An Auckland conference heard yesterday of the dramatically different future that faces farming as the Government moves on polluted waterways and climate change.

Simply, livestock numbers; both cattle and sheep; will need to fall substantially. 

Speakers at the Environmental Defence Society (EDS) annual conference talked of a perfect storm where the need to reduce nutrient runoff would force a drop in dairy cows while the campaign to plant a billion trees to meet climate change targets would see hill country currently carrying sheep replaced by forests.

No one was willing to put a number on how big the changes might be nor what their economic impact would be.

But all the signs are that it will be substantial and that there will be huge changes in how farmers farm and what they use their land for.

With Environment Minister David Parker promising a National Policy Standard to impose nutrient limits onto district plans by the end of this year the cutbacks in dairy cows will start soon.

Whilst there is general agreement that nutrients need to be cut back to clean up waterways, the data and science is still confused.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Simon Upton, a former Environment Minister and OECD Environment Directorate head told the conference that a report he was preparing which he expected would be ready in November had already identified huge gaps in the data on nutrient buildup and how what information we did have was interpreted and communicated.

He said that New Zealand had more of the least valuable data indicators and least of the most valuable.

“It’s a reflection of how difficult it is to gather the data,” he said.


Nevertheless, other speakers offered more radical assessments of the state of our waterways.

Alison Dewes, Head of Environment for Landcorp (the state-owned farm proprietor) said that World Health Organisation guidelines suggested that a limit of 50 milligrams of nitrate per litre be present in water used for bottle-feeding babies but that current limits for many farms in Canterbury were well above that.

Federated Farmers President Katie Milne argued that the focus should be on the worst cases first.

“There are best practices, best ways to get to the crux,” she said.

“Let’s go to the hot points first.”

However, speakers could not escape the conclusion that a reduction in nitrates would lead to a reduction in cow numbers and possibly even a movement, particularly in some parts of Canterbury, right out of dairying into other agricultural activities such as crops.

EDS solicitor, Madeleine Wright, said there was a need to be upfront about this and that it could not be shied away from.

“There are multiple drivers that are leading to land use change in urban environments and rural environments as well,” she said.

“It is inevitable, and the National Policy Standard on freshwater isn’t going away.”

Hugh Logan, a former head of the Ministry for the Environment and current chair of the Land and Water Forum, said there seemed to be a perfect storm bearing down on the agricultural sector.

“There are freshwater limits, greenhouse gas limits, climate change changes, biosecurity issues particularly Mycoplasma Bovis and the rise of animal-free protein food,” he said.

Logan asked Martin Workman, the director of water at the Ministry for the Environment, whether these factors would change farm management and land use practices.

Workman said land use practices had happened in the past and were happening now.

He said government policy changes were important and farmers needed certainty.

Milne said there was a dilemma.

“We’ve got the perfect storm coming through,” she said.

“We’ve taken 150 years to get here and if we have become the best at what the world does around food production.

“We’ve got the lowest footprint of water use, of carbon and it was because we were in the right spot in a lucky country.”

Milne said she milked 200 cows at Lake Brunner on the West Coast.

“I have land. I have an asset in five or 10 years time I may be growing or doing something completely different.

“You know there are things like hemp.

“And hemp has a good growing season on the West Coast.

“So there are a whole lot of other things that in the future we could be doing.

“Let’s not be afraid to look at what these opportunities are.”

A whole session was set aside to discuss Shane Jones’ billion trees programme, and it was evident there was some scepticism about the way it is being rolled out but what was clear was that the trees, whether they were exotic or indigenous, would replace livestock on hill country.

Oliver Hendrickson, the Director of Spatial and Forest management at Forestry New Zealand, said a lot of the land that was suitable for the trees was in private ownership.

“And a lot of this is sheep and beef country,” he said.

It is early days yet in the billion trees programme but inevitably, as it gets underway, there will be questions about the loss of farmland to forest.

When that is added to the equally inevitable cutbacks in dairy herds the net effect will be fewer livestock in New Zealand.