern-word on the list because of the real fear of development of antibiotic resistance. It is certainly true that antibiotic use has escalated in New Zealand in the last 20 years; human use is now at the higher end of developed countries. In considerable contrast, antibiotic use in animals is at the lowest end. This is because most of our large animals are not farmed intensively – they are out on pasture (akin to social distancing).
Inclusion of animal welfare is designed to pull at emotions and ignores the fact that New Zealand has only six countries, all of which are in Europe, in a higher bracket in the 50-country International Animal Protection Index. (Of interest is that the lower gradings making up the overall grade for New Zealand are in protecting companion and recreational animals.)
Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:
Greenhouse gas emissions are certainly associated with all ruminants.
Most countries are able to curb non-biological emissions and so reduce their GHG profile by switching to renewable power, improving public transport and making efficiency gains in industry.
New Zealand's biological economy means changing biology – which has evolved over millions of years to be efficient. Reversion to regenerative agriculture, with its roots in organics, is unlikely to create better efficiencies.
Research shows that organic production systems produce more GHG, lose more nutrients and take more land per unit of food produced, than conventional systems. In some cases, the impact per hectare upon which the food is produced is lower – but not always. Nitrate leaching and phosphorus loss is a case in point.
Per unit of food or per hectare is the crux of the problem. Environmentalists want a reduction of environmental impact in New Zealand. Economists want food production to be maintained so that income is generated which can then assist with economic recovery.
Part of this recovery will be on farm to support adoption of new environmental technologies. Part will be in government-funded infrastructure development.
But to make the recovery without the most lucrative part – dairy - defies logic, particularly when the New Zealand dairy sector has been shown to be "greener" than dairy production in other countries. It has also been shown to be "greener" than other food production systems.
Elevator pitches are supposed to grab attention, but with privilege comes responsibility, and in my opinion, fact and fiction should be kept separate.
• Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Adjunct Professor Lincoln University, is part owner of a 56ha dairy farm in the Waikato and a farmer-elected director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown . The analysis and conclusions above are her own. firstname.lastname@example.org