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Mike Joy is a Senior Lecturer in Ecology and Zoology at Massey University. He has extensively researched New Zealand’s freshwater ecosystems and has been outspoken about the impacts they face from agriculture. Salient spoke to him about the dairy industry, freshwater quality, and the role of the scientist as an advocate.
Freshwater and the Dairy Industry
It seems relevant to begin with the recent announcement from the Government that they intend for 90 per cent of all lakes and rivers to be swimmable by 2040. There has been considerable concern that the Government has lowered the standard by which it administers a river swimmable. We were wondering if you think the legislation is strong enough in tackling the causes of water degradation?
No. They didn’t even look at the causes, didn’t even mention it. In the clean water document they released, which is something like 90 pages long, there is one mention of agricultural intensification and it’s just a mention — it doesn’t speak about it in any other way. Every piece of evidence points to the fact that the biggest driver of water quality decline in New Zealand is agricultural intensification.
The 2015 article you co-wrote with Kyleisha Foote and Russell Death suggests that the dairy industry has a large, and seemingly unaccountable, effect on the quality of New Zealand’s freshwater. You state that the “intensive dairying practices that impact freshwater include: water abstraction, increased stocking rates, riparian grazing, fertilizer application, vegetation removal, and wetland drainage. These lead to an increase of fecal contamination, excess nutrients, and sedimentation in water” (713). I was hoping you could run through how dairy farming negatively impacts the quality of freshwater?
One cow produces as much waste as 14 to 44 people, depending if you’re looking at volume, amount of nutrients, or pathogens. So if we go for the minimum of that — 14 humans for every one cow — there are about ten million cows (six and half million dairy and the rest livestock). So there are the equivalent to 140 million humans shitting on the ground.
In regards to riparian grazing, is that when farmers let their cattle into waterways and graze the sides?
Yes, that’s right. The thing to keep in mind is that you’ll hear these figures quoted from Dairy New Zealand and Fonterra that 97% of streams and rivers are fenced off to keep stock out. They fail to mention that their definition means that the smaller streams don’t have to be fenced. So a farmer, and there are plenty of them, could have not one single stream fenced off on their farm and still claim they’ve fenced off 100% of the streams because they meet the definition. It is bad, not just because they’re lying about the reality, but because the ones that they’re not fencing, which are the small ones, are those which would give you the best response to being fenced off.
The dairy industry also has other impacts, including soil compaction. How does this work?
On dairy farms the paddocks are rotationally grazed. They use electric wire break fences to shift the stock around and they’ll have the whole herd go onto one tiny area while they eat out the piece of the paddock. So you’ve got a really high intensity of cattle on a very small area of land. You then get compaction. Figures from the Ministry for the Environment suggest that something like 75% of intensively farmed land suffers from soil compaction and it worsens the other issues. Compaction breaks down the soil structure and you get all sorts of other problems like nutrient run-off and leaching.
I don’t know if this is coming up, or if I need to mention it here. But arguably the biggest impact on our waterways is nutrient enrichment causing eutrophication. The pathway for it is mostly (80%) through urine. A cow peeing a large volume of urine over a small area means that there’s no way the plants can pick it up, and it goes below the root-zone and down into the soil. It then makes its way into waterways and of course fencing doesn’t stop this. It’s all about intensification.
Your paper draws attention to the economic externalities of the dairy industry, where “externalising costs encourages activities that are damaging to society, even if they result in considerable private benefits” (710).
That’s right. Even if you forget about the monetary costs of cleaning up after the industry, the unsustainability comes from making food out of fossils. In the last 20 years we’ve doubled the number of cows but we’ve quadrupled the milk output. Where did that come from? Each cow is producing twice as much as it was 20 years ago and that’s because of palm kernel, synthetic nitrogen, and phosphate fertiliser. All of this energy is coming in from overseas. In the case of the synthetic fertiliser, one third is from the gasfields in Taranaki and two-thirds from the Middle East. That’s the unsustainable part — we’re making milk out of fossils.
We’re the biggest net importer of palm kernel in the world. We’re importing another country’s nutrients that was held in the palm kernel production areas. The kernels, the leftover bits, should go back on the land to break down and put the nutrients back into the soils. Instead we bring them over here to feed cows and it’s totally unsustainable.
You estimate the environmental costs of the dairy industry as “between NZ$2.1 and $15 billion on a national scale.” (716). Placing the environmental impacts into monetary figures allows for a comparison between these costs and the value of the dairy industry to New Zealand’s economy, which is estimated at $16.6 billion. Do you think this change in language has been effective in getting people talking about environmental impacts? Has the dairy sector altered its practices?
Farmers will go on about how they’re not subsidised and overseas farmers are subsidised. But they’re totally subsidised. It’s not a direct subsidy in the form of cash paid to them, instead it is an indirect subsidy in that they’re allowed to pollute and get away with it and we don’t charge them for the damage that they do. It’s a really big externality of the industry.
There’s a study that did a comparison between the benefits of dairy and forestry on the central plateau to the local community. The study shows that it was negative $18 million for doing dairy and it was plus $30 million to do the same area in pine trees. They based that on the carbon price of $7.00 and there is a difference of $48 million. And this is just on a couple of thousand hectares, this isn’t the whole of New Zealand, this is just a small chunk of the central plateau. But it shows you the extent to which we subsidise dairy and the extent to which it doesn’t pay its full cost. And because it is exempt from the Emissions Trading Scheme, it is given another subsidy.
On a blogpost on Million Meters: Stream Project you run through the legislation that protects native fish and state: “in reality there is no practical, legal, or functional safeguard at all for our native fish.” Absurdly, only one fish species is protected and it is the grayling which went extinct in the 1930s. Has there been any legislative progress on this issue lately?
No, none at all. Isn’t it bizarre you can pass a law in 1983 to protect a fish that had gone extinct at least 50 years earlier.
There has also been media attention on commercial whitebaiting as something that directly impacts the freshwater fish population. You spoke with Jesse Mulligan on RNZ in December last year and suggested the practice should be banned by protecting our native fish species.
Not a ban, but a ban on commercial fishing. Whitebaiting is important to New Zealanders and is part of our lifestyle. I accept that people will want to keep doing it, even though the fish species will probably go extinct anyway.
But the commercial side of it is crazy — to have a commercial fishery operating on a number of threatened species. We commercially fish the longfin eel aswell and that’s an endangered, endemic species. And yet we are signatories to the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES), which is a ban on trade in endangered species. So we get on our high-horse about orangutans and whales but here, in our own country, every man and his dog goes and catches whitebait and eels which are threatened.
Could you run us through the species that comprise whitebait?
There are five of them and four of them are listed as threatened. They don’t look anything like whitebait when mature, people wouldn’t recognise them. The giant kōkopu, one of the adults, grows up to 300mm long and weighs a couple of kilograms.
Only one of the five species is not threatened, the banded kōkopu. However it’s not the most common of the whitebait species. The adults are quite common, and they prefer shady quiet streams. These are the little fish that people see in their backyards in little streams in Auckland and Wellington, all over the show. They’re a bit like sparrows, they’re not too worried by people.
Science and advocacy
Last year Shaun Hendy, former president of the New Zealand Association of Scientists, suggested that “scientists were coming under pressure from businesses, funders, politicians and fellow academics, and not least the public themselves,” and that this was limiting the number of people willing and able to talk on particular issues. Do you think this is the case?
Yes, definitely. It’s a huge problem. Many of my colleagues who work at Crown Research Institutes and regional councils would love to be able to speak out like I do, but they can’t. In their contracts it is stated they’re not allowed to say anything. Then there are a whole bunch of freshwater scientists who could speak out, but do not because it would threaten their funding.
That is concerning. Scientists need to have the freedom to speak out — it’s important for an open democracy.
It is the most crucial part of democracy. We have the role, as university scientists, to be the critic and conscience of society. We have it written into our Education Act. So any university scientist who doesn’t speak up about these issues is not actually doing their job, but they don’t because they’re going to miss out on funding.
When it comes to other scientists there’s this thing called advocacy. To be called an advocate is considered the worst thing by many scientists. There are some recent papers out on this issue and interestingly the public don’t feel the same way. The public are quite happy that scientists speak up, but for some reason the word advocate is a negative term amongst the scientific community. I’ve been thinking about this because it has affected my promotional opportunities. I didn’t get my last promotion because I was considered to be too much of an advocate.
But advocacy is in the eye of the beholder. If I were to speak up and say we should do more intensive farming, and put more fertiliser on, that wouldn’t be seen as advocacy as it fits with the government’s and university’s policy. That would be seen as me doing my job. If I speak up saying we shouldn’t do it, and that goes against the university’s and the government’s general policy around agriculture, then it becomes advocacy. It’s a label. If you’re going along with the status quo then it’s not advocacy, if you’re questioning the status quo then you’re an advocate.
Finally, just to make this a regular thing, what is your favourite colour?