Climate of Fear

Are we being intimidated into silence about everything that matters?
by Richard McLachlan

Long after I left home in Gisborne, and had lived and worked in rural areas for almost two decades, I heard the following account from a hill country farmer of how our grandparents’ generation cleared the bush for grazing:

A strip of land surrounding a large valley would be clear-felled and the appropriate logs split for fence-posts and battens. These fencing materials would be buried at intervals around the perimeter to be dug up and used after the fire had passed over them.

Once the cut ‘waste’ was dry and set alight, the resulting ring of flames would start a massive firestorm. When the fire had burned itself out the forest was ash – every little fold and gulley. All living beings within the area were dead. Flaming birds had been seen falling from the sky – an image that has never left me.

Acts of great ingenuity, endurance, and community building accompanied and followed this blitzkreig approach to land ‘development’. Wool and livestock were hauled to the coast and rowed out in longboats through the surf to waiting ships. Before roads were built, major thoroughfares were the beaches, and many people drowned crossing river mouths. Stud horses, sheep and cattle were imported and bred to produce high quality livestock. Infrastructure – saleyards, schools, post offices, banks, hotels, and general stores were built with great effort and expense. Cooperatives were established and small dairy factories and freezing works built across the country.

Now many of those communities are much smaller, and shops, post offices, banks, schools and general stores closed. The farms are bigger and the sheep numbers (and associated rural jobs) are fewer. Pine plantations have returned trees to some of the bare hills. Almost all the cooperatives have merged, from around 500 in 1920 to 4 by the end of the century. Now Fonterra dominates, although their market share is declining as smaller companies enter the market.

It happened again, and in the wake of the 1950’s wool boom, charcoal-blackened stumps of really big trees dotted many of the otherwise clean paddocks in the hills surrounding Poverty Bay. But at night you could still hear weka calling in the suburbs. Now they are gone, along with most of our access to native specialty timbers – part of a widespread, ongoing and massive loss of our biodiversity.

‘Burning off’ to create pasture continued into the eighties. What some now call ‘habitat’ was then, and often still is, dismissed as ‘scrub’ with scant regard for the fauna it sheltered. In 1981, while living inland from Kerikeri in Northland, our landlord arrived at the door with a soot-covered and terrified kiwi he had caught while burning off. We didn’t talk about any other possible kiwi that didn’t escape, and certainly not less charismatic incinerated inhabitants. That was a period when forest and wetlands clearance subsidies signaled to any non-domesticated life-form still left alive on a farm that they had good reason to be nervous.

According to Dr Mark Bellingham of the Royal Forest & Bird Protection Society*, “Biodiversity decline is New Zealand’s most pervasive environmental issue, with 85 per cent of lowland forests and 90% of wetlands now gone, and at least 2,000 species and subspecies are threatened .… We have one of the highest rates of biodiversity decline in the world, and it shows no clear signs of being halted.”

In 2010 31.4 percent of New Zealand’s 268,000 square kms was in forest. Japan, with around 28 times the population and just under 378,000 square kms, had 68.5 percent forest cover.

The vast burned offering by immigrant farmers beginning in the 19th century has not been so great for domestic livestock either. I have seen sheep seeking shade in the shadow cast by a single fence post. It is common to see a herd of dairy cattle standing in the blazing February sun in paddocks with not a single tree where they can go for shelter. Once destroyed, it is not easy for farmers, who may be operating to narrow margins or just breaking even, to recreate patches of shelter in open paddocks or regenerate bush to protect stream banks and provide habitat.

Dr. Mike Joy of Massey University, in his 2014 Fleming lecture “The Demise of New Zealand’s freshwaters; politics and science”, reveals that 62 percent of all NZ rivers are unsafe for swimming, and that 74 percent of New Zealand’s 51 species of freshwater fish are now threatened.

According to Joy, there has been an 800 percent increase in the use of nitrogen fertilizers, a fossil fuel product, in the last 25 years. Nauru Island has been effectively destroyed as a viable place to live largely due to mining the phosphate required to keep Australasia’s farms productive.

Since the destruction of Nauru, New Zealand’s phosphate has come from Western Saharan territory illegally occupied by Morocco.

And finally, at 1.4 million tonnes per year, NZ is the single largest user of PKE (palm kernel expeller or extract) as a supplementary feed source for dairy cattle. This by-product of palm oil production (with all of its disturbing environmental and biodiversity consequences) is yet another input to a growing industrial activity.

In November 2013 New Zealand’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Dr Jan Wright, released a report on deteriorating water quality that showed “the clear link between expanding dairy farming and increasing stress on water quality. Even with best practice mitigation, the large-scale conversion of more land to dairy farming will generally result in more degraded fresh water.” The Commissioner highlights the increases in nitrogen pollution. The country, she says, is facing “a classic economy versus environment dilemma.”

Informed by this report, the current Government intends doubling primary output in 11 years– from $32 billion to $64 billion by 2025.

Minister for Primary Industries Nathan Guy says the plan is to encourage irrigation and water storage, build new roads, and move forward with free trade deals and Resource Management Act reform. Apparently changes to this Act would also help, by ‘pruning bureaucracy’. Guy says that the new Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) would take just nine months to consider consent for projects of national significance.

In the aftermath of last year’s drought, according to Guy, irrigation sits high on National’s list of priorities. He refers to irrigating a further 400,000 hectares. Soil salinization, with a history as long as agriculture itself, is a frequent outcome of poorly managed irrigation projects. Will there be a discussion on whether this is an acceptable risk to the future viability of New Zealand’s more fertile farmland? Does this expansion of monoculture warrant the destruction of Canterbury’s trees and hedgerows to make way for industrial-scale irrigation equipment?

We seem to be having more droughts. They are predicted to increase 2-fold or 4-fold depending on the climate change scenario.

For clarity about future prospects one need look no further than the NZ Farmer magazine from March 2013: “Drought gripping the North Island is the most severe in history, with the crisis far from over both for now and in years to come, scientists say. Long, dry spells are forecast to double by 2040 as temperatures continue to rise and New Zealand heads towards a more Mediterranean climate. Experts warn it could spell the end for farming as we know it and may cost the country billions of dollars in drought relief each year before practices are adjusted.”

Along with the disturbing claim that it takes 990 litres of water to produce one litre of milk, the 2006 UN FAO report says that, with respect to the cattle themselves – “their wind and manure emit more than one third of (methane) emissions, which warms the world 20 times faster than carbon dioxide.”

With his customary lack of vision, John Key does not see a policy problem to be addressed. He would rather just blame the cows: “If the behaviour you’re trying to change is something you have no answer for and the farmer can’t control – the methane and nitrate emissions from the animal – then aren’t you just really putting a tax on them for the sake of it?”

According to the PM, the dairy industry is currently exempt from some obligations under the emissions trading scheme, but dairy farmers pay in other ways. “I think we are making them pay indirectly. So they pay through their diesel charges or their other charges.”

Agribusiness, like any other business group, large or small, responds to signals from Government. The current Government’s signal to the dairy industry: pay for environmental damage ‘indirectly’ through ‘diesel and other charges’, and approach the apparently intractable problem of air and water pollution by doubling production in the next 11 years – while externalizing the costs.

New Zealand, promoting itself as an efficient producer, has been operating as a factory farm for overseas markets with increasing intensity ever since the introduction of refrigerated shipping in 1882. The costs to native forests and to bio-diversity have been outlandish. The discussion of impacts has been minimal.

We now face a further round of environmental sacrifices with not much more public debate, I suspect, than accompanied the earlier ones.

A friend just sent me a video and some photos of native trout in a small spring on an adjacent property recently acquired and converted to dairy. The manure-fouled run-off from the drinking trough flowed straight to the spring. The farmer was unconcerned. His neighbour tried to counter the pollution with fresh water from his garden hose. The fish have now all died. This tiny example illustrates what is happening more widely. Must Canterbury, parts of Southland, Taranaki, and the Waikato, with a similar lack of reflection, become biodiversity sacrifice zones as well? Or should we be exploring more balanced avenues to prosperity?

And where do these agribusiness developments leave farmers who just want to farm as they have always done – with no wish to be an industrial enterprise that relies on capital-intensive irrigation equipment, high fertilizer and supplementary feed inputs, and enormous stock numbers? Do New Zealand farmers have to be part of something damaging and unsustainable just to keep up and make a living?

In the future, when current practices have been ‘adjusted’ and more sustainable forms of farming are the only option, will there be enough fertile, well-watered land available to pursue them?

If New Zealanders are content with 62 percent of all rivers and 90 percent of monitored lowland and urban rivers unsafe for swimming now, can we be confident our grandchildren will feel the same way? We already know the freshwater fish are bailing out.

In his 2005 book Collapse, Jarred Diamond lists eight environmental factors that have contributed to societal collapse in the past. They are: deforestation and habitat destruction; soil problems (erosion, salinization, and fertility losses); water management problems; over-hunting; over-fishing; effects of introduced species on native species; over population; and increased per-capita impact of people. Post-European settlement New Zealand scores 6 out of the above 8 factors contributing to societal collapse.

Do we assume, without closer examination, that New Zealand is somehow exempt from Diamond’s historical analysis? Shouldn’t we be discussing this? Has the current Cabinet even heard of the book? While one might expect a former currency trader to be ahistorical in outlook, wouldn’t he at least want to hedge his bets regarding the future?

In 2012 Mike Joy’s suggestion that New Zealand’s ‘100% Pure’ marketing brand was not entirely accurate appeared in the New York Times. Back then Sean Plunket called him a traitor. Whale Oil blog’s Cameron Slater, whose influence on the current National Government was clarified recently by Nicky Hager, said Joy should be “taken out and shot at dawn for economic sabotage.” John Key wrote off Joy’s evidence as just one scientist’s ‘view’ – and one that he didn’t agree with.

But when it comes to 100% Pure, accuracy takes a back seat to surface appeal; what matters is the brand. John Key, in comparing the slogan’s content accuracy to ‘McDonalds – I’m Lovin’ It’, rendered the brand an empty bumper sticker. Tourism New Zealand spokesman Chris Roberts says, “It has wide tourism sector support and most importantly, it works.”

Where is it possible, in the little that remains of New Zealand’s serious media, to have a debate about future directions? A discussion that is not immediately hijacked and presented as an attack on dairy farmers, or even farmers in general, or as some form of economic sabotage of the sacred groves of ‘Middle Earth’?

But attempts to stifle public discussion go further than mere accusations of national betrayal, or dismissal by willfully uninformed politicians. Columnist Rachel Stewart has recently been threatened with rape and murder for her very direct critique of the dairy industry. The police are investigating.

Responding to her critics, Stewart said that “No-one – I repeat – no-one has discussed any issue I raised in my column. At all. It has been a textbook example of attacking the messenger.

Shutting down criticism by attacking the person makes us small-minded. Scientists should not be told to ‘stick to their knitting’ by Finance Ministers – their evidence should be examined, discussed – and welcomed. Results from recent surveys of CRI and university scientists make interesting reading.

Mike Joy should be praised for his research and his conclusions taken seriously and debated, not dismissed by the country’s leader as expressing a ‘view’. And Sean Plunket’s cheap-shot anti-intellectualism just demeans us all.

Rachel Stewart’s articles on dairy farming, its associated problems and costs to the taxpaying public should be the basis of a healthy debate in a mature democracy, not a trigger for personal vilification and threats.

In 1976, following a boycott of the Montreal Olympics by African nations because NZ continued to play rugby with South Africa, Robert Muldoon accused anti-apartheid groups of acts ‘bordering on treason’ for “deliberately spreading lies about New Zealand”. At the time, ‘bordering on treason’ was as close as Muldoon was prepared to take a slander regarding what was still, on the books, a capital crime.

Years after the end of apartheid, most New Zealanders, despite an ongoing love of rugby, are proud of their country’s role in bringing about the end of a racist state. But it took a lot of discussion – in the media, and in families, and among groups of people across the country. Mike Joy, because he revealed to ‘outsiders’ the ongoing and major damage to our lakes, rivers and wetlands, was attacked by Government advisors, dismissed by the PM, and called a traitor by a foolish talk show host. I suspect history will show Dr Joy is in very good company.


* FOOTNOTE: Dr Mark Bellingham no longer works for Forest and Bird, though he did at the time the paper quoted was written. [back]

1 Comment on Climate of Fear

  1. Great article, Richard. The lies and sickness pervading government policy is killing people and the environment. But then , when did governments ever care about the people? Not often, I fear. Increasing their own wealth and power is a much higher priority!

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