Our Rivers, By Dr Mike Joy

The fact that healthy clean freshwater is very important to New Zealanders was confirmed by the latest survey of perceptions to the environment.   Freshwater came out as the number one environmental issue and the majority of respondents considered freshwaters were being impacted.  National water quality monitoring data confirm these fears of impacts and the declining state of water.  But the strongest indicator of the poor state of rivers and lakes is the 74% of native freshwater fish species now listed as threatened.  These fish are the freshwater ‘miners canaries’ and this statistic reveals New Zealand is among the worst in the world and this figure has gone up from around 30% threatened in the 1990s. 
International perceptions of New Zealand’s environmental performance have also been taking a beating lately with global comparisons not looking good.  While the Yale University environmental performance indicator ranked New Zealand the 14th best in the world, it omits our three worst impacts - biodiversity loss, water quality and non CO2 greenhouse gas emissions.  When two of these biodiversity loss and water quality were included in a study from the University of Adelaide New Zealand ranked about 120th of 180 countries.  It could have been worse because like the Yale study it did not include non CO2 emissions which are high and mostly come from agriculture. 

At home New Zealanders are repeatedly told that they must accept the many evident environmental impacts resulting from intensive agriculture because it is the “backbone of the economy”.  Implicit in this message is that it’s the economy or the environment. 
But, it is simply not true that environment impacts are inevitable, in fact it’s the opposite - the most economically viable farms have smallest impacts and in reality the economy is dependent on a health environment not vice versa.  Furthermore, recent studies have shown that productivity from agriculture, especially dairy is decreasing because the use of imported feed and fertiliser is outstripping growth in production, suggesting the environment limits to production have been reached. 

The biggest impact on waters from intensive agriculture is nutrients escaping from farms.  Obviously this is not economically or environmentally viable.  Especially as the nutrients that are leaking from the farms and damaging waterways are not replaceable.  The nitrogen fertiliser is synthetic, produced using fossil gas rather than fixed from the atmosphere by plants as it has been for millennia.  Around one third of the nitrogen comes from the Taranaki gas fields but most is from the Middle East and phosphate is mined from fossil rock and comes mainly from Morocco.

To be environmentally sustainable is simple, nutrients must be cycled back into growing food and not allowed to leak out and destroy lakes, rivers and contaminate groundwater and drinking water.  If nutrients are kept on farms there is no requirement to bring them in from half way around the world.  This is known as ‘closing the nutrient loop’ it is how we must proceed and is happening in dairy production in other parts of the world.

These impacts we now see in waterways from intensive farming reflect decades of unregulated intensification.  This lack of regulation has incentivised poor practice.  When there is no cost on pollution then there is no economic gain from limiting it.  This lack of reward for limiting pollution has driven increasing dependency on inputs sourced off-farm, and largely off-shore. Looking back, what happened was totally predictable; in a market environment with no cost on externalities the most polluting industry naturally becomes dominant.

While New Zealand leads the world in milk production, not much of it is indigenous production.  To achieve this amazing level of output we also have the world’s highest per-capita consumption of nitrogen and phosphorous, and we import more palm kernel than any other country. 

These three big inputs behind our impressive milk production; synthetic nitrogen, fossil phosphate and palm kernel highlight just how unsustainable the industry has become.   What this means is we are neither, ingenious nor efficient, rather we are simply world leading purchasers of non-renewable inputs in order to be world leading producers of low value milk powder.

There are many downsides to this because most of the external costs are borne by all New Zealanders not by the dairy industry. There is no doubt that the dairy industry is a large contributor to GDP, but if all the costs were included intensive dairy production would be shown to be economically marginal at best. 

Intensive dairy farming is far from the only impact on New Zealand’s freshwaters but it is clearly now the major issue, consequently the demand from central government for agriculture to double its revenue in the near future is bad news for the environment. 
New Zealand’s geographic isolation makes it crucial that we are perceived overseas as unique, sustainable and clean not just for all primary producers but the tourism industry also.  Unfortunately though, just one sector - dairy has almost singlehandedly jeopardised overseas perceptions of New Zealand both environmentally and in the food safety arena.  The problem for all other primary producers and the tourism industry is that they are tarred with the same brush so we must do everything possible to get dairy sustainable and clean starting now.  Instead of the weakening environmental protection with legislative changes revealed in the latest National Policy on Freshwater we should be strengthening environmental protection so we can live up to our clean green claims.  Having a pristine conservation estate is not enough we must halt the decline in lowland areas as well, this is where we will be judged. 

The Charles Fleming Lecturer for 2014 was Dr Mike Joy of Massey University, Palmerston  North. Dr Joy was awarded the Charles Fleming Award for Environmental Achievement in 2013.