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Dirty dairy in New ZealandGareth Morgan

Federated Farmers need to own their shit

The problem with Conor English is that he stubbornly refuses to answer the charge that Fed Farmers think that it is a birthright for its members to vandalise the environment and smash the rights of others, all for the pursuit of profit.

Nothing wrong with profit of course, it’s the market measure, but when it comes about from treading over the rights of others, public policy is sadly lacking. Mr English doesn’t agree.

While increasingly local authorities and the Environment Court are saying it’s not okay and that other people’s rights matter, reflecting our maturing as a society and the resource exploitation has limits, the Fed Farmers that Conor English is leading, spits the dummy over such outrageous liberalism.

Why otherwise are the Feds challenging the Environment Court in the High Court?

It seems to be central to this Conor English-led Federated Farmers that despoiling the environment is okay. Listen to the clip you’ll hear him say the local council is discharging raw sewerage so why pick on farmers? Justifying a wrong by benchmarking it against another wrong is not the sharpest logic to deploy.

 No more pollution is acceptable so it doesn’t matter how high the hurdle is.

Let’s repeat it. If Fed Farmers’ view was that you can’t despoil the environment for others in your pursuit of personal gain, it would not be squealing and saying the Environment Court is raising the barrier too high in terms of what pollution is acceptable. No more pollution is acceptable so it doesn’t matter how high the hurdle is.

That’s the issue here and as the dairy herd increases from 2 to 4.5 million and ever upwards, this constraint will enforce a change in farming practice. If you want more cows and you’re not allowed to impact the waterways with their presence, then you need to change practices. Connor English does not accept this, he argues farmers should be allowed to raise their pollution in line with their herd size. There is no logic to his lobby group challenging the Environment Court otherwise. Conor’s form of guardianship is not quite the kaitiakitanga that preceded industrial farming.

In a world where conservation is becoming more and more mainstream, reflecting our economic maturity farmers need more rational advocates than this. Fed Farmers may have jettisoned their ACT party leadership but it is evident they hold significant sway over government.

It’s noticeable that National are pulling back from siding with Fish and Game and conservationists challenging Fed Farmers through the Courts on this issue now, and instead are switching sides as the raw reality of rural politics is brought to bear on the Conservation Minister.

This fits with National’s demolition of the ETS, withdrawal from Kyoto and Steven Joyce’s championing of GDP growth founded on continued destruction of natural assets. We truly have stepped back to a conservative, non-progressive government.

My comments which sparked the initial debate can be found in this post – No right to profit by trampling over others


  • jh

    I heard Rod Oram say the government has a plan to increase [agricultural output by?] which would mean a doubling of the dairy herd.
    On Nine to Noon (Radio NZ)

    • Ross Carter-Brown

      Tell me more?

      • Victoria Adams

        Rod Oram @ 11.08 Tuesday 13 November

        Rod’s on the Nine to Noon Radio NZ program most Tuesday just after 11

        also most weeks his column is on the back of the Business segment of the Sunday Star Times.

  • Terri Standish-Zwart

    Shit? Really? It’s effluent. You’re better than that. There’s no need for that language just to sensationalise the headline.

  • Raf Manji

    Gareth, I had this debate with Roger Kerr back in 2004, after an article I wrote for the NBR on this subject. Surprisingly, he actually agreed with my view that polluters should pay. He did this only after I reframed the question as to whether businesses should pay all the costs they incur in their business. Of course they should! How could one imagine anything else? So perhaps we should reframe this debate to focus on the dull process of accounting for the full or true costs of the enterprise. Surely no one could argue about that? Then it becomes a question of defining those costs. This is where the ecosystem and environmental economists come in to play. Stick it on the P+L like any other cost and see the behaviour change pretty quickly.

    • matt wooster

      Totally agree as dull as the P&L logic is it’s any effective way to remove emotion from the debate that it’s a ‘green’ argument – if we are to be economically rationale and consistent all costs associated with production whether internal/external need to be accounted for and he or she who owns the profit line is accountable for the actions that drive costs as well as revenues. Anyway that was what taught when I started my business apprenticeship – why is farming any different?

    • Gareth Morgan

      I agree totally with this Raf

  • Realist

    Time to be aware of the solution too Gareth. A New Zealander designed a system that completely solves all dairy effluent problems over 20 years ago and has been repeatedly denied funding from the government. The regional councils have simply changed terms so that effluent sprayed on the land is now considered ‘treated’ even though it hasn’t been treated in any way and still contains all the nasty bacteria it started with. Even though the system has won several innovation awards, the government and local body councils continue to deny the existence of the problem… I am of course referring to Roy Harlow. Don’t just point out the problem, use your position to give publicity to the solutions.

    • Ralph Wahrlich

      Could you post a link to this system? Sounds very interesting. Cheers :)

  • hohum

    It took about 30-40 years to clear fell the majority of New Zealand low-midland forests to make way for farming. Farmers managed to achieve an astounding clearance programme in the pursuit of profits, surely they can pull fingers and avoid polluting the rest of the countryside in the pursuit of more.

  • patrickmorgan

    A modest proposal: farmers should source their drinking water from a point below the milking shed.

  • Richard Deeble

    That video was incredibly biased towards Federated Farmers.

  • eziryder

    Gareth, aren’t you associated with South American dairying interests that have nearly four times the stocking rate ( and associated nutrient leaching) of a typical NZ dairy farm?

    • Gareth Morgan

      Yes and we lock up 45% of our land in perpetual estate, so the stocking intensity overall is a fraction of what it is here. Further, we are the only dairy farm in the whole region so the stocking pressure is minuscule. But let’s stick to the point of the debate shall we? NZ to date is allowing the density of livestock per region to keep rising without check. Do you think there might be a point where that becomes an issue? And if so where might that point be? Answer that and I’ll acknowledge you have substance.

      • eziryder

        Firstly, at a stocking rate of 4 times NZ, and lock up of 45%, the “fraction” is actually over two. (for your readers information, these cheek by jowl units each run 500 cows on 55ha, all outdoors). So you have no neighbors at the moment and this makes it OK?

        Secondly, our dairy unit in the Horizons region already has a limit on cow numbers.

        The point i’ll make is that I think you are underdone on this issue. Horizons had worked through various iterations of “One Plan” with all the regions stakeholders and were stymied at the post by an intransigent Fish and Game (those paragons of virtue, introducers and defenders of all our exotic “game” pests). So the Court has ruled that we have to go back to the original pre-consulation version.

        Of course this decision has to be challenged. And by the way, “shit” is not the problem. Nitrates are. “One Plan” relies on a half baked computer model (Overseer, now in version 6) to produce nutrient budgets. The RMA was supposed to be effects based, crude computer modeling is not effects based.

        So get on your bike (literally, you are welcome to visit), cut out the gratuitous insults, and become part of the solution. As pointed out at the beginning of this reply, you are already part of the problem.

        • Gareth Morgan

          The point about Brazil is the issue isn’t significant because of the overall intensity of livestock farming per region. Anyway we’re talking about the rules in NZ right, so neither Brazil, Germany or Malawi are relevant. We can park that distraction as smartass reactionism and focus on the actual issue that’s being discussed.

          As has already been commented elsewhere the alarmists’ claim that the loss of profitability will be crippling isn’t supported by the scenarios relevant to Horizons Plan. Sure you can get a big loss of profitability if you keep stretching the assumptions but as you do that you get further and further from the plan, making that claim irrelevant, a straw man. Neither David Carter nor Conor English acknowledge that, which is what the High Court thing is about.

          My question of FF is very simple – do you think it’s okay to deprecate the environment for others in pursuit of profit without at least compensation being paid and preferably 100% compensation? It’s a question not just relevant for farmers but of course for all polluters. Rather than getting angry & lashing out Paul, face reality – those farmers that remain backward on this issue are being called and changed farm practices – as is happening anyway with most enlightened farmers – are appropriate.

          Anyway my greater concern isn’t the inertia of a few backward farmers squawking about having to be responsible, it’s more about the underlying Fonterra model which still, after all these years, equates profit growth with more cows. This means this problem is going to get worse and worse as the NZ dairy industry quite rationally pursues profit growth through a larger national herd.

          When the next most profitable investment in the industry is putting cows on the side of the Southern Alps you can see how we missed the boat here on an international integrated dairy business, and why we’ve fallen so much further behind Nestle and Kraft. We’re still trying to make it by milking more and more cows. That’s fine if that’s what the cooperative farmer/shareholder model chooses, but don’t expect a free ride on despoiling the environment for others. Pay your dues.

          • eziryder

            Gareth, its called disclosing an interest.

            Back to the FF appeal, of course most dairy farmers don’t believe in depreciating the environment in pursuit of profit. Its all a question of balance and tradeoffs.

            Consider the Manawatu catchment. This has endured heavy modification since human settlement. Maori burning of the northern fringe, total clearance of the 90 mile bush, discharge of semi treated sewage by both rural and urban European occupation, continuous extraction of shingle, and mad Muldoons hill country clearance scheme of the 70’s. All this has a turned a highly attenuated catchment into a flood channel with very low summer flows.

            I know that F&G would like to see the river preserved as a highly modified facsimile of an english chalk stream so that they can sport with their introduced “river rats” all day long, but seriously, where is the baseline?

            The tannin stained river of pre-history? The un-swimmable reeking lower reaches of the 80’s?

            Even an economist is going to struggle to sheet costs home to where they lie.

            In light of this litany of insult, Dairy’s contribution in the Manawatu is actually fairly small, (and reversible). Forget the shock horror images of cows defecating in watercourses, these are invariably beef animals (even your own image). Technology advances, and techniques to reduce leaching of nitrogen such as Less N and slurry application are making an impact. Given encouragement ( which the current “One Plan” doesn’t), we have the topography on our own unit to intercept ground water and volatilise nitrogen in wetlands.

            I would like to see less partisan science in all this. When I see a “scientist” stand up on TV, as he did last night, to say that 94% of our rivers are un-swimmable, and its all down to dairy, it displays the same sensationalist shit that passes for discourse in this country a la fracking, cellphone towers etc etc.

            Regarding your low opinion of Fonterra, I have supplied and installed capital plant internationally for both Nestle and Fonterra for many years, and have to say that Fonterra compares very favorably. Nestle have been able to build their business behind a bulwark of subsidized dairy production and tariffs. Remember those hapless Kiwi’s banged up for smuggling…..butter! I recall seeing single milk cans wheeled out to the side of the road for collection in Europe. Fonterra has a strong commitment to research with the facility in Palmerston North. Even your baby, Leitissimo’s added value only extends to “squirting it into the bottle”

            International access is changing very very slowly. Canada is ditching the TPP in favour of a FTA with China, one of the expressed reasons being to protect their dairy industry.

            Have a read of Fonterra’s strategy refresh, or review the quality of farmer directors standing. Stick your hand up as an independent non exec even. Its harder than it looks.

          • Gareth Morgan

            It’s not an interest so just a time waster actually Paul. Anyway enough of the distractions, the only substantial point you raise is what the standard is for the rivers. It is in the RMA, defined by the science. Feel free to criticise it using the same rationale that established it. Otherwise just accept it and move on.

          • eziryder

            Jeez, you’re a hard marker Gareth!

  • amolwan

    quote from Gareth, much money in brain,

    “The problem with Conor English is that he stubbornly refuses to answer
    the charge that Fed Farmers think that it is a birthright for its members to
    vandalise the environment and smash the rights of others, all for the pursuit
    of profit”


    the problem with Gareth Morgan is that he i thinks he knows everything ,so arrogant that he thinks it is his wealth right to tell us all how to think, what taxes to pay, where to put our cow, many cows we can have, where we can live inside these spaces, and what we should think and his intellect is fragile

    • Gareth Morgan

      Your point being?

  • p.carey

    I’m a soil scientist and here are a few thoughts relating to dairying in NZ:

    Most dairy farmers (>80%) are concerned about their environmental performance and motivated to make changes as long as they KNOW they will work. There are quite a few recalcitrants, however, and they should be stood on heavily.

    If every farmer followed best practice we could probably sustain the
    stocking density we currently have without undue effects on the
    environment but of course, like every other walk of life, we have the
    good, the average and the bad in terms of management ability and this
    makes a big difference as to what leaves the farm in terms of nutrients
    and bacteria into waterways and wells.

    There are, however, exceptions. Sometimes there is a natural limit for the number of farms a catchment, like Lake Taupo or Lake Brunner, can sustain because the climate, topography and types of soils means that its difficult to prevent losses if you have very porous soils and/or high rainfall and where everything drains to the lake or river. In those circumstances regulation has to be tighter and farms and
    cow numbers controlled unless it can be demonstrated that technology on
    farm will allow sufficient improvement that the limit can be increased. In these situations an overview of the whole catchment has to be taken not just a case-by-case basis that the RMA has created (death by a thousand cuts).

    Overstocking is an issue as farmers try to get production to a level where it makes them profitable enough to cover their mortgage costs because of the high cost of buying a dairy farm. Farmers farm for capital gain not profit, because we don’t tax capital gain, and this is driving farming intensity.

    It’s not just dairying, cropping farms can also contribute large losses of nutrients but you can’t see those because no cows are involved.

    Maybe we should consider housing cows for periods of the year, expecially over winter, as once you take the cow from the field a lot of the problems are removed as long as you don’t overstock. Cows like it as well.

    That’s enough!

    • Bruce Cunningham

      I would like to take exception to your quote “Farmers farm for capital gain not profit” If this had been written more than 4 years ago I would agree but 4 hours ago I am afraid you still have your head in the soil.

      I don’t entirely agree with Conor English and would like to class my self as one of the dairy farmers in the 80% category class referred to above.

      Gareth you are a good man at crunching the numbers, why not close down farming altogether and how would our economy look. I wonder how my investment in GKM would look then?

    • Gareth Morgan

      Good quality comment this, P.Carey. While recalcitrant farmers are an issue as those types are in any sector, I’m not focusing on them here. My concern is Fed Farmers attitude which as I said originally is quite retarded in the context of the mainstreaming of environmental responsibility. In effect Conor English & Co are saying – we have a right to pollute, to make the environment worse for others, because we’re farmers and very important you know. I find that attitude out of place this century, and possibly for the last half of the previous century.

      The core of the problem here is that the dairy industry is founded on a model which encourages farmers to keep raising the number of cows. From 2 to 4.5m so far and no upper bound on this whatsoever in terms of increasing profitability. This is the issue, Conor is struggling to understand it. So when we get to 10m cows will we admit it’s an issue? Many years ago the Dairy Board rejected the model of enabling profit to be returned to that part of the supply chain where it was actually made, in preference to a model that said all the return for the whole chain should accrue to the bloke behind the farmgate. It’s an incredibly dumb idea and I contested it with Dryden Spring at the time. Conor is clinging to the same fossilised notions Dryden championed way back then. The fallacy both Dryden and Conor choose not to recognise of course, is the only way the farmer/owner of the dairy industry can increase his profit, is to increase the number of cows he milks. No matter that the profit is actually made at the processing end, not for raw milk.

      Since those days Fonterra has tried all manner of means to align profit with investment in the industry, and to be frank, it’s shagging around the edges. The basic tenet remains; if you want to invest in the NZ dairy industry, buy some cows and if you want to invest more, buy more cows. Some of course have invested elsewhere in the supply chain, but is is piddllng compared to the on-farm investment which is the easiest way to get a stake in the industry.
      In summary then – investors have to buy cows and we are getting more and more of them. That practice is abusing our environment and all I’m saying is make the buggers pay for that and see how tenable that model of the industry is.
      Don’t think Conor will get on this, he’s a simple lobbyist.

  • realitycheck

    Hi Gareth, you quote that the dairy herd has increased to “4.5m”… Statistics NZ actually has dairy numbers at 6.2m (at June 2011).

    An interesting aside, Professor David Hamilton (Waikato Uni) points out that a dairy cow defecates 14-times (by volume) as much as human. So, 14 x 6.2m = 86.8 million human equivalents pumping UNTREATED crap and urine onto the land, into our aquifers and rivers and lakes. To Conor English and the other deniers/ostriches – how can that not be major problem?!

    Yes, urban wastewater is contributing to the water quality problems in this country but some points the Federated Farmers Union choses to ignore:

    1. The significant majority of the urban wastewater discharges are treated.

    2. The significant majority of urban settlements are coastal, therefore only impact the very lower reaches of catchments (and remember we’re not debating the imnpact on the marine environment).

    3. Tomes of research points to intensive agricultural as being the leading cause of waterway degradation. Connor – “tomes” means ‘lots’.

    4. Urban dwellers PAY for their pollution via wastewater treatment charges.

    Federated Farmers likes to harp on about how NZ farmers are the least subsidised in the world and yet, as you so rightly point out, their pollution is being externalised i.e the public pays for it through Govt clean-up handouts or lost recreational and tourism oppoortunities.

    And on the matter of subsidies, what about agriculture’s exemption from the ETS and the multi-million dollar ‘funds’ from Govt (read, taxpayer) for irrigation schemes, the dubious economics of which are increasingly being questioned.

    PS – It turns out that Feds’ scaremongering over the costs of farmers falling into line with the One Plan have been grossly overhyped, though that comes as little surpise from such an unscrupulous mob of rednecks!

    PPS – Good on you Gareth for keeping these twits in check. Can’t believe a lobby group with fewer than 8k members wastes so much of the Govt’s time!

  • amolwan

    ‘No more pollution is acceptable so it doesn’t matter how high the hurdle is’ a quote from Gareth Morgan ….The words of a zealot …quantitatively meaningless and logistically idiotic. A piece of claptrap you might think.
    One E.Coli in his tap water might be to much for Gareth, but the rest of us
    don’t want to pay for his high hurdle minded new tax burdens and social overlording to everyone.
    Gareth agrees with his commenter that all and every and imagined environmental cost should be attributed against the farmers, [ see the
    comments ] …. And also see this for high minded I know best, attitude,
    quote “ My concern is Fed Farmers attitude which as I said originally is quite retarded …. “
    Yes brothers and sisters gather.around ..for he and he alone can fix the economy and he can sort out the agriculture industry ….Yes he Gareth can fix New Zealand with a new 30% tax, and a new capital tax , social corrections, universal benefits,…environmental regulation, he will fix it all he says …a modest man and Parliament is all ears, not

  • Ross Calverley

    You are targeting the wrong people Gareth with an extremely personal attack. You should be attacking the councils’ sewage emissions which far exceed farmer’s emissions and are getting away with it scot free. The vast majority of farmers are very environmentally conscious unlike the councils of New Zealand.

  • Ian Gemmill

    RM Act is effects based. The impact of that is that farmers should treat or contain harmful effluent where it potentially contaminates a sensitive useful water resource. However, if the effluent discharges in rural back blocks, who gives a t%#s. As with reducing earthquake risk buildings, harmful discharges should be gradually removed, over time. Environmental care needs to be balanced with economic care.