In July, an estimated 60,000, mostly rural New Zealanders took to the streets to protest environmental regulations farmers say are unworkable. Angry and frustrated, they rolled into 57 towns and cities on tractors and trucks to form the country’s biggest farmer protest.
I grew up in rural New Zealand, and many of my family work in and around the dairy industry – so I have experienced a lot of this frustration first hand.
But, having spent the last year-and-a-half researching New Zealand’s dairy farming boom for the documentary series Milk and Money, I couldn’t help but view their fight through the lens of what had come before.
Yes, it’s true farmers are facing a lot of regulation, but only after decades of the agricultural sector fighting off incremental regulation. And now the resulting environmental bill has come due.
Over the past 30 years, New Zealand has experienced a massive shift towards intensive dairy farming – the practice of keeping large numbers of cows within walking distance of a milking shed, and keeping them fed through the heavy use of inputs such as fertilisers, irrigation and imported feed.
In that time New Zealand has almost doubled the number of dairy cows in the country to 6.3m and increased the use of nitrogen fertiliser by over 600%. As a result, a quarter of our national export revenue now comes from dairy.
This rapid expansion was largely unregulated, and actually partly driven by the government.
In 2001, New Zealand’s largest dairy company (and largest company in general), Fonterra, was created by the then Labour government – bypassing anti-monopoly law and allowing the amalgamation of the two largest dairy companies in the country.
Over the years, the growth of the dairy industry has also been incentivised by successive governments. In 2013, when dairy expansion reached its limits in regions with climates suited to dairy farming, the then National party-led government assisted in funding large-scale irrigation to regions previously considered too dry for dairy farming. Now 60% of all water used in New Zealand is for irrigation.
But alongside aiding that growth, successive governments also attempted to introduce regulation to limit its environmental impacts.
It also affects our atmosphere, with our agricultural sector representing nearly half of all of New Zealand’s emissions. Our dairy cows alone are responsible for a quarter of our national emissions – more than our cars.
And it has an impact on our soil, with 84m tonnes of soil eroding off pastures every year.
But, despite growing awareness of these impacts, New Zealand’s agricultural sector fought almost all forms of regulation, largely successfully.
To use emissions as an example, despite the agricultural sector making up nearly half our emissions, there is currently zero regulation of agricultural emissions in New Zealand. Zero.
An attempt was made in 2003, infamously labelled the Fart Tax. Farmers protested – marching a cow and driving a tractor up parliament’s steps – and the plan was scrapped.
Then the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) was introduced in 2008 – New Zealand’s primary tool for controlling emissions by putting a price on their production.
When it was introduced, the agricultural sector successfully lobbied to be exempted from the scheme until 2015. Then in 2013, they successfully lobbied to be indefinitely exempted.
Finally, in 2019, the current Labour government made a plan to include agriculture into the ETS. But that still won’t happen until 2025 and even then at a 95% discount.
Despite how long the sector has managed to kick the can down the road, their inclusion in the ETS was still one of the regulations farmers were protesting against in July.
But regulations are now the only option. The sector has failed to balance its own economic goals with environmental limits. And it has now reached a point where the government can no longer delay addressing these issues without risking an ecological collapse.
Farmers are right to be demanding solutions for a more manageable way forward. But they shouldn’t be demanding change from the government, but from the agri-business sector itself.
They should be demanding the cultivation of markets and business models that not only allow them to achieve a better balance with nature, but also of their own finances and lifestyle.
New Zealand’s dairy boom was built on a volume model which required as much milk as possible to be produced. That is what has led farmers to introduce more dairy cows, and required more water, fertiliser and imported feed.
This model is what led us to this imbalance.
The only way forward for the sector economically and environmentally is a business model that allows farmers to work closer to the limits of our land.
The most sustainable, ethical version of agriculture possible is what we need, and then we can expect a premium price for it.
That is something worth protesting over.