ECAN, Fed Farmers and Dairy NZ – Plotting to reduce water quality

Gareth MorganEnvironment

What does National’s resounding election win mean for our rivers? As we found in our review of the Government’s water quality framework, we have serious reasons to doubt their commitment to ‘maintain or improve our waterways’.

Our concerns are growing given the recent comments of lobby groups Federated Farmers and Dairy NZ, and news of ECAN’s proposal to allow nitrate levels in Selwyn to go past the national limit.


ECAN has proposed nitrogen limits for the Selwyn district at 8.5mg/L. This has raised the ire of the Canterbury Chief Medical Officer of Health Alistair Humphrey who is worried about drinking water – the safe level for humans is 11.4mg/L and he wants to stay well clear of that.

Even more worrying is the precedent for our waterways. Under the Government’s new National Objectives Framework the supposed maximum allowable level of nitrates is 6.9mg/L. How can a Government appointed council be contravening Government policy? As an indication of how far off beam this decision is, the Board of Inquiry for the Ruataniwha scheme set the N limit at 0.8mg/L; one tenth of the ECAN level!

Fed Farmers and Dairy NZ comments

What about the lobby groups? Immediately after the election, Federated Farmers Dr William Rolleston described the election result as a clear mandate for reforming the Resource Management Act, and doubling primary exports:

“We see the 2014 General Election is a vote for New Zealand to become a primary superpower, not only doubling our primary exports by 2025…”

As we’d expect from this lobbyist there was no recognition of the challenge of doing this while maintaining or improving our waterways. More surprising and disappointing were the comments from Tim Mackle of dairy farm lobbyist Dairy NZ at the same time:

“We understand that we’ve got a footprint to manage at national level. That said, you really need to look at this catchment by catchment. There’ll be some no-go areas, some go-slow areas and in other areas, there’s a lot of headroom left.”

There you have it. The farmers’ advocates see a world where they can fudge the Government’s commitment to ‘maintain or improve’ waterways. Their’s is an ambition to drive water quality down to the bottom lines of wadeability that the Government set in their water quality framework – or perhaps, given the situation in Selwyn – beyond those bottom lines. That’s the character of lobbyist for you, little more than mercenaries with values for hire and happy to see their children playing in the gutter – where the water is wadeable, so come on in. New Zealanders need to stand up to these groups, continually question their character and let their children see them for what they are.

More production will not maintain or improve our waterways

As we are seeing in Selwyn, the simple fact is that increasing the intensity of agricultural production will have negative impacts on our waterways. For example, conversions to dairy means more cow pee, which means more nitrogen going into the soil, which will eventually end up in our waterways.

The idea that we have ‘headroom’ for conversions in some areas is based on the idea that we can drive water quality down to the Government’s bottom lines. It is simply not compatible with maintaining or improving water quality. The truth is that more dairy farms will not mean our fresh water gets better. They will only make it worse.

Rejection of Labour/ Greens irrigation charges

Not surprisingly, Federated Farmers rejected the Labour and Greens irrigation charge during the election campaign. They rightly criticised the charge as being leveled at agriculture – what about the other users of water? They also pointed out that the lion’s share of such a charge would be paid in Canterbury, and to a lesser extent Otago. This money should ideally be spent improving water quality in the same region.

However, as yet these farming lobby groups have put up no alternative way to fund the clean-up of pollution caused by intensive farming. Don’t expect them to either – they may disguise their arguments as being in the national interest but the reality is they are always pure, unadulterated self-interest. They seek to destroy water quality – and couldn’t care less. Farmers need to get better representation or stand up individually and be counted, not shirk and hide behind these lobby groups.

How to intensify and improve water quality

The only way for water quality to improve in the face of increased intensity of farming, is to spend money improving water quality in other ways.

Dairy NZ argues that their farmers are fencing and planting their own waterways, which is true. They are making excellent progress, which might be showing up in improvements in certain water quality indicators (such as phosphorus). However, this is not enough to offset the damage they are doing, as the most important indicator of life in our fresh water (the Macroinvertebrate Community Index) is still headed downward in the majority of rivers where there is a measurable trend.

To improve water quality dairy farmers, or at the very least new conversions, need to either mitigate the impact they have on water quality, or contribute to reducing water quality problems elsewhere. For example they could reduce the amount of nitrogen in the river coming from other sources. Or if they argue that increasing nitrogen levels are not an issue, they could help ensure this is the case by reducing phosphorus levels in the river (by contributing to fencing and planting the waterways of nearby sheep and beef farms). This could be tested by measuring changes in the Macroinvertebrate Community Index. Such an approach might allow for water quality to maintain or improve despite increased intensity of agricultural output.

Feds and Dairy NZ need to put up alternatives

The Feds and Dairy NZ may not like the irrigation charge, but until they suggest an alternative way to offset the damage from increasing the intensity of farming, their commitment to water quality is a total falsehood. While these groups have been working on improving practices on individual dairy farms, it is the collective pollution in our waterways that is the real issue. This is what they need to face up to, and they are not showing any signs of doing so. In contrast, Fonterra has actually been putting its money where its mouth is in an attempt to reduce the environmental cost of farming practices.

For both the lobbyists to call for increases in production and piously declare that they are committed to water quality in the same breath is quite simply contradictory Anyone who wants our natural capital kept intact should be deeply skeptical of both Rolleston and Mackle. As we set out in MyRiver, there should be a moratorium on dairy conversions until the sector can show how they will contribute to ensure that water quality is truly being maintained or improved. Fonterra is trying but the contribution to the discussion from these sector lobbyists is not helpful.

ECAN, Fed Farmers and Dairy NZ – Plotting to reduce water quality was last modified: December 15th, 2015 by Gareth Morgan
About the Author

Gareth Morgan

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Gareth Morgan is a New Zealand economist and commentator on public policy who in previous lives has been in business as an economic consultant, funds manager, and professional company director. He is also a motorcycle adventurer and philanthropist. Gareth and his wife Joanne have a charitable foundation, the Morgan Foundation, which has three main stands of philanthropic endeavour – public interest research, conservation and social investment.