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Q+A interview with Dr Mike Joy & Bruce Wills

Q+A interview with Dr Mike Joy & Bruce Wills.

Points of interest:

- Federated Farmers promise new era of cooperation and "more open and honest discussion" on environmental issues - "our approach will be quite different"

- Wills: Some farmers need to "step up their obligation" to looking after the environment, many ready to "front up" and change

- Wills: New Zealand "nowhere near" losing our clean, green reputation globally

- Joy: Water pollution in New Zealand undoubtedly getting worse

- Joy: Recent Environment Court ruling on Lake Taupo "a precedent" - if one cow for every two hectares is right for Taupo, it's right for the rest of the country

- Wills: Future of dairy cow numbers unclear - projections are for growth, but depends on profitability of other farming sectors

- Wills: While number of dairy cows has risen significantly, number of beef cows has dropped, leading to a net increase in cows of 43,000 per year.

- Joy: Clean-ups of Lake Taupo and Ellesmere are more expensive than putting limits on cow numbers in the first place.

- Joy: More than 60 percent of native freshwater fish are threatened - they are the "canaries in the mine"

- Joy: Other countries can produce milk cheaper and in larger volumes - our clean, green reputation is our only competitive advantage

- Wills: Dairy still 28 percent of our exports and it pays for school, hospitals and the like

The interview has been transcribed below. The full length video interviews and panel discussions from this morning's Q+A can be watched on tvnz.co.nz at, http://tvnz.co.nz/q-and-a-news

Q+A, 9-10am Sundays on TV ONE. Repeats at 9.10pm Sundays, 10.10am and 2.10pm Mondays on TVNZ 7

Q+A is on Facebook, http://www.facebook.com/NZQandA#!/NZQandA and on Twitter, http://twitter.com/#!/NZQandA

MIKE JOY & BRUCE WILLS interviewed by PAUL HOLMES

PAUL Dr Mike Joy from Massey University is with us, as is Bruce Wills, the new president of Federated Farmers. Mike, you open us up. Is the pollution situation stabilising, or is it getting worse?

DR MIKE JOY - Environmental Scientist

It's getting worse. It's undoubtedly getting worse.

PAUL How much worse?

DR JOY Well, you're kind of tracking this moving thing, but every time a set of measure comes out, it's getting worse. The one thing we have done is we've stopped chucking blood and guts in the rivers. The really obvious stuff's gone. What happens now is really hard to see, and that's part of the problem - people can't see the problem, so, you know, if nitrogen was bright red, people would realise there's a problem.

PAUL You'd see it. See, Mike, it was revealed last year that non-compliance with industry standards has gone up to 15% of farmers. And David Carter, your own minister, said that's totally unacceptable. Don't dairy farmers get it?

BRUCE WILLS - President Federated Farmers NZ

Well, Paul, they do, and there's no question that farming does have an environmental footprint, and there's no question that farmers have to front up, and they've got an obligation to farm in a sustainable manner. There is some legacy issues, but from what I see, Paul, progress is being made, whether it's the Clean Streams Accord or Every Farm, Every Year. So we've got a way to go, but it is a journey, and we've just got to keep at it.

PAUL Have we got too many cows?

DR JOY Oh, I think we have, yeah. I mean, the thing... When you talk about that non-compliance, and this is the problem - the only part of intensive dairy farming that's got a consent or got a condition or a limit on it is what happens in the cow shed. So the dung and the urine that's collected while they're being milked has to be... you have to have a consent to treat that. But that's only a small proportion of what the cows actually produce. It's only a part of the problem. And that's, to me, the failure of central government and local government - they didn't... The big problem is the number of cows. It was politically... You know, under the Resource Management Act, it was about effects on rivers, OK. The effect is polluted rivers, and yet they do nothing about intensification. That's the crucial bit.

PAUL And of course whatever the cow does will eventually find its way thought the soil to the waterways. So what would be an acceptable number of cows?

DR JOY Well, I mean, if you look at some of the examples, like the Lake Taupo example, where...

PAUL Well, let's talk about Lake Taupo, because this was a great worry. Cost us, the public, $81 million to fix it up, by the way. Lake Taupo had a growing and massive problem with the nitrogen run-off. 93% of that nitrogen run-off was coming from the pastoral land. Now, the Environment Court had a look at this recently and ruled only one cow per two hectares - that is a reduction of a fifth. Should that happen...? Reduction TO a fifth of current stock numbers. Should that happen everywhere?

DR JOY To me, that's a precedent. That's what... You've got this thing that we really value - Lake Taupo. It's valuable for, you know, fishermen coming, tourism - people love Lake Taupo. Here's a really... And a lake's a great example, because they accumulate things. Rivers are more difficult, because they flow and they change all the time. But, OK, if Lake Taupo's worth saving... And now we've got Lake Ellesmere as well and the Waihora Wetland down in Southland - these things are on the verge or have crashed, and we realise and we go back and say, "Let's spend millions of dollars cleaning them up." That's too late, you know, and it costs so much more to fix up something than it does to stop it from happening in the first place.

PAUL Can I just pin you down on the cow numbers, though? How would you...? By what number would you reduce them?

DR JOY Well, the natural systems have a carrying capacity, right. So one cow per two hectares is what the land could carry without having any impacts. But...

PAUL At the moment, it's 2.8 round that area, I think.

DR JOY Yeah, so you crank it up. The only reason you can run 2.8 per hectare is by you have all these inputs: you bring in nitrogen, you bring in palm kernel, you feed them to push them up to that limit, you know. So that's the only way you can make these kind of things crank up. It's a machine that's really sped up, and that's why you have spillage.

PAUL Yeah, got you, got you. Now, what about the Federated Famers attitude to this? Because... Bruce, I was going to call you Bruce Willis, I beg your pardon.

MR WILLS No, that's alright.

PAUL I'll be careful not to.

MR WILLS It sometimes happens.

PAUL We were discussing it before. Don Nicolson, your predecessor, when he heard about the Environment Court's ruling on Lake Taupo, he was furious and said Federated Farmers are prepared for a major fight. Are you prepared for a major fight on cow numbers such at the Environment Court insisted on around Lake Taupo? Because we got a problem, man.

MR WILLS Sure. Paul, can I make two points here? Just to clarify the dairy cow numbers - no question dairy cow numbers have gone up considerably in recent years, but we need to remember that as they've gone up, beef cow numbers have gone down and sheep numbers have significantly dropped. So if you look at the statistics, the actual numbers, in the last 10 years we've had a net increase of cow numbers per year of 43,000 per year overall, because the beef cow numbers have come down. Second point that I need to make is that dairying and agriculture is New Zealand's competitive advantage.

PAUL Well, that is a good point, Mike, you see. I mean, the dairy industry has sustained us during frightful economic times in the last few years. They make us dough.

DR JOY Yeah, but the only competitive advantage we have way down here where we are is our clean green image.

PAUL Well, that's what Pure Advantage is saying - a group of very top respected business leaders. And the clean green image is worth, to your industry alone, $240 million a year. You could be cutting off your nose to spite your face.

MR WILLS Listen, farmers understand that very well. Farmers want clean water, like everybody else in society. We are progressing towards that - well, in some areas, not as quickly as I would like. I think there is some groups that need to step up their obligation to the environmental footprint. But at this stage... Yeah, coming back to the point, you know, 26% of our total export income comes from dairy. It is what we're good at here in New Zealand. We've got schools to run, hospitals to run, bills to pay...

PAUL No, but the point being made is that if you look at our distance from the major markets and so forth - this is what Pure Advantage are saying - is that all we've got in the end is this pristine environment relative to the rest of the world that we've got to try and preserve. But can I go back to the Taupo ruling. Are you going to fight that Environment Court ruling? Because it was a dramatic reduction of the number of cows per hectare which the Environment Court insisted on round Lake Taupo, and it incensed Don Nicolson. What's your position on Lake Taupo, on that ruling?

MR WILLS Right, Paul, I'm going to have to tell you on this one I've only been in this role two months. I'm not close to that Lake Taupo position. But what I can tell you is that the new regime that's running Federated Farmers wants to have a more open and honest discussion with the entire society about our environmental responsibilities, so my sense is that the approach will be quite different.

PAUL A new age of enlightenment?

MR WILLS I hope so, because I think it is time.

PAUL You see, what's the alternative, Mike? If you applied the Lake Taupo ruling to the whole dairy industry, you'd be cutting the number of cows by 80%.

DR JOY No, there are other improvements. It wouldn't have to come back. I mean, if you can get stock out onto the grass to eat the grass for, say, the first four hours, and then get them off... You know, we've got to try and capture what's going into the soil, so you... There are, you know, technological improvements. The trouble is that the intensification is happening faster, so the technological improvements can't catch up.

PAUL I mean, can I say to you also - you know, you're looking at farming, you're looking a huge increase in dairy numbers, cow numbers in Otago, North Otago, South Canterbury, North Canterbury. That ain't dairy country. It ain't.

MR WILLS It hasn't traditionally been dairy country, but, Paul, we in the farming community, we know we've gotta use science on this stuff to understand what impacts farming does have on these pristine environments. There's no question that we absolutely understand the importance of continuing to work towards this clean green image, because that's what gives us the market edge.

PAUL Again, let me go back to the number of cows, and I'm sure there are gonna be regional variations, as you say, and how we manage the science is going to affect it as well. But how many cows is enough cows? I mean, what's your forecast for, say, the next five years on cow numbers? 5.9 million now. What are they going to? You must know.

MR WILLS Uh, well, that really depends on the comparative profitability of those other farming enterprises, because dairying's only expanded in large part because they have been doing well and the sheep and cattle area has been doing poorly. So I don't want and I don't think any of New Zealand wants this country covered with black and white cows. We know they are a challenge environmentally, but as I say...

PAUL Yeah, but you must have a forecast. You must have checked it before you came in this morning. You must have a forecast of what number of cows we're going to end up at in the next five years, say.

MR WILLS No, I don't have that number, Paul.

PAUL Does the dairy industry have any predictions whatsoever?

MR WILLS Yes, they have some growth projections, and that will either come from increased cow numbers or greater performance per dairy unit, per cow.

PAUL But just to go on increasing the cow herd numbers is irresponsible, isn't it?

MR WILLS Well, it's got to be done in balance with managing our environmental footprint, and coming back to the point I made before is that dairying does pay our bills. You know, the world, as we all know, is in a shambles financially. We're doing OK, and in large part it's because we're producing world-class food in one of the most efficient farming systems on this planet. Sure, we've got to make certain we do it in an environmentally sustainable way, and that's something that my organisation, Federated Farmers, is trying to show some leadership with. The industry - as I say, Paul, it's made progress, but we've got further to go.

PAUL Yes, I mean, in the end if we don't do it, Mike, I mean, you know, again, we can cry wolf and so forth, but if we don't do it, some other bugger will do it. Someone's got to provide protein to China.

DR JOY Yeah, well, somebody's already doing it.

PAUL Other people will do it who'll be less clean.

DR JOY And then we... But then they produce it so much cheaper than we can: the land's cheaper, the labour's cheaper, everything's cheaper. And that's happening already, so this is our one competitive advantage, this clean green thing. We're gonna lose it, and then we'll lose out because it can be produced cheaper. I mean, this short-term, 'take the money now, we won't worry about the future" is what worries me.

PAUL That's the thing, that is the big thing that worries Pure Advantage - that we're cashing up now, but we're ruining the country as we do so and for the short-term cash.

MR WILLS Right, right. I don't sit... I can hear where Mike's coming from, but I don't think we we're anywhere near losing our clean green reputation.

DR JOY Oh, I disagree, and I think that this is where Bruce... I mean, I know that thing in the paper today talks about this Yale study. There is no doubt in my mind that we are not best in the world or second best in the world. We're a long way from it. That Yale study is flawed that says that we're second best...

PAUL You see a lot of long-term damage, I know. You said we shouldn't have cleared the high country - to much silt coming down, blah, blah, blah.

DR JOY Yeah, but, I mean, if you just compare us with the rest of the world now - I mean, I don't know who Bruce thinks we're cleaner and greener than. On that Yale list, it was Iceland that was one ahead of us, but there was no data for Iceland, and there was no data for half of the countries that they ranked us. We're way further down that, and so we're already down there.

PAUL Out of 10, 10 being the most serious, how serious is the situation produced by dairying at the moment do you think?

DR JOY Well, I think one way... I mean, it's so hard to measure it, but if I start with our freshwater fish, because they live in our rivers and our lakes. They are an icon. They are a miner's canary. 60%.... More than 60% of our native fish are now threatened. They're threatened species. Does that sound like a clean green country that has 60% of its freshwater fish...?

PAUL Do farmers, do dairy farmers have an appreciation of the perils that could face us?

MR WILLS Paul, absolutely. And can I just add too that, you know, dairying's getting the lion's share of the blame here, but there's a whole of other factors, whether it's town sewerage systems and the like, that are party to this water issue. No question, farmers put their hands up and say, "We are part of the water issue." But farmers do want to do something about it, and they are doing something about it.

PAUL So can you promise us...? Are you saying to us on the programme this morning, do you represent a new era, Mr Wills?

MR WILLS Yes, I do.

PAUL From Don Nicolson?

MR WILLS There's a real mood amongst the farming community to keep in balance the road to profitability and prosperity, but keep in balance with that their environmental obligations. And I can tell you that for the people I talk to and see in the farms that I regularly visit, there is good progress in meeting these environmental obligations that we need to meet.

PAUL Bruce Wills, new president of Federated Farmers, I thank you for your time, and Professor Mike Joy, thank you for your time.

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