The moves follow the emergence of water quality as a key issue at September’s general election, and a string a reports highlighting the degradation of water quality in New Zealand’s lakes, rivers and streams.
Miles Hurrell, chief operating officer of Fonterra Farm Source, said there was now greater focus on water quality by the public and he acknowledged the part that dairying had played in its decline.
“From the outset, and as we have seen amplified in recent months, all Kiwis want access to clean water,” Hurrell told the New Zealand Herald.
“Any land use change does have an impact on the environment and dairy has played a part in that, over time, so we acknowledge that,” he said.
Hurrell said farmers had spent more than $1 billion in fencing off water waterways and on riparian planting over the last five years.
With 98% of significant waterways now fenced off, farmers were continuing to spend big money on installing effluent systems and on improving the way they irrigate and fertilise their properties, he said.
Fonterra said it would spend $250 million at its 26 manufacturing sites with the aim of reducing water consumption by 20% reduction in water used.
It would also double the number of advisers to help farmers develop a tailored farm environment plan.
The co-operative has already announced a plan to restore 50 key water catchments across New Zealand and has launched a new programme to find new solutions for sustainable farming and healthy waterways.
On December 10, forty farms will open their gates around New Zealand to the public in what Hurrell said would be the biggest event of its type to be put on by Fonterra.
The co-operative’s latest action follows a series of less than flattering reports on the state of New Zealand’s rivers.
A recent article in London’s Economist blamed cows for making 60% of the country’s rivers and lakes unswimmable.
In April, a Ministry for the Environment report said nitrogen levels were getting worse at more than half the monitored river sites across New Zealand, and were improving at more than a quarter of them. Secretary for the Environment Vicky Robertson said at the time land use “clearly affected” the state of fresh water in this country.
In addition, an OECD report found that said New Zealand lacked a long-term vision to address the worsening problems of water pollution, dying wildlife and disproportionately high greenhouse gas emissions.
Fish & Game’s chief executive Martin Taylor said the latest moves by Fonterra were aimed at regaining its social “licence to operate”.
Taylor said Fonterra had now realised it must act quickly to meet public demand for better water quality, adding the admission dairy farming needed to clean up its act was welcome, but long overdue.
“Fonterra has been around for 16 years and in that time we have seen cow numbers soar, irrigation explode and water quality plummet,” Taylor said in a statement.
“Public anger is now at a level where Fonterra’s social licence to operate is under serious threat and they’re being forced to respond,” he said.
“Every New Zealander is now watching how Fonterra will fulfil its environmental promises,” Taylor said. “It needs to act quickly and decisively to prove its commitment is real and not just public relations spin,” he said.