Fewer cows no easy task

Environment Minister David Parker is continuing his campaign to clean up New Zealand's waterways.

It is not as though New Zealand has not had plenty of warning. In June last year, Mr Parker made the point of saying Labour would make it tougher for farms to intensify operations under a 12-point freshwater policy.

The party's policy sought to crack down harder on polluters, make all rivers and lakes swimmable, and extend freshwater quality standards.

At the weekend, Mr Parker indicated he wants fewer cows per hectare because the number now is higher than the environment can sustain.

This will not be done through a raw cap on cow numbers. Instead, it will be done on nutrient limits, the amount of nutrients that can be lost from a farm to a waterway.

Earlier, the Our Land 2018 report, released for the Ministry for the Environment and Statistics New Zealand, confirmed the need for more action to improve land management.

The report found New Zealand loses about 192 million tonnes of soil each year to erosion, of which 84 millon is from pasture land. The high volume of soil being swept into the waterways is choking aquatic life.

At that time, Mr Parker expressed his concern about how much urban growth is occurring in irreplaceable highly productive land. Even in a country as lucky as New Zealand, there are only limited quantities of these high-class soils.

The minister is taking his concerns to the next level on waterways by declaring an interest in reducing cow numbers. There will be no compensation, he says. You do not compensate people for stopping pollution.

Interestingly, Mr Parker admits to no analysis being carried out on what the economic effects would be. He says it is very difficult to model, because second-best from the farmer perspective may still be close to the same outcome profit-wise.

He offers some alternatives. One of the answers to this in South Canterbury lies in land-use change towards more cropping and more horticulture, which are high-value land uses. And the reason they do not currently happen is the high labour costs in New Zealand.

Continuing a theme he raised with the Otago Daily Times last week, Mr Parker questions why it is that Central Otago grows the best apricots in the world but New Zealand imports apricots like ``rubber bullets''.

Apparently, the reason is because New Zealand has labour-cost disadvantage.

This is a difficult issue. On one hand, Mr Parker wants fewer cows and a change back to arable farming, or more horticulture. If South Canterbury farmers could make more money from crops rather than cows, there is a chance they would have stayed in crops.

Already, it has been acknowledged by many past market gardeners they cannot make a living from their rich soils. Those highly productive soils are being lost to urban spread.

Federated Farmers insists recent studies show progress in reducing polluted waterways is already being made. Work needs to be faster, as it is possible the Government will regulate to reduce cow numbers, forcing a change in the business model of many farmers.

Fewer cows may mean fewer farming jobs, jobs that have allowed many dying rural communities to again thrive.

Is the minister really suggesting New Zealand wages are too high, after Labour in Opposition criticised employers for continuing with a low-wage economy?

One of the major items of research will be on the impact of this on the income of dairy farmers, some of whom are greatly indebted to banks and other financial institutions.

Without some form of compensation, these farmers will oppose any change and it is unlikely the matter will be solved before the next election.



There have been some rather grim articles about the state of the world economy. The European Central Bank has pumped 2 trillion Euros into the EU economy in the last 2 years to kickstart some growth. The latest hints of a trade war with the US have led to reports that Germany could easily slip into a recession. There is a lot more than that going on. Is now a good time to be scaling back our biggest export earner?




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