OPINION: Arguably the most predictable thing about Environment Minister David Parker’s comments on Sunday that under the new Labour-led Government, some dairy farmers may have to reduce cow numbers in order to address the pollution of the country’s waterways, was that it would be seen as an attack on the dairy industry.
When it could easily be argued that what Parker’s comments on TVNZ’s Q+A programme were really a signal that a process that has been under way for some years would continue, and thus should have come as no surprise to the industry.
Parker implied things may have to shift scale for some farmers. Those would be the ones he believed were “in denial” about the contribution of dairy farming to the pollution of the country’s rivers, who would “have to be regulated to do the right thing”.
Realistically, though, regulation of dairy farming’s effects on fresh water, via limits on the nutrient loads allowed to leach into waterways from farms, has been around for years, with numerous examples highlighted in the media of individual farmers trying to address the issue on their own properties, through practices such as riparian planting and the fencing of streams and rivers to keep stock out.
Most affected farmers should therefore have been pleased to hear he was not proposing limits on inputs like stock numbers per hectare or the amount of fertiliser they can use, but looking to continue the traditional New Zealand focus on environmental effects, the outputs of farming activities. That allows farmers to make their own decisions in pursuit of set environmental targets.
In Canterbury, Plan Change 5 to Environment Canterbury’s Land and Water Regional Plan, which has been in train for several years, and, according to the ECan website, is currently the subject of seven appeals to the High Court, would see some farmers having to change their practices, possibly through reducing herd sizes, to cut nutrient discharges, ECan chairman David Bedford predicted in 2017.
Of course, the need to reduce stock numbers on some farms, with Parker’s indication this will not be compensated, because “you don’t compensate people for stopping polluting”, is sure to draw some industry fire.
But there shouldn’t be too much protest, certainly not on party political lines, when it’s taken into account that a Ministry of the Environment report released in April 2017 found there had been a 69 per cent increase in dairy cattle numbers nationally between 1994 and 2015. In Canterbury, Statistics NZ figures showed a six-fold increase, from 200,000 to more than 1.2 million, from 1994 to 2016, hardly surprising given the sheer volume of dairy conversions over a number of years, some in locations, like the Mackenzie Basin, seen by the environmental lobby as completely unsuitable for dairying.
While Opposition leader Simon Bridges on Monday characterised Parker’s comments as “an attack on the regions”, his own National colleague, and then Minister for Primary Industries, Nathan Guy, acknowledged when the report was released last year that there was a limit to how many dairy cows New Zealand could support, and the industry’s future would rely on increasing the value of its exports.
For dairy farmers leveraged to the hilt, who could now be faced with reducing stock or even changing their land use, Parker’s words may be difficult to swallow, but the figures show it was always going to happen. All a change in government has done is to hasten the inevitable.