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Theo Spierings - Fat Cat with the cream

Theo Spierings - Fat Cat with the cream

Dr Lynley Tulloch

The recent news that Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings was paid $8.32 million in 2017 has caused a stir. This huge salary seems incongruous with recent stories of farmer debt, suicide and struggle in New Zealand. Fonterra is a multinational dairy cooperative which is owned by approximately 10,500 New Zealand dairy farmers.

So why are farmers struggling financially while Spierings skims the cream? (pun intended). Winston Peters has it right when he calls Spierings a "fat cat". He is the highest paid CEO in New Zealand. Justifications that his pay is based on “independent , international benchmarking” are worthless in the face of massive job cuts for Fonterra staff in 2015.

It’s hard to reconcile the $160,000 NZ dollar weekly pay packet Spierings receives with news of rural debt. Agricultural debt in New Zealand has risen over $60 billion in the last few years, mainly in the dairy sector.

With growing disparity in New Zealand between those at the higher and lower end of the pay scale this seems like a slap in the face. It certainly doesn’t have the wholesome feel of a child with a milk moustache that Fonterra tries to promote.

A quote by Barack Obama in 2008 springs to mind, “I think all of us here today would acknowledge that we’ve lost that sense of shared prosperity”.

The corporate greed evident in Fonterra’s economic conduct flies in the face of shared prosperity. It’s time to take a serious look at the issue of CEO reward. Not only is this situation patently unfair for hard working farmers, but it also does not account for externalised costs of our waterways, native bush and animal lives.

For all of us to prosper in New Zealand we need to have a shared sense of where we are going. I don’t think the increasing intensification of dairying alongside its corporatisation is a direction that is going to lead to shared prosperity. In fact, it will likely bring us to our knees. It probably already has.

To begin with our ecosystems will spiral into further decline. Dairy farming in New Zealand is unsustainable on an environmental level. 40 percent of New Zealand’s once biologically diverse and rugged landscape has been converted to farmland since European colonisation. This has had a dire impact on our native wildlife, and many species have become extinct. This is most readily apparent in the dire state of our waterways.

Agriculture in New Zealand, particularly dairy farming, is one of the main culprits of our polluted waterways. The price of waterways pollution comes even too high for Spierings to pay. Waterway pollution in New Zealand has been caused by dairy intensification allowing increasing sediment, nutrient runoff (nitrogen and phosphorus) and E.Coli (from livestock excrement) into our waterways.

A recent Government report entitled Our Fresh Water 2017 found that nearly three quarters of native freshwater fish species are threatened or at risk of extinction. A third of freshwater invertebrates and a third of freshwater plants are also at risk. Many of New Zealand’s native species are endemic and their loss is tragic.

But it’s not only native animals that suffer in dairying. With recent international news coverage of bobby calf cruelty in New Zealand , it’s not difficult to think of Spiering’s profits as blood money. With an increasing public awareness of animal welfare in dairying in New Zealand, the deaths of these innocents (over 2 million a year) is becoming increasingly unpalatable.

We cannot prosper as a society or country if we go beyond our ecological and social limits. New Zealand is experiencing water pollution, biodiversity loss, poverty, increasing gap between the rich and poor and systemic animal abuse in farming. It’s time to revisit our values and work toward and inclusive society that everyone (animals and humans) can prosper in.


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