It’s often said that domestic opinion doesn’t count for much in this country. Watch though, as heads turn and lattes spill when that same opinion comes from across the water. It’s our endearing lack of self confidence and charming inferiority complex at work. Kiwi artists and musicians will struggle for years for domestic recognition but one good review in London or Paris and suddenly they’re a national treasure.
One wonders whether this peculiar aspect of national character will be in play as the Government digests two international environmental reports which rolled in yesterday. Both of them hot on the fact that New Zealand’s export led economic growth, fueled by an expanding dairy industry is on a collision course with nature.
Most reasonable people accept that you can’t have unchecked economic growth without compromising the environment. There reaches a point though where people who live there will not tolerate the compromise.
Throughout this long summer of discontent over water quality and degraded rivers and lakes, the question has been asked: “Have we now reached that critical point with industrial dairying?” Greenpeace and other environmental groups have been warning about this tension for some time – saying that the growth of intensive dairying is unsustainable – that we have to start looking at different economic models for land use. So far the Government’s had tin ears. Now the message is coming from afar.
Firstly there’s New Zealand’s ten yearly report card on how we’re doing environmentally. It’s written by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The OECD, 35 countries, headquartered in Paris. The OECD told us we enjoy a high environmental quality of life and access to pristine wilderness. Thank you. We always love hearing that about our country. Then the warning bells: “New Zealand’s economic growth model, based largely around exploiting natural resources is starting to show its environmental limits with greenhouse gas emissions and water pollution.” Just a quick reminder here. The OECD isn’t judging us against a stack of liberal aspirational standards. It is a conservative organisation that’s measuring how we are doing against our own stated environmental objectives. And in case you’re wondering, we are not doing that well.
As far as freshwater contamination goes, the OECD says pollution of water is spreading over a wider area – probably not news to most people. It says: “The link between pastoral intensification and declining water quality is increasingly acknowledged” The OECD says growth in intensive dairy production has increased the levels of nitrogen in waterways. The nitrogen balance, that is the difference between nitrogen in and nitrogen out, has increased more than any other OECD country between 2000 and 2010. “It is unclear,” the report says “ how the twin objectives of reducing environmental impacts and the doubling of primary industry exports in real terms will be achieved.” As Greenpeace has been saying for some time, we can have an expanding dairy industry or we can have clean rivers and streams. We can’t have both. And you know what else the OECD said? We need a rethink on big irrigation. Again Greenpeace has talked about this for a while. Nice to hear someone from Paris say it. Despite the Government’s protestations that mass irrigation isn’t detrimental to the environment, the OECD report says “ It is hard to see how large scale irrigation schemes can avoid contributing to the increased degradation of groundwater, river and lake ecosystems.”
And it goes further saying that the New Zealand Government needs to reconsider the $400M investment in irrigation schemes which are driving the expansion of dairying. When you count up all the indirect subsidies to big irrigation it works out close to half a billion dollars to sponsor a head on crash between our dairy industry and the environment. Then there’s the second part of the collision. Our tricky greenhouse gases. Half of our climate emissions come from agriculture, much of those from the belching of ruminant animals which send methane into the atmosphere. That’s the subject of the second international report to land this week, the Vivid Economic paper on Climate Change. It was produced for a cross party group of New Zealand MPs by London-based consultants and lays out what we need to do to get our greenhouse gas emissions down to globally accepted limits by 2050.
The Vivid report outlines three scenarios, firstly the one called “Offtrack New Zealand” where we go for some low cost emissions tinkering and don’t significantly alter land use. As the name suggests we don’t get anywhere near becoming emission neutral by the time we promised to. Then there’s “Resourceful New Zealand” which ramps up planting of trees expanding plantations by 1.6 million hectares by 2050. That buys us a 65-70 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The third scenario is “Innovative New Zealand” which gives us a 70-85 per cent reduction. It suggests a shift away from intensive pastoral agriculture lowering stock numbers by 20-35 per cent. There it is then, in case you missed it, they’re proposing cutting the number of cows by a third, right there on the table, all the way from London.
The Vivid report acknowledges the importance of the pastoral agricultural sector to the economy and social fabric of the country and says that “creates a challenge but one laced with opportunity.” Unfortunately the two main political parties seem to see this as a challenge laced with threats to their election prospects. They’re both afraid what might happen if they dare fiddle with the sacred cow. In an early morning press briefing to head off the gloomy nature of the OECD report Prime Minister Bill English ensured the country that National was “really dealing with the issues”. So what exactly were they going to do about freshwater contamination and soaring greenhouse gas emissions? “We are not willing to make rules that slash our agricultural community – that’s not going to happen,” in a clear message to his rural constituencies. And no mention of looking at their giant pool of irrigation subsidies.
While the PM’s opposite number at Labour, Andrew Little continued to pussyfoot around environmental policy as applied to the dairy industry, saying “the issues were not new and needed to be addressed.” “It’s no secret that we have to have better farming practices to better manage nutrients we’re putting back into the land.” Yes but how? His environmental spokesman David Parker told us that under Labour increases in land use intensity would not be allowed. Why no mention of the easiest way to do that – scrapping irrigation subsidies? It seems a shame that both National and Labour seem to see this informed description of the clash between environment and agriculture as a threat rather than an opportunity.
As a trained agricultural economist it looks like a policymaker’s dream, killing two environmental demons with one stone, greenhouse gases and water degradation. A reduction in the dairy herd offers a chance to deliver a double whammy for the environment while future proofing our international reputation. The figure of one third less stock by 2050 may be terrifying for the agricultural sector but it needn’t happen all at once. Dairy NZ seem already to be talking about reducing the numbers of cows per farm if they can find ways to make the cows more productive. As a first measure an an incoming Government would need to grow some courage and stop the expansion of the dairy industry. The OECD has even provided a large clue as to how it might be done – stop funding irrigation schemes.
Perhaps that 480 million, most of it from asset sales, might be put to better use looking at better models of land use which reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and keep our rivers and lakes safe and protect our international reputation. As the OECD points out, the rest of the world is our economic blind spot. It’s not just kiwis who have a stake in our environment. Both international consumers and investors are keeping a weather eye on how we live up to our environmental promise making. This sentence summarises the real threat. “NZ’s strong growth has come partly at the expense of environmental quality – a dynamic that puts the country’s green reputation at risk.” Not a new thought but one delivered from Paris and that might make all the difference.