Dear world, please stop buying our milk

New Zealand has a problem, well we have lots of problems, but one of the largest that almost nobody wants to talk about is the dairy industry.

To put it into perspective, New Zealand has around 6.5 million dairy cows, who earn us an impressive $15.5 billion dollars in export earnings a year and rising – rapidly.  When you consider that we only earn about $38 billion in total, it is easy to see why people get nervous talking about the problem with the dairy industry.

New Zealanders will consume 21219 megatonnes of fluid milk this year, but that is a mere drop compared to what we will export.
New Zealanders will consume 21219 megatonnes of fluid milk this year, but that is a mere drop compared to what we will export. 

At home in 2010, New Zealanders were drinking down $277 million in fresh milk alone.  Now, add in all the cheese, butter, ice-cream, cream and yoghurt, along with all the milk and milk product that gets added to other food (as I found out from going vegan, almost everything has dairy added) and it’s amazing that we haven’t turned into cows by now.

However, the domestic market for diary is largely a side issue, as diary consumption within New Zealand has been in decline, mainly due to rising prices.  Over 90% of the milk we produce, according to Fonterra , goes overseas.

And this is the real problem, because the dairy industry is pushing hard to be allowed to intensify production for export beyond what our waterways and soil can manage.  In fact, some might even argue that we are already at this point.  The dairy industry wants to have 400,000 hectares farming dairy by 2020, not because we want more milk, but because other countries (especially Australia and China) are willing to pay high prices for our milk.

The Bridal Veil falls showcases New Zealand's beauty.
The beautiful bridal veil falls showcases New Zealand’s beauty.


This is the reality of the Wairarapa we tend not to put on our postcards.
This is the reality we tend not to put on our postcards.


New Zealand’s Dairy Dilemma

Which brings me to the opinion piece by Keith Woodward in the Sunday Star Times this weekend.  Woodward is Professor of Farm Management and Agribusiness at Lincoln University and is on the side of the diary industry,  But even he spends the first half of the article trying to talk away all the problems with the dairy industry.

I cross the Waikato River every day. I love to walk by the river. It may look beautiful, but it has been classified as not safe for human contact. It runs through the intense dairy farmlands of the Waikato.

According to Woodward, the problem is that “many New Zealanders are inherently negative about our largest industry. The problem is that dairy is perceived as polluting the rivers of New Zealand.”  He then goes on to describe just how terrible dairy farmers have been to the environment – historically.  Of course, now,  “new regulations are really biting hard. The reality is that the future for dairy is going to be very different than the past.” Nice try Woodward!

Then, in an attempt to truly reassure (?) everyone that their perception of the dairy industry is wrong he reminds his readers of the DCD issue from a couple of years ago!

Basically, his conclusion is that yes, dairy intensification is terrible for the environment, but what choice do we have?

“If dairy were not so important to our economy, then the solution would be obvious. We could simply replace dairy with something else. In the real world that is no solution.    …   The simplest way would be to de-intensify. But reducing cow numbers is only a partial solution as the remaining cows will still produce high nitrogen urine.   …   De-intensification may work at the farm level. But at the national level, farming less intensively will impact heavily on export income, upon which we all depend.”

What is his solution?  Factory farming! Apparently, we can increase our cruelty to dairy cows, while still damaging our soil and water, but at least we won’t have to change our economic base.

“Our major overseas competitor is now the United States. The main system they are using is to fully house the cows. This is capital expensive but it can provide a very high level of effluent control. Importantly, the Americans are showing that they can be internationally cost competitive with these systems.

Fully-housed cows produce a lot more milk than either grazing cows or partially housed cows. They also convert feed to milk with considerably increased efficiency. The key advantage the Americans have is that they are much more cost efficient at cut-and-carry feed systems than we are in New Zealand. In New Zealand, we still have lots to learn.”

A factory dairy farm in Germany.  This cannot be an acceptable solution to our economic dependence on dairy.
A factory dairy farm in Germany. This cannot be an acceptable solution to our economic dependence on dairy.

This make me ill just thinking about it. Somehow we have to get New Zealanders to care as much about the welfare or even rights of animals (good luck with that one) as they care about the environment. The solution to lobbying by the dairy industry to intensify production cannot be factory farming.

It might be helpful to remind ourselves that dairy farming, even in the Waikato, has not always been our major export earner. Remember the wool industry – all the soil erosion, scrub clearing and prosperous in our waterways?

Ever since Pakeha arrived and started exploiting and exporting, our natural resources have diminished dramatically until we are at the point now where we either take a long, hard serious look at how our economy operates and get real, or we lose it all.

The dairy industry, animal cruelty issues aside, is part of an old mind set that has to change. There are limits to what we can do with our environment.  That tree-hugging, hippy organisation known as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), no less, has  a lot of really disturbing things to say about the link between animal agriculture and climate change.


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