Greenpeace is redoubling its call on the Ardern government to phase out synthetic nitrogen fertiliser following the publication of a scientific study showing nitrate contamination of drinking water could cause up to 100 cases of bowel cancer and 40 deaths from the disease in New Zealand every year.

The collaborative research by the Universities of Otago, Loughborough, Auckland and Victoria, published in the international journal of Environmental Research, found that 800,000 people in New Zealand are exposed to nitrate levels in water above those found to be a risk in international studies.

“Everybody should be able to trust that the water from their kitchen tap is safe to drink, but for many New Zealanders – particularly in rural areas – that is not the case,” says Greenpeace Senior Campaigner Steve Abel.

Widespread intensive dairying is causing a spike in nitrate levels in drinking water, due to too many cows, too much synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and millions of liters of cow urine a day seeping off the land into groundwater drinking supplies.

“Over 50% of New Zealanders rely on groundwater for their drinking water supply. The fertiliser and dairy industries are contaminating that vital supply and turning people’s drinking water carcinogenic,” says Abel.

“People are dying from cancer and we know who is to blame. There are two big chemical companies – Ravensdown and Ballance – responsible for distributing 98% of New Zealand’s synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. In cahoots with the dairy industry those companies are to blame for contaminating people’s water with carcinogenic nitrate. The Government needs to act now to stop their toxic trade,” says Abel.

Greenpeace is currently offering free mail-in nitrate testing to anyone getting their drinking water from a bore or well. In the first week since it’s public launch the mail-in testing service has had over 200 requests for sample kits.

The major direct sources of nitrogen leaching in New Zealand are dairy cow urine, sheep urine and synthetic nitrogen fertiliser. Greenpeace says the overstocking of dairy cows is only possible because of the extreme use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser which is made using fossil fuels, pollutes the climate with nitrous oxide and over-nutrifies lakes and rivers causing poisonous algal blooms.

67% of all New Zealand’s synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is used by the Dairy industry. Total use increased 663% between 1990 and 2019 during which time the dairy herd increased by 82% from 3.4 million cows to 6.3 million. The biggest increase in dairy intensity has occurred in Canterbury and Southland, regions which also have worsening nitrate water contamination rates and among New Zealand’s highest rates of bowel cancer.

Greenpeace is calling for the government to phase out synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, lower the legal limit of nitrate in drinking water, and support farmers to move to regenerative organic farming for the good of the climate, rivers and human health.

a herd of cows
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