Agriculture: National’s double whammy on the environment

By Cindy Baxter 15/11/2011

Here’s the first in a series of NZ election special articles from Hot Topic’s contributors. More pithy comment to follow… Last week I was open-mouthed when I heard the National Party release its environment and climate policy pretty much in the same breath as  releasing the agriculture policy (same province, same day). I can’t figure out how they thought these two things went together — well, in a good way anyway.

Climate change: no mention of the importance of the issue, the alarming reports coming from the scientists.  A lot of blather about keeping up (or perhaps “down” would be a more appropriate term) with other countries. Slowing down the ETS. Never mind that our actions are among the smallest in the industrialised world (see the Climate Action Tracker’s assessment here — rated “inadequate”).

Agriculture:  the sector most likely to undermine New Zealand’s climate policy. Our largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Essentially, Key confirmed that agriculture will continue in its role as climate killer by announcing that the sector will not be part of the ETS until – erm – when? Indefinitely, apparently. As John Pagani noted  in a post last week:

“When farmers say they don’t want to be “brought into the ETS”, that doesn’t mean that their emissions will not be paid for — it just means they won’t pay for them. You will. You subsidise them. Under the delays National announced yesterday, it is as if you sat down at the kitchen table and wrote out a cheque and handed it to a farmer.”

But if that wasn’t enough,  Key went on to give another massive subsidy to dairy farmers  –  a $400 million fund for irrigation. At this point I was beginning to think this was some kind of sick joke.

Clean water, said Key, is a major priority,  yet  National’s Policy on Freshwater management removes the need for a resource consent for land use intensification. And the main reason for our increased need for water around the country is industrial dairy. A 2010  article from NIWA says:

“We’re fast approaching water resource limits in some parts of the country, and pollution issues are threatening our clean, green brand.”

The quality of our lakes and rivers, NIWA tells us, is still in decline:

“There is no doubt that our declining river water quality over the last 20 years is associated with intensification of pastoral farming and the conversion of drystock farmland to dairy farming, particularly in Waikato, Southland, and Canterbury”

I grew up on a farm in Canterbury.  We had some irrigation for the traditional Canterbury farming practice:  mixed cropping. Dairy was a little-known activity for the Canterbury plains in those days – the “Dairy region” in New Zealand was the Waikato. Canterbury was too dry and we didn’t have enough water.

I moved away from the area in the mid-80′s and,  by the time I returned in 2004, I found the whole landscape of the plains had changed. Dairy rules now. Shelter belts have been cut down and replaced by massive irrigation schemes across the region.

In the early 1980′s, as environment reporter at The Press, I sat through weeks of hearings over the Water Conservation Order (WCO) on the Rakaia River: it was enacted in 1988.  Trustpower now wants to break that WCO apart to increase hydro power in Lake Coleridge and irrigate another 40,000 ha of land across the Canterbury Plains.

Nick Smith has  fast tracked  this application to his appointed Commissioners. From his statement:

“The application order  “does not vary the outstanding features of the Rakaia River recognised in the water conservation order, the minimum flow levels specified for each month, or the operating limits of Lake Coleridge in existing resource consents.”

However, according to  Fish and Game,  because the irrigation is outside the scope of the WCO, Trustpower has not proposed any mitigation options for the irrigation.  Nor has Trustpower done its homework on river flows to protect the salmon fishery.

I don’t know whether anyone else noticed this double-whammy for the environment: the continued assault on the climate and our waterways by agriculture, but it certainly wasn’t picked up by the mainstream media.