Govt sowing seeds for another ag-sag?

May 7, 2018

Let’s start with something we can agree on: we all want clean waterways.

Where opinion diverges is on how that is to be achieved.

The government thinks part of the solution is in reducing cow numbers:

Environment Minister David Parker told TVNZ 1’s Q+A programme that in some parts of New Zealand cow numbers may have to be cut.

‘Well, cow numbers have already peaked and are going down, but yes, in some areas, the number of cows per hectare is higher than the environment can sustain. That won’t be done through a raw cap on cow numbers; it will be done on nutrient limits, the amount of nutrient that can be lost from a farm to a waterway, because it’s not just a dairy cow issue.’

It’s not just a cow issue and it’s not just nitrogen and phosphorus as this chart from the Agricultural Research Centre shows:

As I have said many times before, the major contributor to problems in the Kakanui River isn’t farming it’s  seagulls.

Back to Q&A, just like with the government’s decision to end oil and gas exploration, it has no idea about the economic impact of reducing cow numbers:

CORIN This is a massive signal. This is like your oil and gas. This is you saying to the farming sector, ‘You cannot continue with some of your practices in dairying, and we will force you to have less cows.’ What work have you done to look at what the economic impact of that would be? Because we know if there’s a drought, for example, and milk production goes down a couple of percent, it takes off a percent off GDP.

DAVID Mm. Well, I think the Landcorp example is illustrative that it’s not the end of the world for dairying.

The Landcorp example is not a good one because the company’s return on capital is abysmal and it’s propensity for making losses couldn’t be sustained by private businesses.

CORIN Have you done the work that shows what the economic impact for some, particularly dairying regions, would be?

DAVID We haven’t done an analysis of what the economic effects would be. But it’s very, very difficult to model, because second-best from the farmer perspective may still be very close to the same outcome profit-wise. Can I go back to what I was saying that I think one of the answers to this in south Canterbury, for example, lies in land use change towards more cropping, more horticulture, which are high-value land uses. . . 

It’s not just difficult to model, it’s ignoring the reality that land, climate and soils that suit dairying don’t necessarily suit horticulture.

Jacqueline Rowarth pointed out nearly two years ago, a reduction in cow numbers would have unexpected consequences:

Replacing dairy with horticulture might have some economic merit, but land suitability has to be considered, as does the supporting infrastructure and inputs.

The point about any land-based activity is that it suits the topography and climate, which interact with the parent material to create the soil. Farmers and growers understand the nature of the interaction, and then manage the deficiencies – fertilisers, irrigation, shelters, for instance.

They also consider the infrastructure, processors and markets. Land that can be used economically and environmentally sustainably for horticulture has mostly been converted already.

There are also detrimental environmental impacts to be considered. Research on the Canterbury Plains reported in the media last year indicated that dairy conversions involving fertiliser and irrigation, actually increased organic matter.

The reverse is also true. And when organic matter breaks down, nitrogen is released as is carbon dioxide.

Massey University’s professor Tony Parsons has examined the land-use challenge with funding from the New Zealand Agricultural Research Centre (NZAGRC). He has calculated that at a given N input, dairy produces two to three times as much food, similar or less methane and less than half the amount of nitrogen loss.

He has also shown the use of supplements improves efficiencies. Combined with strategic use of shelters and feed pads, nitrogen losses can be reduced. . . 

A lot of work has been, and continues to be, done into improved practices which reduce dairying’s environmental impact

Keith Woodford says that we need a rational debate about water:

In recent years, the debates about water rights and water pollution in New Zealand have become increasingly torrid. Most New Zealanders have fixed views on the topic and are confident their views are correct. Human nature then leads to so-called facts being organised to buttress those fixed views.

There is a term for this phenomenon called ‘noble cause corruption’.    The problem is that ‘we’ have the ‘noble cause’ and ‘they’ have the ‘corruption’. And so, within this framework, the water debate has been characterised by huge superficiality, rhetoric and shouting. The opportunities for shared learning and accommodation have been minimal. . . 

Radical environmentalists and anti-farming groups have done a very good job with the superficiality, rhetoric and shoutingWhat we need now is science and the recognition that problems decades in the making will take time to solve and that improving water quality isn’t as simple as reducing cow numbers.

Currently, there is great confusion between issues of water quantity and water quality.  Dirty dairying has become the catch phrase.  At a public level, distinguishing between nitrogen leaching, phosphorus runoff, bacterial loadings and sediment does not occur.  There is also very poor understanding as to the constraints to cash crop and horticulture production in the absence of irrigation.

The rural community also has to accept that change is necessary. . . 

The rural community, and farmers in particular have generally not only accepted that change is necessary but have poured money into making changes which enhance and protect waterways.

They are aware, as the government and many others don’t appear to be, that water quality isn’t just about the environment, it also has a direct impact on the economy.

It is remarkable how huge swathes of the big-city populations have lost sight of the dependence New Zealand has on its natural resource-based industries. They do not appreciate that destruction of agriculture is incompatible with poverty elimination. . . .

Dairying has revived communities that were dying, creating jobs on farms and in businesses which service and supply them. Schools which were in danger of closing have had their rolls boosted, sports clubs which were in decline have been revived.

It has also provided a huge boost to the national economy, as the biggest or second biggest export earner and a major contributor to the annual tax-take.

The regional slush fund will be no compensation for the destruction of businesses and the people who depend on them. The fund itself will be in danger if the tax take and export income are severely reduced by attacks on farms and farmers.

The Lange-Douglas policies created the ag-sag of the 80s.

Few would argue with the necessity for change and what that government did but this government ought to have learned from the damage done by how they did it.

Farmers aren’t arguing against the need for clean water.

We’re just very worried that the government is sowing the seeds for another ag-sag.

They, and too many other people, don’t understand the economic and social cost of forcing fast changes, especially where they’re not backed by science.


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