Landcorp wrong to convert forestry land to dairy – Environment Commissioner
Environment commissioner Jan Wright criticises state-owned Landcorp for converting forestry land to dairy farming, given the effect on the environment
“Personally, I’ve not been able to understand why a Crown agency is involved in such activity, because it doesn’t seem the kind of thing a Crown agency should be involved in," she says.
Some parts of New Zealand can’t accommodate more dairying because of the negative effect on the environment, and conversions should be capped there, the commissioner says.
Dr Wright says she’s particularly concerned about the Waikato, given that dairying in the region has already exceeded the prediction for 2020.
“It was already well over that by 2012, and so I would expect to see quite a big impact on water bodies in the Waikato," she says.
Dr Wright says new research shows there’s been an unexpected and “concerning” decrease in New Zealand plantation forestry land, while dairy farms have continued to increase.
New Zealand is not doing enough to combat effect of farming on the environment and “the longer we leave this, the more expensive and difficult it's going to be.”
RAW DATA: The Nation transcript: Lisa Owen interviews Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Dr Jan Wright
Watch the interview here
Lisa Owen: Fresh water is our greatest natural asset, but despite our clean green image, we haven't always been good at managing it. New research just released by Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment Jan Wright shows more land is being used for dairy farms than expected. So is it time to tai ho? Well, Dr Wright is with me in the studio. Your new report on land use, it doesn't seem good news for water quality. What concerns you the most?
Jan Wright: Well, what concerns me; I expected dairy farming to spread as much as it has, but perhaps more concerning is the fact that forestry hasn't. I mean, we made certain predictions about land use change and expected both dairying and forestry to grow. Forestry, of course, is good for water quality — holds nutrients on land, doesn't lose them into water — and this hasn't happened. So we actually predicted the effect on water of what we expected to happen, but I think we under predicted the effect.
Right. So the scenario's worse than you anticipated. There are these significant new figures. Can you talk us through this? How much more dairy conversion is there? And on the other side of the equation, how much has forestry diminished?
Well, what we're looking at is a period of actual change over four years from 2008 to 2012. Dairying has gone up about an amount equal to the loss of sheep and beef land. The forestry has gone down a little, but we expected it to increase. The predictions were made based on official commodity prices and it hasn't panned out that way.
So what's driving it?
Well, commodity prices do drive. New Zealanders' use of the land does respond very much to international prices; we always have; you know, wool, meat, whatever it is. And I think what happens is perhaps everything you do with the land has an environmental impact, and when we do a lot of one thing, whatever that environmental impact is very big. And so when we did a lot of sheep, there was a lot of erosion; a problem that still remains with us, a lot of soil being washed into water. And now, a big problem we've got with dairying is nitrogen from cow urine.
So given that these figures are worse than what you've thought, does that mean the environment is worse than what you thought as well?
Well, it all depends on where it is. Some water bodies are relatively resilient to the addition of these nutrients; others are not and that's a very big factor. Lakes, wetlands, estuaries; anywhere where the pollutants are confined, especially vulnerable; fast flowing rivers tend to be the least vulnerable, so it does vary a lot across the country. But the upshot of it all is that in terms of nutrients — nitrogen in particular, phosphorous to a lesser extent — getting into water across the country where the dairy conversions have occurred so much will tend to create more algal blooms, more slime because they're fertilising plants and water instead of fertilising plants on land where we want them to.
So to be blunt, increasing dairy is directly responsible for growing pollution in the environment.
Not only. The erosion I referred to earlier or that loss of top soil from land over many decades in hill country has taken naturally occurring phosphorous in which is half the problem. If you like, the cows are adding the nitrogen.
Okay. So what does this mean for the government's approach which is to double agricultural production by 2025 in its belief that it can increase production and still maintain or even improve environmental conditions? What does this mean for that?
Well, I think we have to carefully distinguish between production and profit, and the government's aim, I think, is to double the value of exports. So we need to increase the value of our products, and I would like to see us diversify what those products are. Because as I said earlier, if we produce a whole lot of one thing, then whatever that environmental impact is is going to writ large.
So when you say diversify our product, would you like us to move away from dairying or our reliance on dairying?
Yes. I think there are a lot of reasons for that; economic reasons as well as environmental reasons. It is a— Diversification generally means resilience, and we're, of course, seeing economic problems now with dairying and the milk price.
So do we need a moratorium or a cap on dairying?
Well, that's a big thing to do. I mean, some places in the country can accommodate more dairying; others cannot. What particularly concerned me actually was the Waikato. We had made a prediction for 2020 that dairying would expand a certain amount by that time. It was already well over that by 2012, and so I would expect to see quite a big impact on water bodies in the Waikato.
So there are some areas in particular you say you're worried about. So why not maybe cap dairying in those areas? Is that an option?
That is up to regional councils to do, and what is beginning to happen is putting nitrogen limits to certain catchments.
But is it something you would recommend or think would be a good thing?
I think that in some places where catchment is already not coping, I think their regional councils ought to be doing that. In a way, they're doing in indirectly in some places by putting nitrogen limits on catchments. So you're allowed to do dairy farming provided that you keep your nitrogen loss below a certain level. So in effect, that will slow things down.
So the areas that you're talking about — you've mentioned Waikato — what are other areas where you'd like to see councils move towards that kind of policy?
Canterbury is already doing it to a certain extent. Southland needs to get going faster; the Manawatu has been active. But you see, the longer we leave this, the more expensive and difficult it's going to be in the long run, and I think if you start to add up all the money; government money and council money that's being spent on Lake Taupo, the Rotorua lakes and so on, the Manawatu river, Ellesmere, Waihora and Canterbury, there's millions and millions of dollars already earmarked because these places have already gone too far. So I want to see more action and that's why I've also done this report on the government's policy.
Yeah. Well, the farmers will tell us — and they do tell us — that they are being responsible. They're fencing waterways; they're dealing with effluent. Is that not working?
I absolutely acknowledge the change that's gone on. When the first report on this came out, there was a reaction — 'Well, it's not really real and you're exaggerating the problem and it's not really about the nitrogen.' There is widespread acceptance of the problem now and there is a lot going on, but—
But is that enough? The lot that's going on, is that enough?
It's not enough with regard to nitrogen, and that's because I call it elusive. Cow urine, a whole lot in one place, very soluble; it leeches through into ground water, very very difficult to stop. So fencing the waterways, planting trees, spraying your shed effluent on to land — great. Fantastic they're doing these things; getting a lot better result with phosphorous. Nitrogen is the problem, but there's a lot of research going on, so I'm optimistic.
But all that stuff you listed you’ve said is not enough.
So do you think that to turn this around, in some way, farmers are going to have to take a hit in some capacity?
Well, I think there’s some interesting things going on now, where there’s some evidence emerging that maybe farmers aren’t getting the profit they could have, because they’re so exposed by bringing in so much imported feed and running the land so hard to produce more and more production and not necessarily making more profit. So I think there’s some economic changes that might come here which will also help the environment.
We’ve just had a question from one of our viewers which I would like to point to you – ‘is it responsible to have the government involved in so many conversions from forestry to dairy? Is that a responsible approach?’
This would be referring to Landcorp in Waikato—
Where the central, or volcanic, plateau—
Is that a responsible approach?
Personally, I’ve not been able to understand why Crown agency is involved in such activity, because it doesn’t seem the kind of thing a Crown agency should be involved in. And certainly those conversions, where you’ve gone from forestry to dairy, is a big difference in nutrients, even with best practice mitigation on the dairy farms.
So would you like the handbrake to go on that?
Well, I think it’s almost too late in that case. It’s been going on for some years.
All right. Thank you very much for joining me this morning, Commissioner Jan Wright.