Dairy NZ won't be 'whipping boy' on water quality any more

Dairy NZ says the dairy industry is no longer willing to be the "whipping boy" for any decreasing water quality of New Zealand's streams and rivers, while Fish and Game has called for a public inquiry into the water quality issue.

Both groups appeared before Parliament's Local Government and Environment Select Committee on Thursday to discuss the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment's report on water quality, which described the problem of nitrogen leaching into waterways.

Chairman of Dairy NZ John Luxton, standing in for Rick Pridmore, Dairy NZ's Strategy and Investment Leader for Sustainability, said some of our most polluted streams and rivers were in urban areas.

"Sometimes the industry I think gets blamed for the wider problems of increasing population and increasing demand on water supply," he said.

"Farmers are very much aware of the disconnect with the urban community. We watch on TV and they talk about dairy cows and rivers and streams and they show old photos and they are normally beef animals."

"The dairy industry is the whipping boy for some of those things, but I have to say the industry doesn't tolerate it any longer."

Luxton said the dairy industry acknowedged that water quality was a significant issue and that intensification on areas with vulnerable or "leaky" soils did involve water quality risks, but he said it was "not a problem everywhere".

"It's not that situation everywhere. Many areas still can absorb more (intensification)," he said.

"It's a trade-off. This industry now is about a third of New Zealand's total export earnings so every New Zealander is benefiting from the outcome."

He said Council's were "well aware of the risks" of allowing dairy conversions in vulnerable areas and had moved to restrict them in, for example, certain parts of Canterbury and Southland so a blanket ban on conversions on land with "leaky soils" was not necessary.

Nitrogen not an issue if water is clear?

Dairy NZ's Environment Policy Manager, Mike Scarsbrook, was critical of the focus on nitrogen, saying that when it leaches into waterways it "may or may not cause problems".

"Not all of the nitrogen excreted to land (by farm animals) is going to get into waterways," he said.

"Clearly some of it is lost through natural processes and through mitigation options farmers put in place, but also not all the nitrogen that does end up in waterways creates water quality outcomes that are problematic. This is because nitrogen in itself is not necessarily a cause of water quality problems."

Scarsbrook said nitrogen creates problems if it reaches levels toxic to animals, or if it combines with phosphorus to result in algal blooms.

He said research by Dairy NZ looking at 77 waterways over a 22 year period found that, despite significantly increased nitrate levels in many of the sites, water clarity improved or was stable at all except one.

He suggested that many communities would be happy about the quality of the water in their rivers and streams as long as it looked clear, and in that case the nitrate levels would not be the major issue.

"We have to say 'what is it that the community actually wants in terms of water quality for particular sites?'. It may be that the increasing trends in nitrate are the major issue for the community in that waterway and that's what we need to focus on addressing. For other communities, the increasing clarity may be the thing they actually resonate with the most and that's a really good sign. So we have to link the indicators of water quality to the values that the community is actually interested in."

Luxton agreed, giving the example of the upper Waikato River where pine forest has been converted to dairy.

"So we are seeing in the Waikato River increasing trends for nitrogen, but at the same time in the hydro lakes in that system and further down the river we are seeing decreasing trends in the amount of algal biomass in the river," he said.

"So at a time when nitrogen and land intensification has increased ... the amount of algae in the water has actually decreased. So from a community perspective who want to swim and row and kayak on the river that's actually a positive signal despite the chopping down of forest and converting into dairy."

'Farmers are victims in the corporatisation of dairying'

Bryce Johnson, Fish and Game NZ Chief Executive, also appeared before the Local Government and Environment Select Committee to call for a full public inquiry into water quality, saying it was "too important to be left to just box on becoming increasingly politicised."

Alison Dewes, Agri-Business consultant for Fish and Game, said dairying was leaving the "sweet zone" it had historically been in, and needed to consider whether the drive to increase production had reached its limits.

She said farmers were increasingly reliant on imported feed and faced increased finance costs, skilled labour shortages and the early effects of climate change as well as water constraints and increasing costs to mitigate environmental impacts.

"We are effectively no longer 'low cost, down under' and are losing our competitive edge" as we "push into vulnerable landscapes", she said.

Dewes said many traditional family farmers who were "chasing quality of life" rather than profit had suffered through the "corporatisation" of dairying and the drive to intensification.

"A lack of clear rules, targets and measures and changing enforcement is leading to farmers being, in my view, victims. They haven't got clear limits and frameworks".

"As a result in my view we are having a lot of farmers burying their head in the sand. They are really quite scared about this change." Dewes claimed a study of Waikato farms showed the "most resilient farms actually appeared to be the ones which were lower stocked, so getting back to that sweet zone we probably were at 20 or 30 years ago."

"In general we tend to see these more profitable farms that are resilient in the face of volatility are actually carrying around 15% to 20% less bodyweight per hectare."