New Zealand prides itself on an image of “clean and green” – an image we use to promote ourselves overseas. Tourists visit our islands to experience nature and exporters ubiquitously market NZ products as ‘pure’ and uncontaminated. Green we might be. Clean we are not.
“There’s two worlds. There’s the picture postcard, which is Queenstown and up in Mt Cook and all that kind of stuff which is perfect and where they make the Hobbit movies, and all that is amazing. But most of New Zealand, 70 per cent of it isn’t like that. It’s actually really badly polluted and we are just getting worse and we crucially need to have that clean green image to sell all of our products overseas.”
A couple of years ago, the New York Times ran a piece busting our little snow-capped façade. Rightly pointing out that we are deluding ourselves and the rest of the world with our “clean and green” promotion. The reality is very different. As the article points out, one of the main culprits (for most of our environmental problems) is animal agriculture. It is also the issue we are most reluctant to talk about.
DairyNZ kindly lays it out for us in a handy little fact sheet (2014): 4.7 million milking cows on 1.7 million hectares producing 20.7 billion litres of milk. In a country of only four and half million people, most of that milk product (over 90%) heads overseas. This earns New Zealand an impressive $NZ 18.1 billion (36% of NZs total export earnings) and employs 40, 700 workers directly on farms or as part of the manufacture and process system for milk product.
That’s just the dairy industry. When you start adding sheep, beef, goats and deer to the numbers you can begin to see why we are so reluctant to address the problem.
Pig meat (93,718 tonnes) is for domestic consumption, not export. Poultry meat totalled 177, 376 tonnes in 2013 almost all of it consumed in New Zealand and almost all of it chicken, or about 90, 000 birds. Without question chicken is New Zealand’s favourite meat.
Crucially, this means that not only is animal agriculture and its products a key component of our national identity, it is also our livelihood, which goes a long way towards explaining our reluctance to talk about this issue; we have a vested interest in not facing up to it.
Prime Minister, John Key at the recent G10 meeting in Brisbane did his best to brush the problem away. He reluctantly acknowledged that “methane and nitrous oxide from pastoral agriculture were major contributors to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions”, but gave a verbal shrug to the whole idea that there was anything we could do to change it.
John Key: “If the behaviour you’re trying to change is something you have no answer for and the farmer can’t control – the methane and nitrate emissions from the animal – then aren’t you just really putting a tax on them for the sake of it?” The national newspaper The New Zealand Herald praised him for defending the dairy industry.
Then in November, Key was falling all over the Chinese Government delegation to sign deals that are set to earn animal agriculture, specifically dairy, beef, sheep and horses, even more money. The Yili Chinese group are going to start investing hundreds of millions of NZ$ to intensity dairy production (as factory farming) in New Zealand. Almost nobody is challenging this. Why are we risking our sustainability (already at breaking point) to satisfy the growing demand in China for our overpriced milk? A demand created our own marketing campaigns. Campaigns promoting on our ‘clean, green’ or ‘pure’ image.
It would appear New Zealanders are not alone in their inability to connect the dots. A research report out this month by London based Chatham House, The Royal Institute of International Affairs highlights just how clueless people around the world are about the link between animal agriculture and climate change (let alone other environment issues!).
According to the report, meat and dairy consumption is on the rise globally, but an understanding of how this contributes to climate change is woefully low. This is possibly one of the most serious issues facing our ability to maintain an ecosystem that can support us and most remaining life on this planet, yet the media and world leaders largely ignore it.
New Zealand is on the wrong side of history. We are investing our future in the wrong industries. No amount of whale saving, nuclear banning, Greenpeace protecting, wind farm building, forest replanting, native bird sanctuary creating is going to mean much if we don’t change our economic base. It won’t matter that almost all of our energy comes from renewable resources, if we refuse to face up to our contribution to and promotion of significant activities that cause climate change.
New Zealand, let’s stop pretending we are clean, green eco-warriors leading the charge for a sustainable global future. Let’s stop telling the rest of the world what to do. Let’s face up to the fact that our economic dependence on animal agriculture is a threat to everyone, including ourselves. Let’s stop attending environmental conferences on our way to trade delegations to sign trade deals that promote consumption of products like dairy, wool and lamb.