VI. Environmental Impacts

There are also growing concerns about the environmental impact of the increase in dairy production in New Zealand. This seem pretty muted at the moment - at least according to the FT article above (previous page).


Environmental concerns include

  • pollution of surface and groundwater and damage to freshwater and estuarine habitats;
  • soil erosion, soil contamination and damage to soil structure;
  • discharge of greenhouse (methane) gases;
  • destruction of wetland and native lowland forests;
  • water availability for irrigation.


'New Zealand agriculture is the largest source of emissions, contributing 48 per cent of New Zealand’s total Green House Gas emissions in 2007' (NZAE p.5).

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment produced a report in 2013 on 'Water quality in New Zealand: Land use and nutrient pollution'.


Changes in land use are not uniform,


Over recent years, shifting commodity prices have led to many sheep/beef farms on relatively flat and fertile land being converted to dairy farms. At the same time, large areas of hill country sheep/beef land have been planted in forest, and some have been left to revert to unproductive scrubland. The LURNZ model predicts that these trends will continue (p.65)


The increase in dairy shows annual nitrogen loads on fresh water 'continuing to risein virtually every region ... Canterbury, Southland, and to a lesser extent, Otago, stand out.' (p.66).


The models employed in the report assume that mitigation measures will match increases in nitrogen run-off - an assumption the report itself admits is 'optimistic' (p.67).


The report is pretty mealy-mouthed in its conclusions and bases them on increases in nutrification only caused by bringing new land into dairy production (due to the mitigation assumption above).

I would suggest that the penultimate paragraph is illustrative of the pressures on the Commissioner from the mighty dairy lobby.


Unfortunately, if we continue to see large-scale conversion of land to more intensive uses, it is difficult to see how water quality will not continue to decline in the next few years. This is despite the best efforts of many and some undoubted successes (Water quality in New Zealand:Land use and nutrient pollution p.67).


This rather optimistic view seems in stark contrast to some of the detailed predictive modelling - for example the Oreti catchment in Southland is predicted to experience a 90% increase in nitrogen loads by 2020 from the 1996 level (p.57).


Nitrogen load increases of 27% for the whole of Southland  are predicted for the same period (p. 55). (And this assumes increases in productivity are offset by mitigation in the 2008-20 period - see note 79).


Intensive agriculture in the Kawarau River valley, Central Otago.
Viticulture in the Kawarau River valley, Central Otago.

Mitigation measures


Both central and local government have committed to spending many millions of dollars seeking to protect vulnerable iconic lakes. Other important initiatives have been the Dairying and Clean Streams Accord, the Land and Water Forum, and the many catchment zone committees using a collaborative approach to managing water. On a personal level, I am regularly heartened by reading Jon Morgan’s newspaper columns about the innovation and stewardship displayed by individual farmers. p.6


These include measures such as keeping cattle out of streams and planting riparian (riverside) strips  and spreading shed dung on the land (p.41). Capital intensive stand-off pads, over-wintering in barns and the creation of artificial wetlands (p.45) are unlikely to be adopted widely before 2020.


More progress is likely in the more efficient use of fertilizer, improved genetics reducing the amounts of fertilizer required, good environmental standards in new dairy conversions and 'compliance of all dairy farms with Sustainable Dairying: Water Accord nutrient goals.'


On this basis the model used assumed that farmers would be ‘holding the line’ by 2020, increasing productivity while holding nutrient losses steady' p.49. As the report says twice, 'This assumption is optimistic' (Water quality in New Zealand:Land use and nutrient pollution.p.49 and 67).

Bush clearance made simple: the Milford Road
Bush clearance made simple: the Milford Road

Environment regulation and sustainability management has been devolved to the regions and there is considerable uncertainty as to how this will work and the costs that will be imposed on agriculture. The same can be said for an Emission Trading Scheme that in 2011 postponed the inclusion of agriculture in the scheme (see OECD NZ Agri Risk p.15).

Clean and Green Pastures and Cadmium Levels in New Zealand
How exactly are New Zealand's pastures 'greener and cleaner' than other pastures, you might wonder.
New Zealand dairy herds have a lower incidence of bovine tuberculosis than UK ones although the air dropping of 1080 poison to kill out possum (and any other creature that eats the stuff) which are a vector for the disease makes the UK's badger culls look like child's play. 
The NZ brand of Anchor Butteer's packaging (also aimed at the US market) says that it contains 'no hormones', is 'free range', and made from 100% fresh milk. The UK brand used to say that 'Anchor cows eat grass all year round' although this appears to have been dropped since production was moved to the UK.
The use of 'green' in the advertising is interesting. Does this mean New Zealand's pastures are literally greener in colour than those in the UK?
Possibly, although I have seen lots of New Zealand pasture burnt yellow by the summer sun. Of course, it implies that New Zealand's pastures (and dairy farms) are somehow ecologically 'greener' than those elsewhere.
I think this would be an increasingly difficult proposition to sustain if it was ever true and depending on how you measured it.  But the image is an alluring one: a mild climate washed by abundant rain with cows running free over limitless pasture.  The reality is of an industry under the cosh of intensification based on high external inputs of fertiliser, herbicides and feed supplements.

Nitrogen runoff is becoming a serious issue in New Zealand's greatly intensified agricultural practices. Dairy herd beneath Arthur's Pass, West Coast.
Nitrogen runoff is becoming a serious issue in New Zealand's greatly intensified agricultural practices. Dairy herd beneath Arthur's Pass, West Coast.
A further test the the 'green-ness' of New Zealand's dairy pastures comes in an article from the Soil Science Society of America. Drawing on New Zealand research published in 2014 this  shows that 'enriched' levels - on average more than two times background level but four time background level on the 69 dairy pastures sampled - of cadmium are being found in New Zealand pastures due to the use of high cadmium phosphate fertilisers from, amongst others producers, the tiny South Pacific island of Nauru.
The 2014 New Zealand study that made the cadmium enrichment discovery concludes,
A calculation of the likely exposure to [Cadmium] of sheep and cattle revealed that no pastures tested resulted in sheep and cattle ingesting [Cadmium] at a rate that would result in breaching muscle-tissue food standards. For offal products, which the NZ meat industry does not sell for human consumption, food safety standards excedence was calculated in a few cases.
A 2011/2 Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry paper on Cadmium before the worrying research above concluded,
Low cadmium sources of phosphate rock are limited in supply and uncertain in their availability. Moreover there are no commercially viable processes for removing cadmium from rock phosphate. The accumulation of cadmium in NZ soils is likely therefore to continue in the immediate future. (Emphasis added - see MAF 2011/12 Cadmium and New Zealand Agriculture and Horticulture: A Strategy for Long Term Risk Management).
How green was my valley: cadmium lvels in New Zealand dairy pastures may be four times the background level
How green was my valley: cadmium lvels in New Zealand dairy pastures may be four times the background level.