Pissapocalypse: New Zealand’s Dairy Little Secret

  • New Zealand, home to 0.06% of the world’s population, contributed nearly 22% to the global dairy market in 2019.
  • New Zealanders are twice as likely to fall ill from campylobacter as Britons, and three times more than Australians or Canadians.
  • Half of New Zealand’s lakes are irreversibly damaged and two thirds of its rivers are too polluted to swim in.

New Zealand (NZ), as the world knows it, is a small, scarcely populated country with pristine and endless natural beauty. It supposedly has the clearest rivers and lakes, the most ancient forests, endless beaches, and a truly amazing wildlife with many endemic species. That is how NZ sells itself to the world, luring in millions of travellers every year, ignoring that half of its lakes are irreversibly damaged and two thirds of its rivers are too polluted to swim in. For many years the credo has been: ”Out of sight, out of mind”, but incidents such as the one in Havelock North, have sparked national and international attention and since then the ongoing pollution of the country’s freshwater has hit increased public resistance and put pressure on the affiliated lobbies and the often dysfunctional political agenda.

The massive expansion of New Zealand’s agricultural sector over the last decades is largely held responsible for the demise of the country’s once pristine freshwater resources. The correlation is well established. The increase in land used for dairy farming increases nitrate levels, which does not only lead to a significant decrease in biodiversity but also threatens the potability of public water supply.

The focus of New Zealand’s agriculture strongly lies on dairy products and since the 1990s, the country has established itself as one the world’s biggest exporters of dairy products. By now, New Zealand is home to about 10 million cows. Since 1994, dairy cattle numbers have increased 70 percent nationally (from 3.8 million to 6.5 million). In 2019 the country exported 6.3 billion USD in milk alone. That is 21.8% of the entire world market. Impressive numbers for a country that houses 0.06% of the world’s population (4.9 million). In comparison, Germany ranks second with US$2.9 billion in exports.

This agricultural ‘success story’ is shouldered by the country’s surface waters, soils, aquifers and the people of New Zealand. Not only is water taken from rivers to irrigate grasslands in order to feed more cattle, increased use of fertilisers, intensification of herding, as well as an increased amount of manure from pasture farming all damage the soil and cause it to erode. Most importantly, nitrate from agricultural waste easily drains from the soil and either ends up as direct run-off in rivers and lakes or slowly leaches into the soil where it ultimately contaminates groundwater. And it does so on a huge scale. Ironically, public goods such as rivers, lakes and aquifers are contaminated as an outcome of the government subsidising irrigation schemes with public money to further increase agricultural output. This is good for irrigation companies, fertiliser suppliers and all the people that depend on the sector, but it is not an environmentally sustainable way of doing business and the negative externalities will harm others in the long run – from drinking water bottling companies to public water supply.

Some cows grazing alongside Lake Hawea in the South Island

As of November 2017, about half of NZ’s rivers exceeded ANZG1 trigger values for Nitrate (compare figure 2). Densely populated and intensely farmed areas around Christchurch in the South Island and in Waikato in the North Island are in a degraded or acute state according to NOF2 toxicity levels. Forecasts predict an increase in rivers that classify as degraded. Over a 20-year period, from 1994 to 2013, nitrate-nitrogen concentrations worsened at 60.6 percent of sites and improved at 22.3 percent of sites that classify as pastoral land. Absolute concentration of nitrate-nitrogen are also significantly higher for pastoral land. For more information visit stats.gov.nz

A similar trend can be seen for NZ’s aquifers. The Ministry of Health set the potable limit for Nitrate at 11.3mg/L. Currently, 5% of groundwater monitoring sites already exceed that limit. Thirty-nine percent show concentrations that are elevated above natural background levels. It is important to note that the elevated nitrate levels, measured today, stem from fertilization and farming 30-40 years ago. With the intensification of agriculture and the increased fertilization, nitrate levels groundwater will most certainly rise throughout the next decades before the bigger picture settles in and livestock farming and intense fertilization is capped. While, the intake of general consumer goods seems not to pose any health concerns presently, elevated Nitrate intake has been linked to certain types of cancer (Ref 1, 2, 3) and many well and private borehole owners are already advised to use bottled water to make sure newborns do not develop the blue baby syndrome.

”New Zealanders are twice as likely to fall ill from campylobacter as Britons, and three times more than Australians or Canadians” The Economist

The country has made some steps in the right direction. Along the “Dirty Dairying” campaign, launched by the Fish and Game Council, several farmers have been prosecuted and fined for unlawfully discharging effluent from dairy farming; and in certain places water quality has been improved by proper fencing. The overall problem, however, remains. New Zealand is still far from a sustainable dairy industry that does not harm its freshwater resources. Regional targets are often impeding one another, where both water quality ought to be improved and the amount of irrigated land at the same time. Even though the Government has set a target of making 90 per cent of New Zealand’s large rivers and lakes swimmable by 2040, it remains questionable how much the dairy industry will oppose the measures that are necessary to achieve this. On another note, aside of the loopholes of defining ”large rivers and lakes” and the relatively long time span, this may actually be achievable for surface waters as they are much easier to manage due to a much shorter turnover time. Deep groundwater, however, is an entirely different story and the government seems to be utterly unaware of the problem. The word aquifer is mentioned exactly once in the 47 page amendments to the 2014 Statement for Freshwater Management. Nitrate levels in aquifers may take very long times to increase, but they will take at least as long to decrease again. The country could already be set to worry about Nitrate in its drinking water well throughout the 21st century.

New Zealanders are not the first country to face difficulties with surface and groundwater contamination due to intensive livestock farming or overuse of fertilisers. The regulations that the country has set in place, are a starting point and go in the right direction, but ultimately lack the political will to properly regulate the dairy sector. While Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s widely popular prime minister, has made strides in turning the industry greener and famers have expressed their will to comply, it remains to be seen whether deeds follow their pledges and which compromises are struck in the end. For too long, one of the countries with the highest GDP per capita in the world has sacrificed parts of its single greatest export good – its pristine beauty – in pursuit of the white gold. Fortunately, latest developments seem to indicate that peak dairy has arrived. Rolling back from intensive land use in some catchments where even ’best practice’ is not sufficient to meet water quality targets is the only way forward if New Zealand’s waters are supposed to ever recover.

Christian holds degrees in Economics, Biology and Water Science from the University of Munich and the University of Oxford. He is a young water professional and currently serves as Managing Director at Oxenu - a consultancy for development and the environment.

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