Early this morning Greenpeace confronted the fertiliser industry with an enormous, 1500 sq metre banner outside the Kapuni fertiliser factory in South Taranaki. The message highlights the link between synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and the cancer risk of nitrate-contaminated drinking water, and calls on the government to cut synthetic nitrogen.

On 11 July 2022 Greenpeace Aotearoa confronted the fertiliser industry with a 1500 sq metre banner outside the Kapuni fertiliser factory in South Taranaki. The message highlights the link between synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and the cancer risk of nitrate-contaminated drinking water, and calls on the government to cut synthetic nitrogen.

The banner reads: CANCER FERTILISER - CUT SYNTHETIC NITROGEN. The largest letters are over three stories high. An arrow directs the message at the billowing stacks of the fertiliser factory.
Greenpeace banner at Kapuni fertiliser factory. Image: Ben Sarten

Greenpeace Senior campaigner Steve Abel says, “We are at the Kapuni fertiliser factory in Taranaki to name synthetic nitrogen fertiliser as a cancer risk and call on the government to hold the fertiliser industry to account for the human harm they are causing.”

“Much of New Zealand’s worst pollution starts right here. Every year around 450 thousand tonnes of synthetic nitrogen is applied to land, mostly for intensive dairy. It pollutes rivers and the climate, and it is poisoning the well.

“Synthetic nitrogen fertiliser use leads to contamination of rural people’s drinking water with the nitrate. Scientists warn that nitrate in drinking water could be causing 100 cases of bowel cancer and 40 deaths each year in New Zealand,” says Abel. 

“Groundwater is the drinking source for 40% of New Zealanders. The fertiliser industry is contaminating that vital supply, rendering rural people’s drinking water undrinkable, risking cancer, and also harm to babies in the womb. The Government needs to step in and stop it.”

As well as cancer, excess levels of nitrate in drinking water are linked to reproductive risks such as preterm and underweight births, and Blue Baby Syndrome.

“Leachate from synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and millions of litres of cow urine a day is seeping into groundwater drinking supplies – that’s causing worsening nitrate contamination across the country,” says Abel.

“The spike in groundwater nitrate concentrations is attributable to a near seven-fold increase in nitrogen fertiliser use since 1990 and significant intensification of dairying in that time.” 

According to StatsNZ, total synthetic nitrogen fertiliser use increased 693% between 1990 and 2019, during which time the dairy herd increased by 82% – from 3.4 million cows to 6.3 million. 

“Despite fine words about Te Mana o te Wai, and about the right of all people to safe drinking water, the Ardern Government plans to do nothing to stop worsening nitrate contamination caused by the fertiliser and dairy industries.” 

“Right now there are decisions being made by politicians around protecting sources of human drinking water. We are calling on Associate Environment Minister Kiritapu Allan and Prime Minister Ardern to act now for the sake of those rural communities whose health is most at risk. The government must phase out the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser to ensure healthy water for all.”

The Kapuni fertiliser factory, built in 1982 under Muldoon’s Think Big scheme, is owned by Ballance Agri-Nutrients and is the only local manufacturer of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, which is made using fossil gas. The fertiliser companies Ballance and Ravensdown (which imports the chemical) are responsible for 98% of the country’s synthetic nitrogen fertiliser supply. The dairy industry uses 67% of New Zealand’s synthetic nitrogen.

According to Land Air Water Aotearoa, 6% of groundwater wells monitored nationally exceed the drinking standard for nitrate. Scientists say 800,000 New Zealanders could be exposed to hazardous levels of nitrate in their drinking water.

Greenpeace is running free community nitrate water testing events in Waikato this week.

a herd of cows
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