Big dairy’s effects on the biosphere, and all of our back pockets, are sucking the country dry — a net picture less positive than the PR paints it

Soil, water, and air: the stuff of life. Dairy compromises them all, to the point where you have to ask if the good things it does for the country are good enough.

Dairy NZ has a new PR campaign. Some countries have more cows, but we have more Kiwis, it says: exporting to over 140 countries, feeding 100 million people every year, creating a third of the world’s dairy trade.

It pushes all the right bucolic buttons; it also dangerously pushes up the smug in the atmosphere.

In 2009, Landcare Research assessed soil quality for the Environment Ministry. [Update: the data is reproduced online here. The Landcare report was the basis for this soil health environmental snapshot, dated January 2010.] Only 29% of dairy sites met all soil quality indicator targets and were ‘satisfactory’, the second-lowest percentage of the types of sites sampled.

Overall results, from all sites, were little better at 35%. However, soils on about half of dairy sites were compacted, from intensive stocking and grazing, to a degree that risked inhibiting pasture growth; perhaps, it wasn’t therefore surprising that there was high fertiliser use, too. The conclusions?

“soil compaction from intensive animal grazing practices under pasture … along with increased levels of N and P in dairy and some drystock sites, continues to be a major concern … The observed trends in organic status and fertility are consistent with the increase in the number of dairy farms in all regions coupled with higher animal stocking rates and greater production, and the increased use of N and P fertiliser…”

And: “the trend in increasing soil nutrient status (and increasing stocking rates) cannot continue indefinitely”.

Other research says intensive dairying degrades soil carbon more than any other land uses. This is relevant to global work, assessing soil as a carbon sink: in other words whether, like forests, it should count for carbon emission and sequestration, and therefore whether it could cost or save us money.

National water quality and allocation issues are dairy issues, with stoushes in Manawatu and Canterbury in particular, but more generally, on the Land and Water Forum, farmers’ effluent discharge compliance, and nutrient leaching.

Almost half of New Zealand’s total greenhouse gas emissions are agricultural emissions. When the government was negotiating its 2020 target, it leant heavily on the assumption that it would not be possible to do anything about this, short of culling all the cows. Successive Ministers, from both governments, have said so. They argued for a soft target, on the basis that the IPCC-indicated target of 25-40% of emissions reductions on 1990 levels by 2020 would require all other industrial and transport and stationary energy emissions sources to be stopped.

But the Sustainability Council’s Simon Terry says the government and its advisers have seriously miscalculated agriculture’s emission abatement potential and, in particular, dairy abatement potential. In advice to the Emissions Trading Scheme Review Committee in April 2009, he argued dairy farmers could, profitably, reduce agriculture emissions enough to wipe out a substantial share — more than two-thirds (16Mt of a 22Mt bill) — of New Zealand’s 2012 Kyoto deficit.

He compares the cost-effectiveness of nitrous oxide emission reduction for dairying, with other options (energy efficiency, and electricity generation). The use of a nitrification inhibitor was the most cost-effective, by a big margin. More recent work concludes that three-quarters of the next few years’ economic (ie, cost-negative or profitable) abatement potential is agricultural.

But instead, the risk is farmers will use nitrification inhibitors and other new technologies to make money by their other favourite method: more intensification.

And that means the rest of us lose money. Complaining about the cost to farmers of power and petrol price rises, Fed Farmers spokesperson Don Nicolson explained that, although he owns a pine forest block, he will not participate in the ETS: he objects to the scheme so much, he cannot stomach benefiting from its subsidies.

But whether he signs up for the forestry part or not, Mr Nicolson should get down on his knees and beg the government and taxpayers’ pardon — and then spend a while longer down there thanking Mammon.

On the Sustainability Council’s figures — and Simon Terry and his colleague Geoff Bertram have done more work than anybody on this, over a period of years and, in Bertram’s case, decades — pastoral farmers would gain a $1.1 billion subsidy in the current Kyoto period to 2012. Agriculture, with 49% of emissions, would pay only 3% of the costs. Over the full eighty-year transition period from 2010 to 2089, the proposed changes could deliver subsidies to agriculture and large industries of between $100 billion and $200 billion (depending on the carbon price). Two thirds of this would be paid to pastoral farmers.

Of course, not all of these are dairy farmers. But it makes South Canterbury Finance’s $400 each, divvying up a paltry $1.6 billion, look small; and worth noting, too, that the late stages of that lending, one of the things that helped push it over the edge, was funding dodgy dairy conversions.

There’s the cosmetic effect of dairy conversion: turning New Zealand’s landscapes, literally, green. There’s forest felling for dairy conversions, replacing something that absorbs greenhouse gas with something that emits it.

Dairy’s such a big part of the economy — such a big fat sitting target — that it takes no particular skill to fire off a grumpy salvo and hit it. However, when something looks too good to be true, as they say, it usually is.

Dairy NZ’s campaign hypes production capacity, and credits it to our native wit. There’s nothing clever, though, about exploiting the environment, and you and I, the taxpayers, except that for too long they have got away with externalising costs, two and three times over, dressed up in different clothes. Which probably proves we’re actually not that bright, because in fact, the dude is nude.

What public ‘under-appreciation’ of the industry shows is a growing grasp of that fact.

Comments (7)

by Claire Browning on September 09, 2010
Claire Browning

Other research says intensive dairying degrades soil carbon more than any other land uses ...

To expand on this, slightly, while making the same point:

Advice provided by MAF to their Minister in July 2009 says: "Scientists have recently shown that in NZ, soil carbon levels have decreased on flat land used for dairying over the last 20 years ... This effect has been observed on dairy pastures nationwide in two independent studies. The loss is ... about 13% of the soil carbon over a 20 year period. Drystock, breeding and finishing farming on flat land has had no change on soil carbon levels over the past 20 years ... On pastoral hill country, soil carbon gains of about 10% over a period of 20 years have occurred".

Advice from June 2009, by the Emissions Trading Group to the ETS Review Select Committee, describes soil carbon losses from dairying on both volcanic and non-volcanic soil types, citing recent Landcare Research work by A Ghani, L Schipper & C Ross (2009) Effects of Pastoral Agriculture on Soil Carbon. 

by raf manji on September 13, 2010
raf manji

Has there been any research in New Zealand on using charcoal or biochar to boost the soil carbon level in depleted soils?

by Claire Browning on September 14, 2010
Claire Browning

Raf, MAF's been keeping an eye on the soil carbon issue, in general, not specific to biochar. They've produced or commissioned bits and pieces of work; and it's also on the work programme of the new New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre, our hub for the Global Research Alliance.

See further my post today.

by Mike Joy on July 29, 2011
Mike Joy

Claire the other huge story that is bubbling away somehow being kept under the radar is soil cadmium levels in dairy and horticulture land.  It is a byproduct of Phosphorus fertilser.  The cadmium is marine derived it came with the guano we mined while destroying the Island of Nauru in late last century.  It buiolds up over time and so areas that have been farmed a long time like waikato and taranaki have the highest levels (although TRC are covering up by measuring the wrong thing) but Waikato Regional Council know that around 25% of intesively farmed land already exceeds WHO safe levels and will be close to 100% by 2050.

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