NZ dairy sector unveils plans to restore reputation dented by dirty waterways, farm emissions

The strategy aims to win the battle for hearts and minds.

New Zealand's dairy industry has unveiled plans to restore its reputation amid concern it has polluted waterways with nutrient runoff, sucks up too much groundwater for irrigation and generates greenhouse gases, denting the nation's clean, green image.

The 'Dairy Tomorrow' strategy is a joint initiative by DairyNZ, Federated Farmers, the Dairy Companies Association and the Dairy Women's Group that updates and expands on the 'Strategy for Sustainable Dairy Farming' launched in 2013. They say "much has changed" since then and the new plan has six "commitments" to improve the environmental footprint of dairying, build a competitive and resilient industry, grab more share of the global market, improve animal welfare, foster employment in the sector and rebuild community relationships.

"We want to begin straight away collaborating on strategies and actions toward achieving swimmable waterways and finding new opportunities to reduce or offset our greenhouse gas emissions," said DairyNZ chief executive Tim Mackle. Of the six commitments and 22 underlying goals, "some goals have firm time frames in place while others are more aspirational."

Dairy contributes $7.8 billion to New Zealand's annual gross domestic product and has generated an average $14.4 billion in annual export revenue in the past five years, according to an NZIER report earlier this year. It also employs more than 40,000 workers and paid $2.4 billion in wages to dairy farming and processing workers in 2016. But cows are also the biggest contributor to New Zealand's agricultural emissions of greenhouse gases, which in turn make up almost half of the nation's total emissions.

The impact of dairy farming is making some of the wrong sorts of headlines overseas. The Economist ran an article last week headed: "Dairy farming is polluting New Zealand's water", citing nitrates in groundwater, bacterial contamination, algal blooms in rivers, and depleted waterways. It did acknowledge efforts by farmers to fence off rivers to keep them free of livestock.

Dairy Tomorrow appears to recognise the industry needs to step up its battle for hearts and minds. Dairy farming was "a complex biological system that is faced with the challenge of responding to the ever-increasing pace of change in expectations from customers, communities, and regulators," the publicity material says.

The sixth commitment, to "help grow vibrant and prosperous communities" includes goals such as improving the rural-urban relationship and, by 2025, to "be a highly trusted business sector in New Zealand." Under its commitment to protect and nurture the environment, there's a goal to have all farms reporting under "certified farm sustainability plans."

Elsewhere, the documents talk of "being open and transparent in our positions, progress and performance."

Environmental lobby groups said there is a PR element to today's announcement.

"Dairy's social licence has taken a big hit and they clearly want to restore it," said Geoff Key, senior conservation advisor at Forest & Bird. "The test will be in their approach to supporting strong national and regional rules for water, what gets done to restore degraded catchments and prevent further damage, and what environmental monitoring tells us."

Environmental Defence Society executive director Gary Taylor said the new strategy seemed to be "more focused on a public relations fix than addressing the substantive issues in a realistic way."

"It's thin. No environmental groups involved so it's just an industry gig," Taylor said. There is "nothing about reducing cow numbers (which is required in some areas/soil types). Nothing about stopping litigating against environmental groups trying to get robust limits. Nothing about revisiting the fundamentals of optimal sustainable land uses (which in many areas will mean shifting out of dairying). Nothing about the threat from lab-grown products. Nothing about concrete action (planting trees) to offset emissions."

While Fonterra Cooperative Group isn't a core member of Dairy Tomorrow, it separately announced plans last week to improve waterways and said its farmers had spent more than $1 billion on environmental initiatives over the past five years and fenced "more than 98 percent of significant waterways on farm." It published its own list of six commitments, specifically for water.

At the same time, it said some of its farmers were opening their farms to the public "to give Kiwis the chance to see first-hand the efforts farmers are making to increase water quality." Today, Federated Farmers called the "open gates" initiative "a brave gesture" by farmers that would allow them to "debunk some myths around farmers' environmental management."

In May, the dairy industry released a year-three report on its 2013 commitment to mitigating the environmental impact of farming. While it met six of 13 goals, nitrogen leaching in the 2015/16 year was a national average 39 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare per year, unchanged from the previous year. Of the 13 regions surveyed using the Overseer computer modelling system, seven actually had an increase in nutrient loss, the worst being Canterbury, which climbed to 64 kg/N/ha/year from a 50 kg N/ha/year rolling average for 2013/14 and 2014/15.


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