16 Apr 2010

Travelblog: Unsustainable agriculture in NZ

I was perusing the local paper in New Zealand that had a story on its front page about a rugby player's worries about agricultural overuse of groundwater.

I sent this [unpublished] letter to the editor:
Sir --

I was interested to see your front page piece on March 10, in which Anton Oliver worries about the environmental sustainability of New Zealand's dairy industry. (I am currently visiting NZ on holiday.)

Although I am neither a local nor a resident of New Zealand (ahh, the nosy outsider!), I want to express my support for Mr. Oliver's fears. We in California -- home of the happy cow -- are now wrestling with water shortage and water pollution problems that can be directly traced to the dairy industry. Cows (and sheep!) require irrigated pasture and produce massive amounts of manure. The former uses and the latter pollutes ground and surface water, and farmers rarely pay the costs of shortage and clean-up that ensue.

I encourage politicians, environmentalists, and -- above all -- people in the dairy industry to be proactive in building a SUSTAINABLE dairy industry in new Zealand.

The alternative is less-tasty cheese from less-tasty places.
I also cc'd a few Kiwi colleagues, who sent these useful comments:
I am not sure that the water issues here are the same as they are in California, mostly because intensive dairying here is still about 1 cow per acre and is still ALL grass fed... There are however a number of people at UC Davis who would disagree with your claim that "water shortage and water pollution problems that can be directly traced to the dairy industry". While that was a popular opinion about 10 years ago, a few scientists in the Animal Science Department have shown that it is now an incorrect conclusion. I, like you, am not sure I believe all of it, but do believe that dairying is not as responsible for water pollution as we have previously given credence to.
I replied with:
I agree that grass is better than grain for feed, but the issue -- for either -- is the water used to irrigate the grass (see photo of the world's largest lawn sprinkler, being used to grow irrigated pasture for cow-food.). In *many* places we've passed (We're in Fjordlands now, after a tour that took us from Christchurch to Mt Cook to Dunedin to Invercargill), I saw irrigate pasture/alfalfa being grown. That's on the food side.

The manure side is probably better than in CA, with CAFOs, but there are still MANY animals shitting all over the place.
Another colleague replied with:
The dairy industry has expanded very quickly in New Zealand, and I expect there will be some environmental fallout. In the south, much of the conversion from sheep to dairy occurred concurrently with installation of serious irrigation technology. It was possible to farm sheep with little or no irrigation, but dairying is much more intensive.
That's the rub -- the intensity, or using a water supply up to, and beyond, its limits.

Bottom Line: It's possible to overuse water, even in New Zealand!


  1. A few years ago, I did some research and modeling as part of a project to help the State develop regulations for dairy CAFOs. The chemistry is quite complex, especially for nitrogen species, and there were some surprising findings. Neverthless I would be even more surprised to hear that the evidence of groundwater pollution by nitrates at certain dairies can now be attributed to something else... Can you provide any more information about the UCD research?

    My work suggested that those pastured cattle aren't much of a threat to groundwater, because most of the nitrogen offgasses to the atmosphere. It's CAFOs and lagoons that cause the problems, and any other management that causes a concentrated load in small areas.

  2. I read somewhere that those California happy cow commercials are filmed in New Zealand.

  3. To elaborate from a NZ perspective... During drought, cows are not always all grass fed here; grain can be used as emergency feed. Decreasing water quality in rivers and aquifers shows ample signs of ag contamination; dairying plays a huge role. Declining water quantity can't be pinned on dairying per se because the water use data can't differentiate among ag types so well yet.


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