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No win-win if dairy conversion continues unchecked, says commissioner

Thursday 21st November 2013

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Projected rates of land conversion to dairy farming is so great there is no "win-win" available for both the economy and the environment, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment says in a hard-hitting new report.

Based on new analysis by economic consultancy Motu and NIWA, the government-owned water and atmospheric research agency, the report suggests the government's policy that the health of all freshwater bodies should be maintained or improved will not be achievable.

The report was immediately rejected by Irrigation New Zealand as "old news", while environmental groups leapt on its findings as evidence that the pace of dairy conversions needs to slow.

"Limits will need to be set on the conversion of beef and sheep farms to dairy farms," said the Royal Forest & Bird Protection Society of New Zealand in a statement, while the Fish and Game Council said the report showed dairying was "out of control."

For her part, PCE Jan Wright said she had hoped the study "would provide happier news."

"In much of my work I actively seek out 'win-wins' for the economy and the environment," she says in the report. "But in this case, New Zealand does face a classic economy versus environment dilemma."

While technologies and new farming practices like stream-bank planting could reduce the impact of increasing levels of nitrogen and phosphate from farming, they would not be enough, based on the new modelling.

She also expressed very little hope that farmers would ever face the true cost of their activity on waterways.

"Despite the thousands of academic papers that have been written about 'internalising' economic costs into the economy, its practice largely eludes us," she says. "While 'polluter pays' is a logical extension of 'user pays', its implementation is fraught with many challenges."

The new land use and freshwater modelling had been combined to reach conclusions, including that some 650,000 hectares more land would be given over the dairy farms by 2020 than was the case in 1996, when the dairying boom began. Of this increase, 70 percent would be in Southland, Otago and Canterbury, where major new irrigation schemes are planned to assist further conversions.

However, the chief executive of IrrigationNZ, Andrew Curtis dismissed the report, saying it told farmers nothing new and underplayed the potential for new farming practice and technology to make increased dairy conversion sustainable.

"We have many examples within New Zealand of how intensive land use can be managed to significantly reduce its footprint, particularly under irrigated agriculture," said Curtis. "It's disappointing the report disagrees with this. However, that's what happens when you get carried away with gross assumptions that are then modelled. The PCE needs to take more note of recent innovations in land use management."

The report doesn't discuss irrigation and concentrates only on two sources of freshwater pollution: nitrogen and phosphorous - two of the key pollutants also covered in the newly released National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management.

It finds that reducing phosphorous concentrations is relatively easy, compared with nitrogen, which is less effectively controlled by such measures as stream-side planting.

The modelling showed "the amount of nitrogen entering fresh water every year in virtually every region of the country will continue to rise", meaning "generally worsening water quality - more blooms of algae and cyanobacteria, more streams trailing metres of brown slime, fewer stream insects and fish, and more wells and waterways exceeding nitrate toxicity limits."

"Even with best practice mitigation, the large-scale conversion of more land to dairy farming will generally result in more degraded fresh water", although "in some cases, enhanced mitigation may create some room for dairy conversions."

An important part of the findings was that the issue was not one of more intensified dairying, i.e., more cows per hectare, but of the absolute size of all dairying activity: more hectares of cows.

Labour's environment spokesperson Moana Mackey called the report "timely" as it highlighted the dangers of dealing with only polluting nutrient, pointing to the proposed Ruataniwha irrigation scheme on the Tukituki River in the Hawke's Bay.

"The Tukituki River Instream Model which is currently being considered under very truncated timelines by a Board of Inquiry proposes to only control phosphorous and to let nitrogen levels rise to potentially toxic levels," she said.

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