Impacts on fresh water from dairying have definitely got worse — Massey man

Mike Joy on Q+A

‘The impacts on our fresh water from dairying have definitely got worse" in the past three years, Massey University's Dr Mike Joy from  told TV One’s Q+A programme.

“Individual farmers have got better at controlling their mitigation, but dairy's expanded, and so you know you make a 5% improvement but you make 100% more area into farming, then you know there's no net gain.  So no net gain," the senior lecturer in agriculture and environment said.

Federated Farmers President Bruce Wills concedes that while dairying benefits the economy — $15 billion dollars in exports over the past year — "we have learnt that the dairying boom got ahead of the environmental responsibility that that industry I think needed to stand up to."

But Dr Joy says the industry is not picking up the tab when it comes to clean up costs.

“They're making money; you know they're incentivised to pollute rivers because they're not being charged for the impacts.”

Dr Joy says it is time to limit the herd.

“Yes, stop here and start applying all these things and then in 10 or 20 years we might see the brakes come on and some improvement you know.”

No, Joy
Mr Wills concedes that environmental issues are "acting as a bit of a head wind to the dairy sector" and says, "Well Mike's talking about the cumulative increase and I accept that, but listen for what it's worth my instincts is I think the dairy boom is coming to an end. We're seeing better profitability at the moment in the dry stock sense of sheep and cattle."

Watch the full interview here.

RAW DATA: Q + A transcipt:  DEBATE – MIKE JOY & BRUCE WILLS interviewed by SUSAN WOOD

SUSAN         The importation of two cows and a bull in 1814 marked the beginning of New Zealand's dairy industry, according to the Ministry of Primary Industries.  Since then as we know dairy has become our top export earner.  In 1989 there were 3 million dairy cattle, today there are more than 6 million.  All good for the economy but maybe not so good for the environment.  Three years ago we invited the new President of Federated Farmers Bruce Wills and Environmental Scientist Dr Mike Joy to debate the impact of dairy intensification.  Here's what they said then.

                    Mike Joy:  It's undoubtedly getting worse.

                    Paul Holmes:  How much worse?

                    Mike:  Well I mean you're kind of tracking this moving thing, but every time a set of measures comes out it's getting worse.  The one thing we have done is we've stopped chucking blood and guts in the rivers, the really obvious stuff's gone.  What happens now is really hard to see and that’s part of the problem, people can't see the problem, so you know if nitrogen was bright red people would realise there's a problem.

                    Bruce Wills: No question, farmers put their hands up and say we are part of the water issue, but farmers do want to do something about it, and they are doing something about it.

                    Paul Holmes:  So can you promise us - are you saying to us on the programme this morning, do you represent a new era – Mr Wills?  From Don Nicholson?

                    Bruce:  Yes I do.  There's a real mood amongst the farming community to keep in balance their road to profitability and prosperity but keep in balance with that their environmental obligations.

SUSAN         So three years later Bruce Wills about to finish his role as President.  Did he bring in a new era?  He's with me now as well as Dr Mike Joy, good morning to you both.  So was it a new era and if so how?

BRUCE WILLS – Federated Farmers President We've come a long way.  It was an issue about changing the hearts and minds of the farming community.  About understanding the science about the impacts particularly of our nutrients, and nitrogen specifically and phosphorous leaching through our farming systems and ending up in our water.

SUSAN  Can you give me some numbers around improving, can you quantify for that, because I know Mike's got lots of numbers he's going to throw at me.

BRUCE The number I can put on this discussion as well is that if you go back to 1990, the dairy industry to New Zealand was earning 2 billion dollars of export receipts.  This year just gone, 15 billion of export receipts.  So this is a discussion in my view about the economy and the environment.  The farming community's always felt that we've got to do both.  We must continue to grow farming, continue to fund all that we need to do in this economy, but we've got to do better environmentally, and we certainly front that.

SUSAN   No one's doubting that the dairy is incredibly important to us, but let me bring Mike in here.  The past three years, let's take us back to 2011 when you talked to Sir Paul Holmes, what's changed?  Has it got better has it got worse?   And I'm talking about specifically dairying.

DR MIKE JOY – Massey University Environmental Scientist Oh dairying, the impacts on our fresh water from dairying have definitely got worse over that time.  Like individual farmers have got better at controlling their mitigation, you know mitigating their impacts, but dairy's expanded, and so you know you make a 5% improvement but you make 100% more area into farming, then you know there's no net gain.  So no net gain.

SUSAN Can you quantify how much worse it's got across the country?  How much worse has it got?

MIKE            I mean we can just look at the trends, and the trends continue to get worse, so you know it's just a straight line when we look at water quality getting worse.

SUSAN         The Prime Minister just told Corin Dann on the programme this morning, improved water quality in some areas.

MIKE            Yeah I don’t know where he gets that from.  I mean I do know for example, the Ministry for the Environment came out last year, late last year, said all of the sites that they looked at were either – what did they say – steady or improving.  I got that same data from them, just their data, I didn’t re-analyse it I just took their trends, two thirds of those trends had meaningful changes – of those two thirds got worse.  So somehow our ministry can turn that into stable or improving.  I have no idea how they do it.

SUSAN         I'd better get your response to that.  So basically Mike is saying that dairying is getting worse, it's infecting our waterways, worse, they're getting two thirds worse on those numbers.

BRUCE         The point I think Mike's making is the cumulative effect, and the Parliamentary Commission for the Environment … talked about this in here water quality report end of last year.  There has been an exponential rise in dairying, absolutely, and that’s been certainly to the benefit of the economy by the numbers I've just given you.  Yes we have learnt that the dairying boom got ahead of the environmental responsibility that that industry I think needed to stand up to.

SUSAN         And yet there is a perception yes 15 billion, a lot of money coming into the economy, there's a perception that that money is going into a few hands, and that dairy farmers are using all of our water, that belongs to all of us, for their personal benefit and messing it up.

BRUCE         Well if that’s the perception that’s certainly not what I see in my role.  Our industry is spending hundreds of millions of dollars every single year both on farm and in their science institutions with Dairy NZ Beef & Lamb, Fonterra and others.  We know there's an issue, we accept that.  We put our hands up and we've just – because listen from my point of view I'm a farmer, and perhaps I'd put it this way.  The thing I spend my most money on, the most money my farming business as a farmer is on nutrients to grow my pastures and my crops.  Where this issue has come about is we desperately need – we need nitrogen and we need phosphorous, this is the big issue to grow our crops and to I guess fund our economy.  Where the problem arises is when we put too much of these nutrients on our pastures, leach into the soil, phosphorus but particularly nitrogen is what we're talking about, and we lose it.  So the farming community has got an absolute financial incentive to minimise the wastage of these nutrients, so we're making a lot to progress and I guess I shall be standing down in a couple of days' time from this role knowing that yes this debate will go on for some time. 
Dairying is still growing, but it is slowing.

SUSAN         Is it time though Mike to limit the herd?

MIKE            Yeah I mean what Bruce talks about, you know it's obviously not economically viable to lose those nutrients, but it's worse than that.  We're actually subsidising them losing them because we're not charging for the impacts that they have.  Sure it costs them to buy the things, but if they had to pay for the clean-up.  You know I've done the numbers around that, and Bruce talks about 15 billion dollars' worth of income, well I can account for that much in externalities that are not being paid by the industry.

SUSAN         In clean-up you're saying it would cost?

MIKE            Yeah in clean-up.  If you took nitrate for instance and you work out how much water has been polluted by all of those farms, and you wanted to clean that back up again, just to drinking standard, never mind the even lower levels that you need to keep ecosystems healthy, then it doesn’t stack up.  They're making money; you know they're incentivised to pollute rivers because they're not being charged for the impacts.

SUSAN         What about precision agriculture?  I read a case this morning, they farm in Canterbury, they have halved their water usage, they’ve got 70% more cattle than they did in the 1990's and there is no more leaching.

MIKE            Yeah that’s great, but they are leaching, they're not leaching more, but they're still leaching.   My point is that as long as you keep expanding the only way we're going to win this battle is to stop expansion and let the technology catch up.

SUSAN         So leave herd size where it is?

MIKE            Yes, stop here and start applying all these things and then in 10 or 20 years we might see the brakes come on and some improvement you know.

SUSAN         It takes that long?

MIKE            Oh the legacy of the movement through the soils is that long yeah.

SUSAN         Bruce, the Prime Minister has said in the past that we are pretty close – we're not quite there yet, but we're pretty close to having maximum herd size for what we're doing.  Is there some move, is it time to be having this conversation about capping the number?  My numbers, it's growing by about 550 cattle a day – a day?

BRUCE         Sure, we've had growth absolutely.  Our dairy now represents 30% of our total merchandise export, so it's huge.  But if you study our history this stuff changes, it's dynamic, and it would worry me if we had politicians or others interfering in a market situation. 

SUSAN         You don’t want the politicians interfering in a market situation but to Mike's point shouldn’t the market then be applied to the mess you're making our of our waterways and make you clean it up?

BRUCE         That’s a complex debate.

SUSAN         No, no. You don’t want the politicians – let me ask you – it's a very simple question.  You don’t want them interfering at one end but you want the one end, but you can't have it both ways it seems to me.

BRUCE         To be fair the government is involved at the other end as well.  We've got national objectives framework, we've got National Policy Statements on water, there's a lot of government involvement as well as Regional Councils, as well as farming communities, good organisations.  We know we've got to improve the situation.

SUSAN         But it's not enough is it?  I mean here three years later after you spoke us then.

BRUCE         And we've made a lot of progress, we have made a lot of progress …

SUSAN         That’s not what Mike's telling me.

BRUCE         Well Mike's talking about the cumulative increase and I accept that, but listen for what it's worth my instincts is I think the dairy boom is coming to an end.  We're seeing better profitability at the moment in the dry stock sense of sheep and cattle.  We've got these environmental issues which Mike quite correctly raises, acting as a bit of a head wind to the dairy sector.  We've got a dairy sector that’s extraordinarily indebted.

SUSAN         Let me just put this question slightly differently.  As you're getting the benefits of all this shouldn’t you just pay for the consequences, rather than all of us having to pay for the consequences.  Those who are directly benefiting should pay, isn't that how a free market works?

BRUCE         The debate on externalities is what you're throwing at me is just to one side of – there's also a positive externality and that’s about you take a town like Ashburton, you look at the benefits of jobs, employment, growth, paying this country's bills.  We've talked about the 30% of our export income.  So it's on both sides, so I guess if we're going to have a debate about externalities, to me it needs to be balanced with both the negatives and the positives.

SUSAN         Mike you worry about our risks offshore.  I mean I learnt this week that the Chinese consumer, their number one concern is about what goes in their mouth, they're not worried about that cancer, they're worried about food safety.  Food safety, our reputation is clean green, incredibly important isn't it?

MIKE            I'm doing this lecture tour at the moment and I talk about what's happening to New Zealand as being an own goal for dairy, it's their own future profitability or you know chances of survival that they're ruining by harming the environment, and I'm frustrated and I feel for people like Bruce who are non-dairy and that they get impacted. One sector – dairy – is doing all the damage, or most of the damage, all of the other productive sectors lose out, and as well as tourism.  So I think we need to balance this up you know.

SUSAN         Do you see it as an own goal Bruce?

BRUCE         With the dairy industry?  We constantly have issues with a lot of our businesses and with the economy and the environment, with mining and well all industry.  As I say Susan the industry has expanded enormously, yeah the growth has got ahead of in my view of the science and the environmental impact.

SUSAN         So time to stop the growth then perhaps?

BRUCE         Well it's time to ramp up science, innovation, good management practice, which is again from my position where I work, that’s happening at enormous pace.

SUSAN         But wouldn’t it make sense to actually stop the growth and get the science going?  Because you know the growth is continuing, it's like my numbers have got it 550 a day, that’s 550 cattle out there doing what they do.

BRUCE         It might be worth reminding people that 30 years ago meat was our biggest industry, that was 30% of our income, 30 years prior to that it was wool, in 30 years' time dairy won’t be our biggest industry.  This stuff changes, and I guess this debate's useful, but I want to leave your audience with an assurance from the farming community that we are motivated to sort this.  We need to do better, and we are pulling up our socks.

SUSAN         Mike the Ruataniwha Dam decision we of course had the Prime Minister talking about that this morning.  You would be very happy with that wouldn’t you, because that’s got really quite some specific controls around leach off.

MIKE            Yeah yeah I mean it was interesting that he seemed to me to be questioning the science of what came out – you know the Board came out with, and I don’t think there is any question around the science.  It's clear.

SUSAN         Well the Prime Minister does.

MIKE            So I think from industry you know this is what I call tobacco science. You know you just follow what the tobacco companies did, you question the science, you make it sound like it's not sure, that way you can carry on doing what you're doing, and I guess from the public's point of view they expect scientists to be incredibly you know exact on these things, and you can't be.

SUSAN         But shouldn’t we be questioning the science, because science, you know it's an art isn't it, and you guys do often get it wrong.

MIKE            Yeah I agree, but we can see quite clearly the degradation of our waterways that have happened and so you know there's the proof, that we only have to look at what's happening to our rivers to know what's going on.

SUSAN         Final question.  Any concerns amongst the farming community about the Ruataniwha decision and the toughness if you like in terms of the environmental controls from a farming perspective?

BRUCE         I'm a Hawkes Bay farmer, so I'm pretty close to Ruataniwha.  We accept there's got to be a careful balance between the economy and the environment.  We think this latest, this final outcome, is getting pretty close.  We need the water storage, we need the growth, in our communities.  Hawkes Bay is in a tough situation.  But we also need to look after our environment.  I think it's getting close to it, we still need to really look at the final decision, but we've got to do both, grow the economy and look after our environment.

SUSAN         Bruce Wills, retiring President of Federated Farmers, Scientist Dr Mike Joy, thank you both for your time this morning.

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