Editorial: Politicians blame dairy farm 'villains' for water pollution

By Peter Jackson

Politician's have often wrongly accused dairy farms of destroying New Zealand's rivers.
Politician's have often wrongly accused dairy farms of destroying New Zealand's rivers.

One of the more disturbing aspects of this election campaign is that we are being invited to vote for, or against, future taxes that will not be quantified until some time after the next government has been formed.

Casting a vote always involves an element of trust, especially under MMP, where proposed policies come up for negotiation in the process of forming a government.

This is wonderful for politicians, who know full well that come September 24 they will be able to trade away what they promised 24 hours earlier.

"Dairy farms produce 11 million tonnes of effluent compared with 418 million tonnes by humans (as opposed to discharging it to waterways). Even when added water is removed, humans are producing 2.5 million tonnes of effluent every year, compared with 1.2 million tonnes from cows."

They have a tailor-made escape route, which means that however well-informed voters are, there are no guarantees that the policies that attracted their vote in the first place won't end up on the cutting room floor.

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Labour has introduced a new element this time, campaigning on the ethereal principle of economic fairness without detailing precisely who is going to pay for that, or how much. We are being asked to vote in the dark, with no opportunity to react to what actually transpires beyond gnashing our teeth and writing letters to the editor.

Worse, however, is the trend towards vilifying those who are allegedly contributing most to our problems, a process that is increasingly based on emotions rather than facts. There is no better example of that than promises to make New Zealand's rivers swimmable again.

The villain, of course, is the dairy farmer. We all know that dairy cows are largely, if not solely, responsible for destroying rivers and lakes from one end of the country to the other, and in the process are damaging our marine environment.

Actually, no we don't.

Politicians have, deliberately or otherwise, adopted the Joseph Goebbels philosophy, that if you repeat a lie often enough people will come to believe it; you may well come to believe it yourself.

Not surprisingly, long-time Northland farmer Merv Rusk didn't seem to get much traction with an opinion piece to the contrary, published by Stuff last week. His was a voice in the wilderness, and, sadly, will probably remain so.

Mr Rusk turned to data from sources including government and industry, so surely available to politicians, to argue that it is people, not cattle, who are the big polluters of waterways. Humans, he said, dispatched an average of 249 litres of treated waste to water per day, compared with an average of six litres per day per dairy cow.

Dairy farms produce 11 million tonnes of effluent compared with 418 million tonnes by humans (as opposed to discharging it to waterways). Even when added water is removed, humans are producing 2.5 million tonnes of effluent every year, compared with 1.2 million tonnes from cows.

Almost 93 per cent of treated effluent from urban areas goes directly into waterways, compared with nine per cent of dairy effluent. The other 91 per cent is applied to pasture as manure. And, as every farmer knew, he added, human effluent was generally far more dangerous to human health than that produced by cows.

Then there is the unremarked upon fact that urban infrastructure in many, if not most, parts of this country doesn't do the job it was designed to do.

It has been reported that many of Auckland's beaches are closed to the public when 5mm or more of rain falls on the city. According to Mr Rusk, Auckland has 50 outlets that each spill more than 52 times a year - 2600 spills per annum that pour a billion litres of raw human sewage into water.

Dairy farmers were the villains long before this election campaign began though. Mr Rusk claimed that the typical fine for a farmer who discharged effluent into water was about $30,000.

The penalties in urban areas were much less severe, if they existed at all. He calculated that if Auckland City was fined on the same basis as a dairy farmer it would be liable for $78 million a year in fines.

When did you last hear a politician bemoaning the state of urban centres' sewerage systems? When did you last hear anyone say that councils around the country are doing anything to improve their performance, let alone spending anything like the $1 billion that dairy farmers have reportedly invested in improving their disposal of effluent?

There are two real dangers here. One is that massive taxes will be imposed by the next government in a bid to improve the state of rivers, with no hope of success, because those taxes, and the remedial work they pay for, will completely miss the target.

Riparian planting and fencing stock out of waterways will obviously have some beneficial effect, and should be pursued, but will not produce the expected, or promised, transformation, because it's not cattle that are doing the major damage.

The focus should be on forcing local authorities to improve their infrastructure. That's not going to happen until politicians understand where the problem really lies, and fund the guts to tell the country's urban dwellers that they are going to have to stump up with huge sums of money to do something about it.

It is difficult not to believe that the dairy industry has been deliberately chosen as a much easier target. And therein lies the second danger, that the dairy industry will be defamed to the point where the great mass of voters, who do not milk cows for a living but rely on those who do, will support political measures that will eventually kill the industry altogether.

Some of the contestants in this election campaign have done a very good job of dividing urban and rural voters, obviously for purely political purposes. They know where political power lies, and it isn't on the country's dairy farms or the small towns that rely on them. It is in the cities, where councils are blithely destroying a large part of their natural environment, and are being allowed to do so while others are blamed.

We are now hearing increasingly strident calls for the national dairy herd to be capped, and the day is surely coming when politicians will call for it to be replaced altogether with some as yet unidentified, environmentally cleaner industry.

We heard that logic last week in TVNZ's minor party leaders' debate, where UnitedFuture enthusiastically endorsed the $100 million "digital" industry as dairying's successor, and Green Party leader James Shaw was unable or unwilling to answer the question regarding who actually pays for our First World lifestyle.

One day, perhaps, we won't depend on pastoral farming for much of our income, but when that day comes it should be because we have found a better way of earning our living, not because of vested political interests and what can only be a deliberate campaign aimed at blaming dairy farmers for a crime they are not committing.

Mind you, we may already have gone too far to turn back. Pushing pastoral farmers into the ETS process, as Labour has promised to do, along with its best case scenario water tax, will reportedly extract some $1 billion a year from farmers' incomes, and the urban communities they support.

We could be about to pay a very high price for the falsehood that political charlatans are pushing for all they are worth. Every one of us will pay that price in lower standards of living. It might solve the housing crisis though. Unaffordable houses don't seem to be a much of an issue in the Third World.

- Northland Age

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