The national state of the environment report “Environment Aotearoa 2015” released yesterday is another testament to the blatant mismanagement of our environment.
In the last ten years, the total land area used for dairy farming has increased by a whopping 28%. Our water is now more polluted, due largely to intensified farming, dairying in particular. Our land is increasingly being compacted, unproductive and prone to erosion, also due largely to intensified dairying. Nearly 80% of land under dairying are badly affected by compaction.
Our atmosphere and climate are fast changing, as New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions rose by 42% since 1990, exceeding the global increase (33%). Agriculture (48%), transport and electricity generation (39%) are the main contributors of greenhouse gases. Glacier mass in NZ has dropped 36% since 1978. Sea level rise is now threatening our coasts while extreme weather events hit hard on people and the economy.
Still the government is hell bent on fossil fuel extraction and no cap on dairy conversion. The two are inexplicitly linked. Industrial dairying demands huge quantities of urea made from ammonia derived from natural gas (obtained largely by fracking). Fonterra, NZ’s third largest coal user, burns over half a million tonnes of coal each year to dry milk for export, and is planning a major expansion at its coal-hungry Studholme factory in Canterbury.
Intensive dairying also requires supplementary feeds notably palm kernel extract (PKE) imported from SE Asia where forests and peatland are burnt to make room for palm plantation, and increasingly – irrigation. These are all costly inputs, often resulting in heavy debts. In the last 12 years, dairy debt has tripled to $32 billion while dairy output has grown by about 64%.
The national environment report shows that the NZ government has failed to meet the nation’s environmental bottom line. For Taranaki, a region overly dependent on the dairy and the oil and gas industries, the social and economic bottom lines have already been lost. The slumping of the two industries have led to economic hardships and more people are going on unemployment benefits. When environmental costs are also taken into account, the triple bottom line is simply not there.
It is a myth that farmers (and we) will lose profits if farm inputs and environmental impacts are reduced. On the contrary, there are already documented cases where farms were able to maintain their production and profits while substantially reducing stocking rates and nitrogen loss. There is strong argument for these cases of de-intensification to be replicated across intensive dairy regions.