100 percent pure what?

By Briony Penn, January 2016

Most of New Zealand has been deforested due to agriculture, impacting biodiversity, water quality and the climate.

It is midnight and I am out with my brother in a rare patch of native manuka forest on New Zealand’s North Island. We’re shooting introduced possums that are eating the native birds and their forest habitat. On the next hillside over, young titi (sooty shearwaters, also known as muttonbirds) are settling into artificial burrows dug for them in their ancestral breeding grounds by members of the Maori iwi (the people or tribe), local ENGOs, and a team of scientists. We are all helping with a national campaign to give these birds a fighting chance to fledge from hills they haven’t occupied for over a century. Their burrows are behind a predator fence worthy of Fort Knox. 

According to the leading ecologists in New Zealand, there is only one thing that can help conservation and climate change more than shooting possums: shooting cows. 

Kia Ora to Aotearoa—Welcome to New Zealand. 

I’ve come to New Zealand to visit family and take a break, but am also actively studying it for lessons to apply back in British Columbia. For years the impression has been that New Zealand is the greener of these two far-flung Pacific colonies of the British empire. New Zealand’s ecotourism marketing budget—portraying Hobbits and happy trampers—is double that of BC, so it certainly appears that they are greener, but how do the images square with reality? How does the conflicted “100% Pure New Zealand” compare with the schizophrenic “Super, Natural British Columbia”? 

New Zealand’s cows are its dirty little secret. As the world’s largest exporter of dairy products, the country’s National Party (Conservative) government champions the $17-billion corporate industry with the same kind of blind devotion that Stephen Harper’s Conservatives did for oil, and BC’s Christy Clark does for gas. Unlike oil and gas in Canada, however, the dairy industry does indeed prop up the entire economy. And unlike oil spills, the environmental impacts are not as obvious—at least to the tourists. 

Under Prime Minister John Key, deregulation of water use and dairy waste disposal has paralleled Canadian oil and gas deregulation with accompanying impacts. Over 90 percent of New Zealand’s wetlands have already been drained or filled and the remaining wetlands, such as the Waikato—one of the last big freshwater habitats in New Zealand—are classified at the danger end of the chemical nutrient scale, between eutrophic and hypereutrophic. In other words, they are supersaturated with phosphorous and nitrogen. 

To keep New Zealand’s scientists from wading into the issue, Key gutted the Department of Conservation (DOC) where they were conducting studies on the impacts of industry. According to Forest and Bird, New Zealand’s oldest environmental group, DOC’s “mission has drifted” from conservation to expanding tourism, allowing hydro developments, and logging of blowdown old growth in protected areas, along with other incursions. (Sound familiar?)

Globally, agriculture is responsible for around 14 percent of GHG emissions. In New Zealand, agriculture is the enfant terrible, causing half of its emissions. 

Two-thirds of New Zealand has been deforested. The impacts on biodiversity are huge. It isn’t just titis and kiwis that are poised for extinction here. The fairy tern, of which fewer than a dozen pairs still exist, just lost a chunk of what little remained of its breeding habitat.

NZ’s previous Labour government under Helen Clark set up a subsidized reforestation plan with a national emission carbon trading scheme. Key pushed the country back to net deforestation by stalling on carbon policy, starving the programs, laying off scientists, and pushing the subsidies back to oil and dairy

The biggest player on the dairy front is Fonterra. Described as a global nutrition co-op owned by 10,500 “mum and pop” operations in rural shires, Fonterra is anything but and the industry resistance to issues like water quality, pesticides, biodiversity, climate change, soil erosion, and native forest cover is evident in every page of their voice, the NZ Farmer’s Weekly. Fonterra is viewed by many as the poster child for agricultural villainy, with melamine additives and botulism scare scandals under its belt. 

Fonterra’s control of the national agenda means erosion is once again on the increase and New Zealand’s carbon budget is back in the red. Under Helen Clark, agricultural emissions were to be added to the national inventory by 2013, but Key dropped this sector altogether. At the Paris climate talks, New Zealand was honoured with the first fossil of the day award. 

No matter which side of the carbon budget you examine, whether clearing temperate forest sinks to grow cows, or increasing emissions with methane and nitrous oxide pouring out of their tail pipes, dairy remains a challenging industry in climate change times. Cows produce dangerous levels of methane gas. It gets even worse when you add up the emissions required to evaporate the liquid milk to dry protein powder, bought by Fonterra’s largest markets in China and the US. With drought raging in the south and floods in the north, finding someone to blame and pay the costs is a national preoccupation.

Water quality issues are also central. Increased water contamination with leaching nitrates and increased water consumption, have required ingresses to water in conservation areas. This has pitted Fonterra Kiwis against Maori iwis. Large full colour ads of Kiwi vs Iwi echo the Orks vs Hobbit battles. 

Leaching nitrates and increased sedimentation—on top of over-harvesting—has also destroyed historic shellfish regions. Forest and Bird are taking DOC to court with precedent-setting water battles. 

In terms of chemical impacts, dairy is as devastating as an oil and gas spill. Those idyllic Hobbit shires are monocultures of European grass that turn electric green when phosphorous is sprayed over largely dead soils. Pesticides rule in New Zealand. There is no department in New Zealand that has any data on the scale or range of chemicals used. Every municipal ditch, garden, pasture, vineyard and even entire hillsides of native manuka forests (aka tea trees) are sprayed routinely with poisons. Neonictinoids are allowed despite objections from the New Zealand Bee Keepers Association, surprising given that manuka honey is now a $5.1 billion dollar industry.

In defence of poisons, the National Party and conservationists are often surprising bedfellows. Biologists are hesitant to take a stand against all pesticides because there are few other options against the myriad of imported plants and mammals (the only native mammals were bats) that are munching their way through the last of the native birds and invading their forest habitat. 

On my brother’s 70-acre patch of native forest, he traps feral possums, rats, cats, stoats and goats in between hacking back introduced honeysuckle, morning glory, blackberry, gorse, broom and radiata pine. 

Unfortunately, such ad hoc non-pesticide control can’t stop the onslaught of invasive species. Possum populations have reached 20 million even with a bounty. Initiatives like the titi reintroductions cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, much of it in private funding, and can’t solve the problem either. 

A non-profit alliance of ENGOS has set a goal of a “Predator Free New Zealand.” This involves a combination of landowner initiatives and support for a massive campaign by DOC to spread the poisonous pesticide “1080” over two million acres of New Zealand. It is an uneasy alliance, but after spending a week pulling weeds, shooting possum, and watching Operation Titi, one can at least appreciate the national appetite for an airborne assault on the possum. New Zealand is an island castle under siege. 

With a country torn between selling protein powders to the Asian market and a 100 percent pure landscape to tourists, New Zealand feels to a visitor at least as conflicted as BC. The manuka honey producers are arguing for better carbon incentives to convert pasture back to native forests and supplement their honey market, which is only a third that of dairy but growing. De-intensification is the only option, then, for the dairy industry, but farmers argue it reduces the world’s supply of protein. The Maori volley back that the muttonbirds were a more sustainable form of protein. 

Can we live on more honey and muttonbird and less milk? 

Adding to the complexities (and paralleling BC’s dependence on forestry), tourism is second to dairy in NZ but relies on a steady stream of airplanes full of emissions and people like me. On the other hand, tourists in search of beauty or purity can provide some of the economic incentive for protecting biodiversity. 

Back on the hillside, I am watching a Maori elder sing to the titi to wish them well on their fledgling flight around the Pacific that will take them six years to complete before returning to breed. The biologist next to me points out that their guano used to be the fertilizer that made the forests green. 

My suspicion is that if we are to find any path through these crazy times, it will be in the juicy stuff that happens in Pacific island intertidal zones when iwis and kiwis stand together. 

Having just completed a book tour for her new biography: The Real Thing: The Natural History of Ian McTaggart Cowan, along with a number of years as chair of the board of The Land Conservancy of BC, Briony Penn PhD is on holiday (sort of).