Dairy industry must learn to share its toys or get put in the naughty corner

Geoff SimmonsEnvironment

The Land and Water Forum fourth report released this morning contains some real successes – particularly the call for more central coordination, investment in science and the agreement to keep stock out of rivers and plant riverbanks.

However, the more interesting part of the report is what it doesn’t talk about – in particular allocating and putting a price on the right to use and pollute fresh water. These factors point to the dairy industry throwing its weight around, and gives a clue as to why Fish and Game left the Forum. Commercial water users and the dairy industry in particular need to learn how to collaborate and make some concessions otherwise they risk other partners leaving the forum, and facing a backlash from the rest of the country or overseas consumers.

Land and Water What?

The Land and Water Forum is a collaborative group set up to help the Government manage fresh water. On it are representatives of all the major players in the area including iwi, farming groups, irrigators, electricity companies and environmental groups. The idea is that instead of going to court at every opportunity, that through talking and compromise they can come to some credible solutions.

When one of the environmental groups, Fish and Game, left the Forum it undermined the credibility of the Forum’s recommendations and called into question the integrity of this collaborative process. While that didn’t stop the Forum from producing its fourth report, it has cast a shadow over its future – if any more groups walk out it could and should scuttle the Forum.

The Good: Keeping cattle out of rivers

Like the other reports, there are areas of progress. The first recommendation the LAWF makes to the Government is that it should implement all the other recommendations the forum’s already made, instead of picking and choosing the bits they like. That is a fair point.

The main success in this report is in extending the exclusion from waterways of all cattle, not just dairy cattle. We have long pointed out there is little difference between a beef and dairy cow, yet one is excluded from rivers and the other is not. Deer and pigs are would also be excluded, but sheep aren’t – apparently sheep don’t much like going for a paddle. This is a big step forward and will require a huge effort from the beef industry in particular. It remains to be seen how it will be funded and implemented by a cash-strapped industry, but as a goal it’s great.

Another set of recommendations from the Forum are just plain commonsense. Good fresh water management requires quality science and management tools. The issues may vary around the country, but the basic science and tools needn’t, so why is the Government letting each region re-invent the wheel? Greater coordination, standardization and learning is needed across the country. Of course central government traditionally likes pushing issues to local authorities for them to sort out, so they may not want to listen to this request.

The Bad: Dairy industry claims right to pollute and use YOUR water for free

The fourth report was supposed to focus on how to allocate the right to use and pollute fresh water. The lack of detail on this topic in the report is a testament to the limits of a collaborative approach – particularly one that involves a dairy industry that seems intent on throwing its weight around. This seems to be part of the reason that Fish and Game walked out of the Forum.

The dairy industry has made it clear it wants to grandparent existing rights – this means that dairy farmers can continue polluting and using water for free. They are happy to ensure people are farming using “good management practices” (as defined by the industry), but otherwise farmers should be left to decide how best to farm. Their attitude is that if reductions need to be made to improve the quantity or quality of water in our rivers and lakes, all land users should make the cuts equally. Given that the industry is the biggest cause of nitrogen leaching and one of the big water users, this attitude is not surprising.

Everyone else in the country should be worried by this attitude, and the dairy industry’s reluctance to compromise. The industry needs to be brought to account – more than any other it seems intent on ongoing spoiling of waterways. In a future column we will discuss how this attitude is playing out in the regions.

Other land users such as sheep/ beef farmers and forestry should be worried because if this approach is implemented in some areas they will lose the right to develop their land. They may even have to cut pollution by similar proportions, when dairy farmers are creating far more pollution for a given parcel of land.

The entire New Zealand public should also be very worried they are losing the right to swim in their local river. In many parts of the country this is already the case, but the approach being pushed by the dairy industry could ensure they retain their right to pollute and use water for free, and even profit from the ability to ‘transfer’ that right.

It wouldn’t be so bad if commercial water users were paying for the right to take or pollute water. The LAWF report talks about ‘transfer’ of water use and pollution rights without talking about price or trading. This is no doubt deliberate because all those that use and pollute water in the pursuit of profit are afraid that the public will realize that they are being handed a tangible asset – closer and closer to a property right – that is worth real money. The fact is that they already have that asset, and it is capitalized into their land values.

We are talking about the privatization of a public resource under the guise of cleaning up our rivers and lakes. Our right to clean fresh water is being handed over to commercial water users without them even paying for it.

The fact is that your fresh water is getting used and polluted to make a profit. Nothing wrong with that as long as you accept the result that millions of Kiwis have lost the right to swim in their local river and worse still, are now having to foot the bill for fixing the problem through taxes.

It is nothing short of a scandal but you won’t find that message spelt out anywhere in the official documentation. Commercial water users and the dairy industry in particular need to own up to the impact they are having on our fresh water, and start making some concessions. Otherwise once the fig leaf of collaboration is blown away, they may face the cold hard backlash of regulation from a disgruntled public. And that may blow the lid on our ‘clean and green’ image that is so popular with overseas consumers.

Dairy industry must learn to share its toys or get put in the naughty corner was last modified: December 15th, 2015 by Geoff Simmons
About the Author

Geoff Simmons

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Geoff Simmons is an economist working for the Morgan Foundation. Geoff has an Honours degree from Auckland University and over ten years experience working for NZ Treasury and as a manager in the UK civil service. Geoff has co-authored three books alongside Gareth.