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The Nation: Ecologist Mike Joy

On Newshub Nation: Simon Shepherd interviews ecologist Mike Joy

• Ecologist Mike Joy says it's still unknown whether the government’s National Policy Statement on freshwater management will make a difference. “I’ve had my heart broken too many times by politicians to be caught up in the excitement. I’m doing everything I can to support and to provide science and to be part of panels and I hope that they’re brave enough to make the kind of decisions that need to be made.”

• He says agricultural intensification is a big part of what he describes as a ‘freshwater crisis’. “We need to face the fact that we have way too many cows in this country, for a start, and that’s a big part of our problem”.

• He says reducing the amount of cows on farms will not reduce profit. “In a biological system like a farm, it gets to a point where you plateau; you have no gain…By reducing 20 per cent of the cows off most of the farms in New Zealand, it would actually make the farmer more money.”

Simon Shepherd: Welcome back. The Government recently announced a blueprint to improve freshwater quality, with new rules to be in place by 2020. But ecologist Mike Joy says urgent action is needed now. He sets out the problems and some possible solutions in his new book Mountains to Sea. I began by asking him why he says our polluted waterways are a crisis.

Mike Joy: Well, it’s a crisis because we’ve got severely polluted water in most of our lowland areas. I mean, whatever standard you use, we stack up really, really bad. And in some cases, like 75 per cent of our native fish on the threatened species list, it’s hard to imagine how it could be much worse.

Simon Shepherd: But Land, Air, Water Aotearoa recently said in its 10-year trend report that most sites were improving rather than declining. So we’re on the right track.

Yeah, they fudged the numbers a bit there. So, what they’re saying is that there’s a whole bunch of sites, a huge bunch of them, that aren’t doing anything over that time period, and of the few that are trending up and down, they have more trending better. But what they don’t mention is that that nitrogen that’s trending better doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s getting better, because you take the sample of water out of the stream, and you analyse it for nitrate. But if you’re growing heaps of algae, then all of the nitrate’s actually in the algae, so it’s not in the water sample. So you get this completely false reading where it looks like it’s getting better, but actually, what we’re doing is just growing a bigger crop of algae in our rivers.

So it’s misleading?

It’s very misleading. And you’ve got to remember that LAWA – Land, Air, Water Aotearoa – is the regional councils’ kind of PR front for all of their data, and they’ve got a job to protect the environment. They’re reporting on themselves, and so, like, my students, if they had to report on themselves rather than having an external exam, they would tell me—

So it’s not an independent body?

No, it’s not independent at all.

What about claims by Fonterra – that they say their farmers are doing a lot now, that 99.6 per cent of permanent waterways are fenced off from cattle?

Yeah, see, there’s a classic. So, their 99.6 per cent of waterways is what they define as a waterway, which is wider than a stride and deeper than a Red Band. And so the ones that aren’t included, which is probably 50 per cent of them, are the ones where most of the pathogens come from. So, we’ve got the very clear science showing that 75 per cent of the pathogens come in those smaller streams that don’t meet their requirement. And that is such a classic example of their spin.

So you’re saying that self-interest is determining how these things are reported?

Yeah, I mean, they know they’re losing their social licence, so what they’re doing is—And you can see with Dairy New Zealand employing, you know, PR firms – they’re desperate to tell a happy story. They’ll pay All Blacks, they’ll pay huge amounts of money to tell a happy story, because they’re losing that social licence.

So, our approach to water is wrong? We treat it as a commodity – is that right?

Yeah, for sure.

How should it be treated?

I mean, it’s everything, isn’t it? It’s the most important thing that we have. And so that’s why we should be looking after it. We should be the country in the world – because of our isolation and because of our relative newness here in the way we’ve impacted on the land – we should be world leaders in how to have clean water and clean food. It’s what the world’s screaming out for. But we’ve gone down this industrial model.

Okay. One of the sections of your book, Catherine Knight’s section – she says she was pressured to mould environmental findings to suit political needs under the last government. She calls it ‘the politicisation of the public service’. So how big a problem is that?

That’s a huge part of it. I mean, what I was just describing with local government and LAWA also happens at central government as well. So, you get... the free and frank advice that public servants should be able to give to ministers getting broken down. And it was great having Catherine being able to describe that, because so few of those public servants will risk speaking out like that, because most of them want to be re-employed as consultants or move around between government departments. So there’s a real pressure on them not to speak up about matters like that.

Surely, self-interest will get outweighed by social responsibility and the responsibility to preserve the environment at some stage.

Well, I think that’s happening now. I think we’re seeing with this government— And they’re constantly telling us, including from the Ministry for the Environment, that 80 per cent of New Zealanders thought that fresh water was their biggest environmental issue, and they’re using that as a mandate to make the changes that they’re proposing. So I think it’s happening. We’re in the middle of it happening.

So, the Greens are part of the government now, part of the coalition. Is that helpful? Do you believe that things are changing under them?

Yeah, well, I’m sure that it’s a helpful influence there, but the rest of the coalition might be pushing against that. I think there’s maybe just—The Greens might be just kind of neutralised by the NZ First side of things, and that’s the problem there. If it was a Green-Labour coalition, then I think we would have more strength there.

So, the government has announced a new national policy statement on freshwater management, and a new national environment standard will be put in place by 2020. Heading in the right direction?

Yes. Well, I’m involved in that, and it’s still unknown. They’re saying all the right things. I’ve had my heart broken too many times by politicians to be caught up in the excitement. I’m doing everything I can to support and to provide science and to be part of panels, and I hope that they’re brave enough to make the kind of decisions that need to be made.

What needs to be made?

We need to face the fact that we have way too many cows in this country, for a start, and that’s a big part of our problem. We’ve gone... You need to understand that farms are biological systems. Like, if you’re a production factory, and you want to sell more of whatever it is, you just put more in. As long as you’ve got a market, you sell more, and it’s a linear increase. In a biological system like a farm, it gets to a point where you plateau; you have no gain. You can pour all the fertiliser on and everything else you want, but you don’t gain. You might produce more milk, but it costs you more to produce it, and environmental impacts go up exponentially as well.

So you’re saying intensification – it doesn’t lead to a greater output?

No. And we’ve got so much evidence to show that. By reducing 20 per cent of the cows off most of the farms in New Zealand, it would actually make the farmer more money, and that’s the...

But that doesn’t seem to make sense, though – reducing the amount of cows equalling more money.

Because they’re marginal cows. They’re not making you any more money; they’re just costing you money to feed them.

If reducing livestock numbers is a non-negotiable – we’ve got to have less cows – it’s going to mean some significant lifestyle changes as well – eating less meat. Does that mean prices are going to go up to drive down demand, all those kinds of things?

Well, I mean, that’s happening globally. Did you read the statistic in there where 98 per cent of the biomass of mammals on this planet is us and the animals we eat? Which leaves two per cent for the wild animals on this planet. So we’ve certainly overshot globally, and there’s a massive movement towards plant-based foods, that are way exceeding any of the traditional foods.

Is that what you called the ‘agricultural tipping point’? I mean, what do you mean by that?

Yeah, yeah. I think we’re well past the agricultural tipping point, and in many parts of New Zealand, we have. So it’s matching the right farming-type land use to the land in this country. And you couldn’t get a better example of where it goes wrong than Canterbury, where you have these really gravelly, light soils where the nitrate just travels straight through into those aquifers. And all of the data you look at, you can see these increases in nitrate to danger levels.

So, dairy, as we’re talking about it – New Zealand’s biggest export earner, $14 billion a year. Beef and lamb exports worth $5 billion a year. How can you convince the government that we’re going to have to give up such a profitable sector?

Because it’s not profitable if you include the costs in there. It only looks— Imagine if you had a business and you only looked at the profit; you didn’t look at what it cost you. Or you only looked at what came in and not what went out. All we’re doing is leaving a legacy for future generations of polluted water, and it’s really starting to hit home in Canterbury.

Can you farm with less cows, be good for the environment and yet make a profit? Can you do both?

Yes, definitely you can. And what it’s about is diversity. At the moment, we’ve got monocultures; we’ve got industrial farming. And all over the world, we can show that you gain nothing from that. You employ less people. You have less people on the land. You pollute more. At the moment, we’re making milk out of fossil fuels, where the nitrate fertiliser that’s causing all of the problems in our rivers comes from fossil fuels – a third from Taranaki and two thirds from the Middle East. So it’s completely unsustainable, what we’re doing. So the landscapes that will look like— And Chris Perley wrote about it, and some of the other authors in the book as well – it’ll be a much more diverse landscape. Within farms, there’ll be bees and trees and nuts and vegetables – getting into much more of a permaculture or a farm-forest.

So the landscape in New Zealand as we know – the rolling farms – it’s going to have to change. If we don’t do it, what’s the risk of getting it wrong?

If we don’t do it, we’ve already gone wrong. And the biggest value-add we have, the most important thing for our exports is our clean, green image. It’s way and above any technological things we can do. That’s the most valuable thing to us, and we’re imperilling that at the moment. We’re lucky, because people still believe we’re clean and green, even though we aren’t. And so we need to get back to being clean and green before we get caught out.

Mike Joy, thank you very much for your time.

Thank you. Cheers.

Transcript provided by Able. www.able.co.nz

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