As the general election looms on October 17, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern renewed her pledge to make New Zealand’s rivers and lakes suitable for swimming for the first time in a generation.
For a government that leads the polls and has been widely hailed for dealing with the world’s biggest health crisis in decades, nitrate levels in rivers may seem like a marginal campaign issue. But the debate is at the heart of a conflict between two of the country’s greatest assets – its clean, green image for tourists and investors, and its 6.3 million cows.
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Three years after Ardern first committed to cleaning up the country’s 425,000 kilometers (264,000 miles) of rivers, Statistics New Zealand produced a report in April that showed most of the waterways crossing pastoral lands had high levels of nutrients and 24% had too many bacteria. .
In May, the government introduced a set of policies that included stricter rules to prevent livestock from entering waterways and an annual limit on the use of nitrogen fertilizers on the farm. Critics say that is not enough, accusing Ardern’s coalition partner New Zealand First of being too sympathetic to the agricultural industry. They stress that the new rules do not include a gauge of dissolved nitrogen in waterways, depriving the authorities of an effective pollution measure and do not commit to a future reduction in the use of fertilizer.
“The nitrogen cap is too high,” said Russel Norman, executive director of Greenpeace New Zealand. “We want it to be drastically reduced and completely eliminated.”
The dilemma for Ardern in the wake of the coronavirus is to strengthen the country’s reputation as a clean, safe destination and producer of healthy food without eroding the economic benefits of its large and powerful dairy industry.
“We are already considered clean, green and now we are also safe,” Ardern said during a recent televised debate. “It gives us the opportunity to invest.”
New Zealand’s dairy herds have grown rapidly in recent decades and now produce 21 billion liters of milk per year. Milk powder, meat and wool account for over 45% of the country’s exports. Fonterra Cooperative Group, the world’s largest dairy exporter, paid its farmer suppliers NZ $ 11 billion ($ 7.3 billion) last year – money that spills over into communities rural areas where the national conservative opposition party enjoys strong support.
“What we’ve seen over the years are some really nasty campaigns on things like dirty dairy products,” Opposition Leader Judith Collins, who grew up on a dairy farm, said earlier this year. “They took an industry that has long been our mainstay, and which turns out to be again during Covid, and treated the people whose livelihoods and lives are involved as if they were enemies of the people.
Dairy farmers say their efforts to fence off streams and improve nutrient management are starting to make a difference. Fonterra said it is evaluating around 10,000 farms that supply milk each year to ensure they meet required standards and suspends collection at just 51 during the 2018-19 season. Next year it will start paying a premium to farmers if they reach the best standards in environmental protection and animal welfare.
“We are committed to playing our part,” said Richard Allen, group director of the cooperative’s Farm Source unit. “Our farmers have invested considerable capital and effort in areas such as excluding cows from waterways, modernizing effluent management systems and reducing runoff through riparian planting. We take a strong stand with those who consistently fail to meet minimum standards. ”
To support growing herds, farmers have increased nitrogen fertilizer use seven-fold since 1990 to 429,000 tonnes. Some of this fertilizer, along with manure from cows and other animals, seeps into rivers.
The next election could make things more difficult for the industry. Ardern has a comfortable lead in his bid to win a second term, with 47% support in the latest political poll, but the makeup of his new coalition government would likely be different. Green Party support might be enough to give them a place in the next cabinet – giving them more power to push their agenda forward.
“For the first time under this government, water has become a priority,” Greens co-leader Marama Davidson said in an interview last month, adding that the party will push for even stronger measures. The Greens’ platform includes a levy on fertilizer sales, a steady decline in nitrogen use and a limit on dissolved nitrates in waterways. He also wants brakes on large-scale irrigation.
This could put an end to the rapid expansion of dairy herds which has given the country more cows than citizens.
“The cure for this nitrate problem is to have fewer cows,” said Mike Joy, an environmentalist at Victoria University of Wellington who has advised the government on its freshwater reforms. “If you reduce the storage rate, you are fixing 20 or 30 problems due to overcurrent.”
– With the help of Sanjit Das