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Rachel Stewart: Who will stand up to dairying?

Despite years of incontrovertible science identifying the main culprit as intensive dairy farming, that industry's denials are seemingly endless.  Photo / Brett Phibbs
Despite years of incontrovertible science identifying the main culprit as intensive dairy farming, that industry's denials are seemingly endless. Photo / Brett Phibbs

As we head into another sweltering Kiwi summer, the water quality of our lakes, rivers and streams will continue to disappoint and enrage.

Periphyton - a.k.a. slimy, slippery algae-covered rocks - will plague citizens and tourists alike.

Despite years of incontrovertible science identifying the main culprit as intensive dairy farming, that industry's denials are seemingly endless.

If it's not trout, birds or freedom campers, it's now the over-used refrain that urban waterways are just as culpable. Yes, though they're not in great shape either, they comprise just under 1 per cent of the length of New Zealand's waterways. In other words, it's yet another red herring.

There's a reason Fonterra is investing so much in trying to tweak your patriotic heart strings with puke-making TV ads. Their brand has been steadily falling out of favour - no doubt because of the public's new awareness of dairying's impact on the environment.

Upon viewing Fonterra's ads, I feel there's a case to be made to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) for blatant misrepresentation of the wholesomeness of milk, and of the entire industrial machine surrounding it.

Instead, DairyNZ is taking Greenpeace to the ASA (and on Fonterra's behalf) publicly saying only that its ad is "factually incorrect and misleading".

I know which ad I think is the incorrect and misleading one. But this is war, folks. We have entered the unabashed "economy versus environment" post-truth phase. Suspend any belief in science, and the inconvenient fact that there is no economy without a healthy environment, if you will.

In that vein, a dairy farmer decided to make a video with his smartphone about how upset the Greenpeace advert made him.

He stomped up to a stream running through his property, pronounced it clean, dipped a cup in it, and took a gulp. Nothing wrong with it, he said.

Before you knew it, a bunch of other dairy farmers were dashing about doing the same, including various Federated Farmers "leaders" - and I use the term loosely.

I have news for them. E-coli and diffuse nitrates are not visible with the naked eye but, hey, why ruin a stupid stunt with sanity and science?

Despite desperately trying to convince townies that they just don't understand the complexity of dairying, it is quite the contrary. The problem they have is that the public has caught on fast, and totally comprehend why they can't swim in most New Zealand rivers without the risk of getting sick.

The public also understands the difference between wadeable and swimmable freshwater standards.

Lately, more and more farmers have been asking me what my thoughts are on how to bridge this enormous gulf between town and country. I reckon it's simple. Yet I see no signs of it happening.

Short of every dairy critic packing up and going home because the going is too tough - and we all know that's not going to happen - then the onus is on the dairy industry to start taking some responsibility via their words.

It's all very well for Fonterra to say on their website that farmers have "spent $1 billion dollars on environmental initiatives over the last five years." Quantify that figure. Break it down for us. Treat us like we are capable of reading balance sheets.

Is that spending on upgraded effluent ponds that, in many cases, should have been done years ago?

Is it on native trees for the riparian planting of streambanks, and normally subsidised by regional councils - ratepayers - anyway?

Frankly, I can't see where the shadowy "billion" went but I do know this.

It's been a huge waste of money simply because it hasn't worked.

In among these unquantifiable assertions, we have a rural media more than delighted to take BigAg's press releases and print them verbatim. Never have I seen a rural journalist ask Fonterra to justify any of their claims.

Not one.

Indeed, the rural rags feed the "town versus country" fire by constantly fuelling it with friction. They want that paradigm, that tussle. They are the equivalent of Fox News for partisan pomposity and venal verbiage.

In my case, one of them openly refers to me as "Lesbian, Rachel Stewart" - which is technically correct, but relevant how?

Because anyone over the past half decade who's written anything even remotely resembling the truth about the dairy sector has invariably been dismissed as either a nut job, a traitor, and in more extreme cases, received death threats. Ask me how I know.

Therein lies the problem. Until the vested interests can stop with the abuse and obfuscation and admit there's a problem with dairying's impact on water quality, we're all going nowhere.

Which buys the dairy industry more time, more money and more of our collective scorn. Meanwhile, our freshwater resources are dying a quiet and uncomplaining death.

- NZ Herald

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