Our Sacred Cows

 In the fourth part of a series about the future of New Zealand conservation, Dr Mike Joy offers a solution to the problems of rapidly declining freshwater quality and the ongoing loss of our native freshwater plants and animals.

The crucial first step to a new future for fresh water in New Zealand is confronting the reality of the present – the grim truth that surely busts our clean-green myopic myth. Currently, 35 per cent of all our native plant and animal species have become extinct since humans arrived or are at risk of extinction.

This figure includes all of New Zealand’s terrestrial mammals and frogs, 85 per cent of vascular plants and marine invertebrates, 60 per cent of reptile and native freshwater fish species, about 50 per cent of the bird, macro-algae and bryophyte species, 30 per cent of the freshwater invertebrate species and 25 per cent of our marine fish species.

If that isn’t grim enough, bear in mind that these biodiversity declines inherently under-represent reality because the data are inevitably out of date and little effort is put
into monitoring changes. When biodiversity is in decline,  by the time the data is collated and the report written and published, the situation is already far worse.

A further dilemma with assessing biodiversity decline is that by putting less money into science (for instance,decimating the Department of Conservation) and research,
government can (at least temporarily), make it look as though things are not so bad.

 The next reality check is that our 100% Pure brand couldn’t be further from the truth. With regard to our lowlands, 100% Pure England would be a better description. This biological homogenisation has been so comprehensive that now, for example, we have more
introduced than native plant species, and about a third of our freshwater fish and birds are now exotic.

 When it comes to ecosystem diversity, the picture is just as gloomy. More than two-thirds of all land ecosystems are classed as threatened and 90 per cent of our wetlands no longer exist.

We are justifiably proud that a third of the country is protected in national parks and reserves but the reality is that these areas exist mostly because this land was never wanted for agriculture or towns. So the protected areas are mostly in alpine or extremely inhospitable areas. By default we protect high-country ecosystems but vital lowland forest and wetland ecosystems are almost completely lost.

Much of New Zealand’s clean, green image is marketed using amazing scenic photo shoots in these alpine areas.

This is great for attracting tourists but, unfortunately, these impressions have fostered a national (and mostly unmerited) smugness about what is happening in the rest of the country, where most people live.

Globally, a pattern is appearing where the damage done to ecosystems on the land shows up first in freshwater. So it is not surprising that in New Zealand the loss of freshwater biodiversity is even more extreme than on land, with about 60 per cent of freshwater fish species as well as our only freshwater crayfish and mussel listed as threatened with extinction.

This high proportion of threatened species is an unambiguous indicator of freshwater deterioration and is mirrored by downward trends from traditional chemical water quality monitoring. Most monitored lowland river sites fail bathing standards and almost all “state of the environment” measures of water quality from lowland lakes and rivers all over the country reveal the health of rivers and lakes is worsening, particularly over the past 20 years.

The sole improvement in the past 20 years has been a reduction of  some industrial inputs. However, massive increases in fertiliser use have meant that the net change is one of
decline as these nutrients inevitably end up in rivers and lakes.

 When it comes to human health, once again we are unquestionably in denial. Ministry of Health figures show that 18,000-30,000 people contract waterborne diseases
annually. Nationally 43 per cent of monitored river sites regularly fail to meet bathing standards and many of these fail because illness-inducing faecal pathogen levels
are too high. In many intensively farmed areas nitrogen levels in groundwater exceed safe levels and cadmium (a known human neurotoxin) build-up in soils from phosphate
fertiliser is reaching, and exceeding, World Health Organisation acceptable levels.

Another myth that perpetuates our inertia on environmental protection is that we are cleaner and greener than other developed countries. Global comparisons are never easy as there are few useful or accepted comparable parameters. However, we can use the proportion of species that are listed as threatened in each country as miner’s canaries to get an ecosystem-level proxy for environmental status. If we look at our freshwater
ecosystems we can see how we really compare.

New Zealand, with about 60 per cent of freshwater fish species listed as threatened, is far worse than the global average of about 37 per cent. We are on a par with South Africa but we are worse than Europe, at 42 per cent, and the United States, at 37 per cent, in the figures for freshwater fish threatened.

Lakes are good integrators of all freshwater impacts, and measurements are much less variable than for rivers,  meaning some globally comparable data are available.

The eutrophication (excess nutrient) levels of New Zealand’s lakes clearly show they are significantly worse than Canada’s, have level pegging with Europe’s and are in
better shape than those in the United States.

 Those who deny freshwater declines in New Zealand have cited a recent report from Yale University that placed New Zealand as second only to Iceland based on freshwater quality.

However, further investigation of the detail of this report reveals it is totally flawed. For example, only half the 130-odd countries that were ranked actually had any water quality data available for comparison and the rest were estimated. In addition, there were vast
discrepancies in spatial and temporal representation and the time periods compared were inconsistent.

New Zealand was ranked using data from about 80 sites (1 site for every 3000 square kilometres), but there were 11 sites from Australia (1 site/692,000 km2 and all from
Victoria), 11 from China (1 site/870,000 km2) and more than 500 from the United States (1 site/18,000 km2). Obviously it is not possible to represent the water quality of a whole
country by examining only one tiny portion of it.
Because our upland rivers are less polluted than lowland rivers, and because half the New Zealand sites were selected as pristine control sites upstream of any agricultural or industrial pollution impacts, the comparative picture of New Zealand in the Yale study was completely
Improving the health of fresh water in New Zealand will require major upgrading of how we monitor the state of flowing waters. The flawed measures we use now are a
legacy of a time when freshwater was seen to be of little importance, meaning we measure the wrong things the wrong way because it’s cheap and easy. This has in part
allowed the declines to continue virtually unnoticed.

At the heart of this failure is the obviously flawed measurement of flowing water using snapshot sampling rather than continuous monitoring. You don’t have to be
a scientist to see the folly of this. The parameters that are measured in snapshots vary hourly, daily and seasonally (especially in degraded systems) so it’s like monitoring
traffic flow on the highway by taking a camera snapshot every two months.

The other part of the measurement problem is that major impacts on fresh water in New Zealand are simply not measured and therefore not reported. Examples are
the physical alteration of rivers (by straightening and stop-banking) and the build-up of sediment on river and stream beds that smothers fish habitat.

The increased sedimentation is from historic forest clearance, ongoing inappropriate land use on steep hill country and a lack of bank protection and riparian vegetation. These impacts
are extensive and significant but do not form part of any national monitoring programme.

For the most part, these unmeasured alterations impact on both the freshwater plant and animal life but also have visual and economic impacts. For example, the economic
impact on communities of having to continually raise stop- banks to contain rivers and protect infrastructure is clearly unsustainable.

The causes of decline in New Zealand’s fresh water are common to many countries, and include conversion to agriculture, forestry, horticulture and urbanisation.

But there is one overriding recent impact that has made our decline worse than in most other countries – farming intensification, driven by the dairy boom, during the past two decades.

Over the past two decades, nitrogen fertiliser use in New Zealand has increased more than 700 per cent and the number of cows milked in the South Island has increased

In contrast, during this time, many European countries have made major water quality improvements by capping and reducing fertiliser use, after seeing the immense damage intensive farming has done to their waterways. In New Zealand, during that time, dairy farming
became a leading export sector by being allowed to increase pollution levels unchecked.

It’s crucial to realise that in New Zealand only dairy shed effluent is controlled by regulation, and the much greater diffuse impacts of intensification are a free for all.

Worse still, much of the production increase has come from growth in unsustainable inputs like imported palm kernel and nitrogen fertiliser made from fossil fuel.

There have been significant gains made in reducing intensive farming impacts, with technology, education and growing environmental awareness among farmers.

Unfortunately, however, the overall state of freshwater continues to decline because the rate of improvement lags far behind the level of intensification. It’s like re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic – the improvements make for feel-good headlines that combat any negative publicity but do not address overall declines.

The inescapable fact is that the only way to halt the declines and even contemplate improvement is to stop dairy expansion in New Zealand. Only then would there
be a chance that improvements in pollution control might begin to catch up with the rate of degradation.

A precedent has been set for limiting dairy intensification, with the protection of Lake Taupö. A limit of one dairy cow per two hectares has been set in the catchment. This iconic lake is considered worth protecting even though it meant taxpayers spending $81.5 million
to pay farmers to reduce stocking levels. Does this mean we don’t  value all our other lakes and rivers? Surely, if it’s good enough for Lake Taupö, it’s good enough for all New
Zealand’s freshwater.

Reporting in the media around the value and sustainability of dairying is not impartial since the sheer size and resources of the dairy industry mean its lobbying power is immense.

A recent example was the commissioning of the New Zealand Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) to write a report on the economic value of dairying to New Zealand. The report was nothing short of propaganda – it didn’t include or even mention the costs of dairy to the
environment and was fraudulently titled “Dairy’s role in sustaining New Zealand”. The only way to make the title honest would be to add the word “economic” or remove

Of course, individuals and NGOs involved in protecting the environment could never afford to have the NZIER write a report on the costs of dairying to New Zealand to counter the first one. The influence of the dairy industry on government is evidenced by the fact that it has been given free rein to pollute waterways in breach of the aspiration of the Resource Management Act for at least two decades.

Notwithstanding this distortion, the truth is emerging. The clean-green reality debate that followed the interview with Prime Minister John Key on BBC’s HARDtalk programme has been healthy and has gone some way towards exposing the lack of credibility among deniers.

It has even helped spark the Pure Advantage group of business leaders promoting green economic opportunities showing that even the business lobby has finally seen the
economic imperative of our clean, green image.

Perhaps we need to go through a truth and reconciliation process to end the divisions that exist, ensuring that we all move on to the work required to halt declines and regain our clean, green image. The Land and Water Forum was a good model for the future but it needs more balance. Currently, the make-up is a heavily loaded with exploiters, and more are queuing up to join. All New Zealanders are stakeholders, not just those who make an income from degrading it, and the forum constituency should represent this balance.

Without a doubt, clean and safe freshwater is New Zealand’s most important asset. We must never forget that, and no one should be allowed to degrade it under any circumstances. It is obvious from the huge biodiversity losses that have occurred in such a short time that we have
compromised far too much. It is now imperative that we draw a line in the sand and say no more. No more cows!

With cow numbers capped, the industry would do what it should have done long ago: add value to milk and concentrate on quality rather than unsustainable increases in quantity.


Dr Mike Joy is a
freshwater ecologist
at Massey University.