New Zealand, once a hallmark of sustainability, now faces a tough choice between profit and principle

On August 14th, 2017, the Wall Street Journal published an article about the environmental repercussions of New Zealand’s dairy industry. Over the past decade, the nation’s waterways have shown increased levels of nitrogen. Although clear cutting and agriculture have no doubt contributed to the contamination, the main perpetrator is the booming dairy industry.

Dairy has become the country’s number one export as livestock farmers switch from sheep to cattle following a global rise in demand for dairy products. While the economy has experienced tremendous growth from the switch, many fear for the environmental outcomes as well as the possible ramifications on the country’s number two industry, tourism.

In the early 2000’s, the average household income in Asian countries began to increase. With it, came an increased demand for protein and dairy. As the prices for such goods took off, New Zealand’s economy accommodated the demand by bolstering their dairy production. “In the decade through 2016, the number of dairy cows rose by 28% to 6.6 million while the sheep flock shrank by 45% to 27.6 million, official data show.”

However, during this time, most of the country’s monitored rivers exhibited signs of increased nitrogen levels and algae blooms. So much so, the government designated them as “potentially unsafe for swimmers.” Additionally, on New Zealand’s South Island, a fly fisherman remarked, “Fifteen years ago, when I started to guide in the region, there was not a river where I would hesitate to have a drink of the water. Nowadays there are only rivers in remote areas, where I know there are no cows above me, where I will drink.”

The primary consequence of the increased dairy production is the degradation of the water ecosystems. As a cow’s waste runs off into the rivers and lakes, water quality and aquatic life deteriorate and eutrophication may occur. Other potential environmental problems, though not addressed in the article, include air pollution when the cows release methane gas, soil erosion, contaminated drinking water, and desertification.

But this is not solely an environmental dilemma. New Zealand markets itself as “Green” and “Eco-friendly.” If this image were to be tarnished by irresponsible farming practices, tourism may experience a decline, especially if swimming and fishing are no longer safe.

There are several parties involved in this complex problem. First off, Asian markets benefit from the increased dairy production in New Zealand. But, while their demand may have been the cause for this issue, they ultimately don’t have any decision-making power.

Secondly, the dairy farmers arguably benefit the most and have the most control over the situation. The choices they make are pivotal to both the environmental and economic sectors.

Third are the lawmakers, who clearly play a major role in deciding what, if any, regulation to put in place. The increased tax revenue from the dairy industry has helped fund schools and other public programs, however, environmental groups have put pressure on them to protect the country’s ecosystems.

Which leads to the fourth stakeholder, environmental groups, including the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Clearly, from their perspective, the dairy industry negatively impacts the nation and, though they lack legislative authority, they can provide the evidence needed to lobby politicians.

Next, the tourist industry, including the Tourism Export Council of New Zealand, are likewise taking the brunt of the fallout. The water contamination could potentially hurt the marketing of New Zealand as an eco-friendly tourist destination as well as vacation activities including swimming and fishing. Like environmental groups, the tourism sector has lobbying power, but limited decision-making power.

Lastly, the citizens of New Zealand, who although have little sway over the policy decisions, drink from the polluted fresh water and therefore affect by the issue.

The article points to several measures taken by the community to reverse the problem. Many farmers have been planting vegetation along the riverbanks to reduce runoff. They’ve also put up fences to block cattle from getting too close to the water. The government has recently “launched a program to make 90% of rivers safe for recreational swimming by 2040.”

New Zealand could also look to America for possible solutions. In Wisconsin, dairy cattle farming has climbed more than 150% since 1983 according to an NRDC article published in Fall 2016. To cope with the environmental pressure, “Wisconsin requires every farm with more than 1,000 animal units… submit a nutrient management plan to the state DNR that details its manure disposal methods.” Along with that, the University of Wisconsin-Extension has published a simple, but informative pamphlet detailing proper manure management options like filters tip, rain gutters, diversion, and setting basin to help reduce the amount of animal waste entering waterways.

In another case, local, state, and federal governments worked with dairy farmers in Yakima Valley, Washington to create a plan to reduce nitrate groundwater pollution. In the consent order, dairy farmers agreed to:

  1. “Provide an alternate source of drinking water for neighbors within one mile down gradient of the dairies whose wells have levels of nitrate above EPA’s drinking water standard of 10 mg/L, or “parts per million” (ppm).
  2. Conduct soil and groundwater testing at each dairy to evaluate if nitrogen sources are being controlled.
  3. Take steps to control nitrogen sources (manure and commercial fertilizer) at their facilities.”

These measures may not curb all animal waste contamination, but they could serve as a framework for policy moving forward if the government decides to take action. Either way, it takes decades for nitrogen to move through the groundwater, so this s*** is here to stay.