A new independent survey shows New Zealanders believe the economy is either too heavily dependent on dairy farming (37%) or the growth of intensive dairying has gone too far (31%).
Only 19% believe the country should continue to grow dairy farming, with more cows per hectare if necessary, the survey finds.
The ‘Farming and the Environment Survey’ of 3134 respondents aged 18+ was commissioned by Fish & Game NZ and conducted independently by Horizon Research Limited, with a margin of error of just ±1.8%.
Fish & Game NZ chief executive Bryce Johnson says while the organisation’s primary interest relates to the habitat of trout and salmon and the pursuits of freshwater angling and game bird hunting which are enjoyed by many thousands of New Zealanders, this research proves that Fish & Game and the wider public are united when it comes to freshwater issues.
“The sole focus on ramping up primary sector growth – notably intensive dairying – whatever the costs, has put the economy on a collision course with the environment and public opinion,” he says.
“What this research shows is that nine out of 10 New Zealanders fundamentally link their Kiwi identity and lifestyle to their natural environment. It also exposes that a very clear risk of losing support exists for political parties which introduce policies promoting economic growth without guaranteed safeguards to protect the environment.”
“Kiwis are clearly very concerned about both the economic direction we’re heading in, as well as the impact it is having on the environment and lifestyle, particularly our waterways and the ability to recreate and gather food from them.”
Asked about New Zealand’s rivers and streams, over 92% said either all waterways (56.8%) or the majority (35.8%) ‘should be safe for swimming, fishing and food gathering’.
However, 70% of Kiwis say the expansion of dairy farming has made the quality of our fresh water worse than it was 20 years. Only 6% believe it is better. Even among farm managers and owners, there was agreement (65%) that water quality has worsened after two decades of unconstrained dairy growth.
“Contrary to the current situation in which the general public is picking up the bill, there is overwhelming agreement that those who pollute our waterways should be made accountable for their restoration,” Mr Johnson points out.
Some 89% support this view while only 1.6% disagree. Agreement for this polluter-pays principle sweeps across all occupations, including farm owners and managers (76%) and supporters of all political parties in Parliament.
Of particular interest was the strong overall support (73%) for requiring dairy companies to take formal responsibility for the environmental performance of their contracted suppliers – currently not the case, with the struggling role falling to regional councils funded by ordinary ratepayers.
“Surprisingly, this support rises to 82% among farm owners and managers, so there’s very little political risk in addressing this oversight,” says Mr Johnson. “This could probably be handled in part via a simple amendment to the Dairy Industry Restructuring Act 2001, and would have the effect of internalising the accountability and cost where it belongs.
Actions farmers are expected to take under the voluntary new Sustainable Dairying: Water Accord were presented to respondents – such actions are to take place in the next six to 16 years, with no obvious sanctions for not meeting the targets.
Almost eight of every 10 New Zealanders want livestock fenced out of waterways – including small streams currently not part of the accord – as a mandatory requirement; there is 70% agreement for farmers implementing the accord within five years or less; 60% want compliance with the accord to be regulated, with a further 30% wanting regulation if the voluntary moves fail to improve water quality.
Mr Johnson expects that the survey results will come as a shock to many in the agriculture sector where the long-held presumption has been that farming enjoys the popular support of the wider public.
“That has clearly all changed as a consequence of the bullish attitude of the dairy industry, and while many farmers are doing their best environmentally the sector has simply gone too far with the industry leadership and regional councils failing to deal with the poor performers.
“The survey results speak for themselves, and the dairy companies now have to assume the pivotal role of dealing to the poor performers in their industry in defence of those good farmers.
“It’s clear Kiwis aren't buying into the industry or Government spin about their commitment to improved water quality.
“What is desperately needed is a new strategy to farm smarter – Tomorrow’s Farming Today! It is helpful that there is a growing body of evidence and independent experts promoting a shift away from dairy companies’ push for volume towards individual farmer profit – fewer cows, on the same amount of land, requiring less fertiliser, labour and animal health inputs.
“The need to require the dairy industry to be on an environmentally sustainable footing is a no-brainer in the minds of the vast majority of Kiwis. The sector might believe it enjoys a ‘licence to operate’ but that is quite clearly in the process of being withdrawn by the public.”