There’s a deadly poison, flowing along the halls of power, seeping through the fields and valleys, and pouring into our waters. As more people die, more rivers become unswimmable, and more aquifers grow toxic, there are lobbyists, lawyers and politicians fighting to keep it that way. The secrets of the dairy industry and their pursuit of profits at the expense of our environment, come hell or high water, are revealed through interviews, investigations and scientific reports.
Algal bloom in the slow-moving Selwyn River. Photo: RNZ / Philippa Tolley
OVER THE RIVER AND THROUGH THE WOODS
New Zealand has a problem. Our biggest export earners, dairy products like milk powder, butter and cheese, are heavily polluting our environment. Nitrates leaching into our rivers and freshwater aquifers is the dirty reality of our economic prosperity. In a 2021 report, Dr Mike Joy, a freshwater scientist, from Victoria University, writes: “Almost three decades of studying freshwaters in New Zealand has revealed to me that our lowland freshwater ecosystems are in dire straits and that there is no hint of improvement, or even a slowing of degradation.”
Selwyn is home to some of the worst quality water in the country. The Selwyn River is unswimmable and Lake Ellesmere is so polluted, in a leaked document Environment Canterbury, the regional council responsible for Canterbury’s water, had reported to the Government it would need nearly every dairy farm in Selwyn to shut down in order to meet national water standards.
Enter Peter Trolove. He’s a former vet turned fisher, President of the New Zealand Federation of Freshwater Anglers, and a self-proclaimed “old tired bugger”. He came to visit me at Rolleston College one Wednesday morning. He left hours later after lunch.
He begins explaining the journey of our water from the alps to the ocean. Water starts from the Southern Alps and makes its way through the Canterbury Plains to Lake Ellesmere and the Pacific Ocean in a labyrinth of braided rivers and underground aquifers.
Along its journey, in the Canterbury Plains, the clean alpine water meets its foe – the dairy cow.
The amount of cows in Selwyn has ballooned, from 1200 in 1990 to 1.1 million currently. As the amount of cows increases, so too does the demand for the fertiliser needed to grow their grass – fertiliser use has increased 629% across the whole country in the same time period. Nitrates from cow urine and fertiliser are seeping through the soil, and into our rivers and underground aquifers and it’s only getting worse; nitrate leaching has increased 117% in Canterbury since 1990. Selwyn’s soil is especially porous, and according to Peter, putting a bunch of cows on it is the, “dumbest bloody thing you could do from an environmental point of view”.
Nitrates and other nutrients seeping into our waterways speed up plant growth and feed algal blooms, making rivers unlivable for fish like the trout, which Peter says are one of the victims of intensive farming. The Selwyn River used to have up to 200 thousand trout going through fish traps – now it’s close to zero. The effects of high nitrates in our waterways also make recreational sites, like Coes Ford, Chamberlain’s Ford, and Glentunnel unsuitable for swimming, but nitrate turns deadly in our drinking water.
Nitrates in groundwater have a human cost. A major 2018 Danish study found a significantly increased risk of developing colorectal cancer due to nitrates in drinking water at a level of 0.87mg/L and an Otago University analysis found the risk of premature birth increased 47% when nitrates were at a level of 5mg/L. The safe limit for drinking water in New Zealand is set at 11.3mg/L. In 2020, Environment Canterbury revealed the average nitrate level in groundwater wells in Canterbury was 2.7mg/L but 20 of the testing sites were above the national limit of 11.3mg/L, and 47% of the testing sites had increased in nitrate levels over the past decade. A 2012 paper reported without cows, farming, and factory waste, groundwater would have nitrates levels of around 0.25mg/L. Now, a November 2021 study estimated that 800,000 New Zealanders have water supplies with toxic nitrate levels, and found high levels of nitrates in drinking water contribute to an additional 100 cases of colorectal cancer and 40 deaths per year.
In his 2021 report, Dr Mike Joy writes about our freshwater ecosystems. “The leading cause of their demise is land-use change, specifically the rampant and extreme intensification of farming.”
Dairy farming is killing our rivers and it’s killing us. But it’s not slowing down. It’s not just fertiliser use contaminating our water, it’s factories spreading their wastewater over the land, and faulty models which makes any incremental policy change dead in the water.
DEAD IN THE WATER
Dairy herd in South Waikato. Photo: Sarah Mcmillan
On the outskirts of Darfield, a small town 40 minutes from Christchurch, sits an imposing Fonterra factory. There, they produce cream cheese and milk powder for export to 40 markets around the world. What they don’t export though, is the nitrate-rich wastewater created as a byproduct of their dairy processing. Environment Canterbury consent CRC171164 allows the Fonterra Darfield factory to spray the fields around their factory with their factory wastewater, and it’s allowed to contain up to 250 kilograms of nitrogen per hectare per year, which is much higher than the 190kg per hectare per year current limit for synthetic nitrogen for farmers to fertilise their land. The resource consent also allows this irrigation to increase nitrate levels downstream by 2 mg/L before they have to report it.
When Peter Trolove brought this up in our meeting, I told him I was surprised. This was the first I’d heard of this wastewater dumping onto our porous soil.
“Big business wouldn’t want you to know, would they?” Peter responds.
“Can you understand, this being a resource consent, they’re allowed to do it?” Nicole Reid asks me.
I was in a small room in the Selwyn District Council, sitting across the table from Mayor Sam Broughton and Councillor Nicole Reid. Nicole Reid is also a member of the Selwyn Waihora water zone committee, one of 10 water zone committees set up by
Fonterra Darfield factory. Photo: DLA Architects
Environment Canterbury to implement and oversee strategies in order to meet the 10 goals of the Canterbury Water Management Strategies. I wanted to know how they felt having a factory dump wastewater, potentially contaminating local groundwater and contributing to the degradation of the already poor-quality waterways in their district.
“This goes through a whole process. I should probably tell you that I used to be an environmental officer on a site that had an irrigation consent, one of the Fonterra sites in the North Island. So these consents, they’ve had a lot of modelling and stuff been done.”
She didn’t answer my question. I didn’t ask if Fonterra was allowed to irrigate their wastewater into the surrounding fields. I asked if they should be allowed to.
While speaking to me about this factory, Peter told me of his water testing results which showed the effects of this wastewater irrigation. He tested the water in Sheffield, giving him a result of 1.52mg/L of nitrate in the water. Then in Darfield, he tested the water again, this time giving him a result of 5.6mg/L. Was it the factory?
It’s hard to know for sure. What would provide a clearer picture is a result of the groundwater monitoring Fonterra are required to do as part of their resource consent, as it would show whether their wastewater irrigation is increasing the nitrates of the groundwater surrounding the factory and in Darfield. So I asked Nicole Reid whether she had access to the monitoring reports as part of her role on the Selwyn Waihora water zone committee.
Selwyn Mayor Sam Broughton (top), Selwyn Councillor Nicole Reid
“We could’ve asked them, I mean that should be public information..you should be able to ask ECan for that information if that’s what you’re wanting to find out.”
Except it isn’t public information. First I went straight to the source. I emailed Fonterra asking for a copy of their monitoring results. They emailed back four days later.
“Unfortunately a copy of these monitoring results is not something we would publicly share.”
Then I went to Environment Canterbury for the monitoring reports. They responded explaining these reports are secret and could not share with us.
“Unfortunately, Environment Canterbury are unable to share compliance monitoring results, without the consent holders’ written permission. This is because compliance monitoring results are confidential.”
So I called the factory to ask why they were confidential. A couple of days later, I received a response.
“It’s actually a council decision about what is confidential and it’s not just the Fonterra monitoring reports that are confidential.
Fonterra Darfield factory between Sheffield and Darfield. Photo: Google Maps
Back at square one. Fonterra not too keen to share whether they have been polluting our waterways and Environment Canterbury not gonna make them. But Fonterra knows all too well the effect they are contributing with these wastewater discharges; in 2021 RNZ reported they’ve already given 2 homes in Canterbury a water system and another a UV filter after high nitrate levels were found in wells surrounding wastewater irrigation sites.
“No one is happy with the quality of the water.”
Sam Broughton comments near the end of our interview. I’d say he’s pretty spot on. So when are we going to see our water quality start to improve?
“Improvements are gonna be 30 to 50 years away.”
I heard it from Vicky Southworth too, an Environment Canterbury councillor I spoke to.
“It’s a slow process [for improvement]…the nitrates, once they’re in groundwater, can take a long period of time to move through the system…it can take decades”
It’s a common theme that nitrates take a very long time to run through the system, and we’ll eventually see an improvement – just not straight away.
“In this fisherman vet’s opinion, they’re telling you a crock of shit.”
Peter Trolove doesn’t believe eventually it’ll get better, and it comes down to the models.
Overseer is the most commonly used model used by farmers to calculate their nutrient losses when applying fertiliser to their land. ECan requires farmers to use Overseer to monitor compliance on farms with nitrogen loss limits, and is used by farms when submitting their assessment of environmental effects. Essentially it’s how we monitor the nitrate run-off and compliance with resource consents.
Peter says Overseer was “owned and developed by fertiliser companies to sell fertiliser to farms”. It was created in part by the Fertiliser Association of New Zealand, which is funded by companies like Ballance Agri-Nutrients and Ravensdown, which together manufacture, distribute, and market around 98% of fertiliser sold. A 2018 report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment found at least 4 issues with Overseer including the fact it can’t account for all ground and crop types. He writes, “Despite their best efforts there may still be significant (or at least unknown) differences between the actual farm and the farm as represented in Overseer.
As a result of this report, Overseer underwent a review by MPI in 2020 to assess its use by farmers and as a regulatory tool. Councillor and former farm environmental officer Nicole Reid wasn’t concerned about the fact it’s under review.
“It’s not completely accurate and that’s why they were putting these different additions on and then doing reviews on it…they’re trying to optimise this program so it is the thing that people can rely on”
But people still can’t rely on it. In July the review was published and concluded that:
“There is no doubt that in Aotearoa New Zealand, current land use is causing excess nutrients to enter freshwater, causing harm…we do not have confidence that Overseer’s modelled outputs tell us whether changes in farm management reduce or increase the losses of nutrients, or what the magnitude or error of these losses might be”.
Millions of dollars of development and 30 years of refinement later, and Overseer still doesn’t accurately represent the real-life reality of nitrate leaching off farms and into our waterways.
Why are the shakers and movers in power not taking action to protect our waters? Enough is enough. It’s time to drain the swamp.
DRAIN THE SWAMP
In our meeting, I asked Peter, “Do you think that the dairy industry influences councillors?”
He responded, “Of course!”
Before the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management was introduced in 2011, regional councils fell under the Resource Management Act of 1991. According to ECan councillor Vicky Southworth, those were a long 20 years for our environment.
“During that time, there was no national guidance on what the water quality standards in our rivers and aquifers should be, which means it was basically left to regional councils to define what it should be, and then…it’s complex, there’s lots of vested interests, there’s so many factors that would push back on setting a limit and I think many places didn’t have much of a limit during that period of time and that left the door open for…the environment to degrade”
Dr Mike Joy in his 2021 report, Vested Interests In Big Agriculture, notes these 20 years as a key point for the big agricultural companies. They deployed their soldiers as regional councils held hearings as they developed their regional plans.
“At each hearing a team of high-paid lawyers and consultants was deployed by industry. Council staff were no match for these well-funded experts, often deferring to them at every point and many times becoming captured by them.”
As time went on, it was impossible for the overworked council workers and unpaid volunteers to take on the big boys and their army of paid experts and lawyers, and it showed. Regional councils failed to set strong freshwater limits due to vested interests.
These vested interests don’t stop at local governments though. He also writes that the Ministry for the Environment held secret meetings with groups from the agriculture industry while they openly set up three advisory groups to advise the Ministry on changes to the National Policy Statement for Freshwater Management. A leaked email exposed the secret group and claimed the freshwater policy was being written by this secret group representing the agricultural industry.
“The discovery that industry lobbyists were being given secret backdoor access to the decision process shook me badly. Looking back, it seems clear that ministry staff at the highest levels had been captured by vested interests.”
The dairy industry, among other industries, has always had access to Government in a way the rest of us haven’t. Connor English of Federated Farmers, Bridget Service of Fonterra, Sifa Taumoepeau of Fonterra, and Nicola Willis of Fonterra were all named in 2017 as lobbyists with unrestricted access to the Parliament buildings. Also on that list were two employees of Saunders Unsworth, the lobbying firm contracted by Fonterra and Farmland. The access given to lobbyists has proven very fruitful for the agricultural industry. Baz Macdonald, writing for The Guardian, reported, “New Zealand’s agricultural sector fought almost all forms of regulation, largely successfully,” despite the widely known effects on our environment. Macdonald describes an example of this lobbying – the exclusion from the Emission Trading Scheme (ETS). The ETS was created to put a price to greenhouse gas emissions in an attempt to reduce their production. Despite the agricultural industry contributing almost 50% of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, the agricultural industry initially lobbied to be exempt from this scheme until 2015, then in 2013 lobbied to be exempt permanently. Both times they were successful. In 2019 the agricultural industry was added to the scheme, but it won’t take effect until 2025, and they will receive a 95% discount.
It also begs the question, what about elected officials? Should politicians have vested interests in the industries they regulate? Five Environment Canterbury councillors: Peter Scott, Claire McKay, Ian Mackenzie, John Sunckell, and Megan Hands all have deep ties to the dairy industry, with shares in companies like Fonterra, Ravensdown, Ballance Agri-nutrients, irrigation schemes, and Silver Fern Farms, along with owning their own farms.
How can we trust these councillors to put the interests of the environment above their human nature to protect and enhance their interests?
“These councillors are the people who’ve been elected by a community to make those decisions,’ Mayor Broughton tells me. He argues that in a democracy, everybody should be allowed to run for public office.
Peter argues that people only put themselves up to protect their self interests. “It’s human nature.”
Low voter turnout means it’s hard to argue these councillors represent our community. In the 2019 Environment Canterbury elections, the average turnout for each constituency was only 44.94% and the people voting in these elections are more likely to have a greater financial stake in the decisions made by ECan. Councillor Vicky Southworth admits the people who are most exposed to the declining environment aren’t always able to contribute.
Algal blooms in a Canterbury river. Photo: ABC News
Lake Ellesmere in 2017. Photo: Stuff / David Walker
Dairy is a way of life in New Zealand, and it’s an integral part of our economy. There isn’t an easy way forward for either the environment or the dairy industry. Like climate change, this issue is being pushed further down the road with incremental changes and bluffs Peter Trolove says farmers’ employ to, “maintain their social license to pollute”.
In order to preserve our taiao, our home, our rivers and wildlife, and our health, we have to fight, come hell or high water.