New Zealand’s dairy industry has a significant detrimental effect on our environment. The 2015 Environment Aotearoa report recorded a 28 per cent surge in the land area used for dairy farming over the last 10 years. This increase in the national dairy herd is causing a corresponding increase in compaction of land (at around 80 per cent of dairy farms), pollution of waterways and greenhouse gas emissions.
The main source of water pollution is from animal excrement. One individual cow produces 15 times more effluent than a human. This means that New Zealand's 6.7 million dairy cows (2014 figure) produce the equivalent amount of manure as do 100 million people!
Water pollution from cattle waste is at such levels that some of our major waterways are under threat. Figures released in 2013 by the Ministry for the Environment show that 60 per cent of monitored New Zealand waterways were not fit to swim in, let alone had drinkable water. A high prevalence of dairy farms correlated with the worst water standards: Canterbury had nine waterways graded “very poor”, while Manawatu-Whanganui, Southland and Taranaki each had seven.
The Waikato River, the Manawatu River, and Lakes Ellesmere, Taupo and Rotorua are heavily polluted. As NIWA (National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research) says: “Pastoral farming—which accounts for 40 percent of New Zealand’s land area—is undoubtedly the main source of diffuse pollution…. Streams in dairy land are among the most polluted.”
Such is the scale of the problem that Massey University freshwater ecologist Mike Joy has said that if New Zealand's ecosystem continues to decline at the same rate as over the past 40 years, the country will have no native fish by 2050.
Some farmers are still allowing cows direct access to waterways, while others hold the animal waste in large ponds or lagoons, which can overflow into waterways. Even where animals are prevented from having direct access to waterways by fencing them off, it doesn’t stop the leaching of nutrients, (including those from superphosphate fertiliser and nitrogen which are used to make pastureland more productive), into ground water. Another source of water pollution is 'ponding', where dairy animal waste is over-applied to paddocks by a farm’s irrigation system, leading to ponds of waste accumulating on the soil surface and then seeping into ground water and subsequently into watercourses.
The nutrient enrichment caused by dairy farming leads to loss of species, algal blooms and undrinkable water.
Farmers Breaking Environmental Consents
Non-compliance with environmental regulations has been an ongoing problem in the dairy industry. During the four years from 2008 to 2012, there were over 150 prosecutions involving 300 charges of unlawful pollution by dairy effluent. Environment Court fines collected for the period totalled $3.2 million.
A report by Environment Canterbury in 2015 found more than a third of dairy farms had broken effluent discharge rules in the preceeding 12 month period.
It is estimated that the cost of cleaning up all dairy-related pollution is $15 billion.
Cows Major Contributor to Climate Change
These 6.7 million dairy cows are also contributing substantially to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, through methane release, (from the cows burping), and nitrous oxide production, (from excrement, urine and nitrogenous fertilisers used to increase productivity of pastureland).
While the world is starting to act on climate change, New Zealand’s agricultural policy is pushing in the opposite direction: to increase the national dairy herd and to implement increasingly intensive farming practices.