Big milk gets a boost from government, despite concerns from the Commissioner for the Environment.
Fonterra currently processes about 80% of New Zealand’s milk so any incentives for farmers to increase production risks increasing the size of the national dairy herd, worsening the sector’s impact on climate and freshwater.
An amendment bill introduced to Parliament this week would allow Fonterra to change its capital structure, including loosening capital requirements for its farmer-shareholders. Doing so would make it easier for new farmers to join the co-op, and incentivise existing farmers to stay, entrenching its dominance.
A proposed law change being whisked through Parliament is predicted to strengthen Fonterra’s dominant market position and risks increasing climate and freshwater pollution. Simon Upton, parliamentary commissioner for the environment said the legislation should be paused until more analysis is done, but his request for the government to launch climate and impact reports were declined.
Greenpeace reports that since the start of the dairy boom in the 1990s, cow numbers in New Zealand have doubled. In some areas, the numbers have grown even more dramatically. Meanwhile the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser has increased almost sevenfold since 1990.
In Canterbury, the number of cows have increased tenfold. Southland has seen an even starker intensification, with the number of cows increasing 16 times. Annual winter scenes of cows deep in mud highlighted on social media and elsewhere exacerbate public concern regarding the heavy environmental and animal welfare cost of New Zealand’s high milk production.
Currently some South Canterbury residents are facing months without safe drinking water due to dangerously high levels of nitrates which the Regional Council says is due to widespread flooding in July, that saw Canterbury’s wettest July on record.
“It seems that all that rain flushed a lot of nitrate down through the soil and into the groundwater,” says Environment Canterbury’s groundwater science manager, Carl Hanson.
Main image photo credit: Cows of a Southland farm I Geoff Reid / Greenpeace