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Food and Agriculture

The Land, of Milk and Money. An education on New Zealand’s dysfunctional dairy system

Photography by Tracey Creed
Words by Tracey Creed


Published September 21 2021

We recently watched Milk and Money: The True Cost of Dairy in Aotearoa. It is a six-part series by Re: investigating New Zealand’s dairy industry—episodes streamed on TVNZ OnDemand. And yes, you should watch it. Re: journalist and series host Baz Macdonald grew up in Southland, his family deeply connected to dairy. If you’ve never seen a farm in real life, it’s difficult to imagine it. After 18 months of preparation, Macdonald spent a week working as a dairy farmer, and you will find his account here.

If you’re a journalist and you’re consuming media, producing media, you’re exposed to this conflicted narrative between economic gains and environmental losses. It’s very fragmented. So this series connects the dots and inevitably concludes that we must rewrite rules so that there is a business case for sustainability. The article explains why the series was made.

Dairy milk is a concept, a European invention. It is a fact that only 35% of the human population can digest lactose beyond the age of about seven or eight. And those that retain the ability to digest milk can trace their ancestry to Europe—research published in Scientific American, where a single genetic mutation first let ancient Europeans drink milk. This visual on r/MapPorn illustrates this well.

Watching the series, you understand that governments, industry and lobbyists have created this system that is working to normalise the harmful consequences of industrialisation and the intensification of dairy.

The cultural aspect of dairy milk is supported by public human health misinformation, animal exploitation and insufficient regulation under the premise it is all-important to our GDP. In 2019, Canada dropped dairy as a food group from their nutrition guidelines. We have to ask ourselves if we want to financially support commercial and corporate interests that place profit above all other outcomes. And are we prepared for what is to come?

The only logical conclusion is that rather than perpetuate a dysfunctional system and declining industry built on billions of dollars of debt destroying our ecology, our Earth is to help dairy farmers get out of the dairy.

Episode 1: Money—How Aotearoa built its dairy empire on dollars of debt

As you get into this first episode, you realise that the majority of public opinion is very much attached to the romanticised idea of dairy. We're also relying on volatile overseas commodity markets because historically, we've engaged in intensive agricultural models that were degenerative for so long.

From 1985 subsidies were removed that had supported farmers for two centuries leaving dairy farmers vulnerable to global market forces. So when wool prices began declining as the fashion industry shifted to plastic, farmers pivoted to milk—and now that the dairy industry needs to give the Earth a break, the government should seek to support dairy farmers transition towards climate positive outcomes.

Young people who understand the climate change imperative are talking about regenerative farming—rarely discussed as a viable solution at governance scale. Dairy farmer Scott Mathieson explains how he wanted to reduce herd numbers, diversify his family farm. Still, instead, debt repayments required large scale land conversion and more debt on the promise of higher payouts. And now we see this sentiment that there is little hope to operate any other way within the current system—one that sees the dairy farmer's social equity and dignity restored.

In the past debt-funded land usage change from 2000 to 2015 saw a three-fold increase in farmer debt to $10 billion in hopes that the rise of global dairy prices would pay in back. It did not. Everyone can learn a lot from adopting a more resilient business model; for example, dairy farmers converting land use to grow hemp are already built around emerging markets and sustainable growth. They are not being affected tremendously by this storm. In the U.S, projects led by animal welfare groups offer hope, supporting dairy farmers to trade animal agriculture for alternative proteins. As a country, we must make it as easy as possible for youth to pursue careers in sustainable farming and support them with forward-looking agriculture policies grounded in the climate reality of 2021.

In 2020, dairy represented 25 per cent of exports, or $20 billion. But those KPIs and measures of success are out-of-date and unethical to our current crises. There will always be a natural tension for companies, for industry between profit growth and sustainability, but companies have to reevaluate how they measure their success, so it isn't just based on economic performance, but on environmental and social actions too. Greta Thunberg's December 2020 Tweet, sharing this piece by Marc Daalder, which is excellent, highlighting the lack of enthusiasm our government has demonstrated and that it will come nowhere close to meeting the IPCC's recommendation that countries reduce emissions to 45 per cent below 2010 levels by 2030. Agricultural emissions continue to rise, as reported by Tess McClure, published in The Guardian last month and Tweeted by Greta.

Dairy represents 3.5 per cent of all the money circulating in New Zealand. Imagining a more sustainable industry isn't just about more regulations, reducing cow numbers or levels of unethical fertiliser inputs. It's all of those things and much more. We need a higher level of ambition than ever before, an unprecedented level of innovation and collaboration. Near Dunedin, Otis Oat Milk has invested in a new factory—The Plant Plant and it will be the country's first vegan food and beverage facility. Concluding episode 1, we are asking ourselves how we [the government] can begin to develop sustainable strategies to protect our Earth—our natural resources but also continue to support local farmer profitability and market development. The path to net zero emissions by 2050 seems unlikely with agriculture exempt and our current efforts are rated as highly insufficient.

You can watch episode 1 here.

Episode 2: Water—The impact of dairy on our freshwater

The Incontinent Cows of Middle Earth, published in the New York Times, was a pivotal moment. Fresh Water Ecologist Dr Mike Joy brought public media attention to the dire state of New Zealand's freshwater. Prior to that article, the public didn't really understand what this [dairy issue] was about. Mathieson points out the public disconnect from its food supply. And while it can be difficult interconnecting ecosystems and issues, we need an entirely new way of thinking about food—one that starts with challenging the belief that animal protein consumption is necessary for health. Episode 2 encourages you to look more deeply, to see that food contains a lot more than the obvious elements one normally is exposed to.

Professor Michael Baker explains how the dairy industry essentially discharges 200,000 tonnes of faecal matter—untreated across the landscape. Many waste structures that exist are incredibly toxic. For instance, when we're looking at the dairy industry, what we see is excessive fertiliser [nitrate] runoff and cow poo pathogens entering our freshwater. This is why we see along Kapiti Coast that 74 per cent of fish make the threatened species list. There is also an excellent animation demonstrating how nitrates will remerge from polluted waterways a century from now.

And these nitrates are carcinogenic, now thought to contrite 4 per cent risk of developing colorectal cancer with farming communities most at risk. NZ has one of the highest rates in the world. In Winton Southland, for example, you don't drink the water. Period. There is a house visit where Jayne Richards [an Environmental Engineer] finds nitrate levels are 15.5 mg/L, and they should be less than 5 mg/L. Levels at high as 35 mg/L have been reported. Environmental groups are urging the government to commit to nitrate levels of 1mg/L since this 2018 study found anything above 0.87 mg/L increased bowel cancer risk.

"What is degrading the river is many things", explains Stu Muir, the Waikato farmer who restored a waterway on his property. This article from 2013—yes, that old, interviews Muir, his call to action as a custodian of the land [he is a fifth-generation farmer] is to reckon with its colonial past and to rectify it. He restored a 40-hectare native wetland area on his farm. Muir speaks of the importance of leadership that we can be creative in solving these issues, in addressing pollution, climate change, but essentially this requires legislation. "Farming is hard", he says “it is up to us [farmers] to make that change”. You can watch his TEDx Talk here. And so while lobby group DairyNZ continues to evade responsibility and its associated costs, you will see, however, that not all dairy farmers share this mentality.

There is literally zero regulation on how water is used in this country. Rights to water use and allocation follow no rationale. In recent years, land was converted that should never have been. For example, it takes 1000L of water to make 1L of milk in Canterbury and said Cantebury uses 70 per cent of the country's irrigation water. That makes for a very small return on investment. NIWA—the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research reports that the Canterbury Plains will experience more frequent droughts even under very mild climate change.

Last year Māori Environmental Planner, Dr Mahina-a-rangi Baker, successfully integrated Te Mana o te Wai into New Zealand water legislation that would seek to prioritise water health above usage. It sets out to establish a hierarchy of obligations—first to ensure the life-supporting capacity of water, second human rights [including drinking water] and third obligation to all other consumptive uses, including agriculture.

In describing the Māori worldview of water, Baker explains that water is discussed in terms of atua—how Māori deify phenomena or processes in the environment seen as divine, as life-giving. Currently, the system does not respect or uphold Māori world views and that there is an urgent need to change existing power structures. The indigenous way of thinking is an enduring way of thinking", explains Dr Baker. "Seeing waterways that we see as being our ancestor being degraded is like seeing a part of you being degraded."

What do models like this do culturally? Or is this model for a few to feel righteous? Based on this idea that we are above nature. Government can spend $700 million to clean waterways—again. Is this a sustainable model? We live in systems, so we can't hold individuals more accountable than we're holding systems accountable.

You can watch episode 2 here.

Episode 3: Feed and Fertiliser—NZ doubled dairy cows in 30 years, but it took 600 per cent more fertiliser

Many of the people featured in episode 3 seem unwilling to leave their old ways behind and adapt to the current moment. Here we also come to understand how keeping cows close for milking convenience resulted in pressures to grow more grass. It's how fertiliser usage increased 600 per cent by 1990. The fertiliser industry is causing immense damage to ecosystems across the world, research supports nitrates and cancer risk, and we live in a society that has normalised this use. In New Zealand, dairy accounts for 66 per cent of synthetic fertiliser applications, using on average 150 kg/ha. Earlier this year, it was reported 800,000 people were exposed to increased cancer risk because of elevated nitrate levels in our drinking water. Nitrates and drinking water are covered in episode 2.

Former Green Party co-leader Russel Norman, now executive director of Greenpeace New Zealand, believes we need to limit cow numbers. And he's not wrong. This article from 2017 states dairy farming uses the water equivalent of 60 million people, which is ridiculous but also in part because grass is cultivated in areas that were poor choices for dairy farms.

Stan Winter is an independent Fertiliser Consultant that worked during the dairy boom. His focus now—shifting away from compounds that contribute to the abundance of harmful wastes that pollute the Earth. He says fertilisers are inefficiently used. Winter focuses on natural and regenerative solutions, soil aeration, growing clover like the Europeans—methods that preserve and improve biodiversity in the soil, draw more carbon into the Earth from the atmosphere. He thinks farmers should get something for free.

This is an industry that is highly toxic. So, for instance, Greenpeace wants to see palm kernel expeller phased out—the cheap supplementary feed that is the byproduct of Indonesian deforestation. New Zealand is the biggest importer of palm kernel expeller. Bridging the gap between systemic human rights violations and climate change, continued use of palm kernel expeller only illustrates we have too many cows we can't feed them—that the system is broken.

Macdonald visited Ballance Agri-Nutrients, where an employee states they produce 300,000 tonnes of nitrogen fertiliser annually. And at this point, you realise the public doesn't understand what this is about, the milk, dairy cows. It is a system engaging in exploitation [of people and land] at the benefit of profit. And that system, as we see now, is not sustainable. This is a company that imports phosphate from Western Sahara—a highly controversial material.

Cows milk is a white idea built on a system of exploitation that continues to exploit human rights today. This phosphate was stolen when Morocco gained control over Western Sahara—and its resources. The continued oppression of the indigenous Sahrawi people demonstrates how our food choices are incentivising practices that compromise environmental and social justice. That article published on the Spinoff argues importation makes New Zealand complicit in a foreign war. Six countries still trade in it, and New Zealand is the second highest importer of Western Sahara' blood phosphate'. Macdonald questions Mark Wynne, CEO of Ballance Agri-Nutrients, on the ethics of sourcing Western Sahara phosphate, who does not see it as an issue. His bold evaluation," Our current agriculture system is very sustainable". He thinks we cannot do things the "old way" and have a responsibility to produce quality food and send that out to the world. This article published in Nature concludes differently. And that the high levels of food insecurity and obesity in this country are partly due to the very foods we export and import.

You can watch episode 3 here.

I will update this over the coming week, in the meantime, watch the other episodes below!

You can watch episode 4 here.

You can watch episode 5 here.

You can watch episode 6 here.

You can read the article on calf killing here.

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