Government Must Stop Subsidising Intensive Agriculture

In August a gastro bug hit over 5000 people in the town of Havelock North. The town ground to a halt, with untold cost in pain and lost productivity. The Hastings District Council had to hand out $700,000 in rates remission and business support. Despite the protestations of the Government and farming lobby groups, it is now clear that this outbreak was due to livestock – most probably from the intensive feedlots upstream. After a long dry spell a large downpour gave the feedlots a clean, and washed the effluent into Havelock North’s shallow bore.

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This is the highest profile incident of its kind, but by no means the only one. Gastro bugs are now commonplace in rural Canterbury. There the groundwater is also being used for irrigation so there is a double whammy; the irrigated intensive agriculture is more likely to pollute and the aquifers where the water is coming from are more likely to be recharged from polluted surface water. So while it is great to see Hawkes Bay Regional Council cracking down on effluent from intensive feedlots, we still have a long way to go in making sure intensive agriculture pays the full cost of their operation.

The problem is that water below ground – the stuff we drink – is inextricably linked to the water in our rivers and lakes. So as we pollute the water we swim in, we also pollute the water we drink.

Paying the full cost

Agriculture is important to this country’s economy, and if done well can create profit and be in harmony with nature and the community. However, by not making intensive agriculture pay the full costs of their operation, the Government has effectively subsidised them. That is why we have seen intensive agriculture grow in recent decades, with the resulting profits in many cases outstripped by the damage to our environment and health. The rising number of illnesses from contaminated drinking water or swimming in rivers and lakes is testament to that.

To fix these problems the Government needs to get the incentives right. Intensive farming needs to pay the full cost of operation. If they can do that and continue operating, then they are sustainable. If that means they go out of business, so be it. Instead, at the moment the Government is helping intensive farmers pollute by subsidising irrigation then ignoring the negative impacts and even using $400m of taxpayers to clean up the mess.

There are many ways the Government is currently subsidising intensive agriculture:

  1. Subsidising irrigation schemes. This the most obvious and direct form of subsidy that is currently happening. Helping fund private organisations (irrigators) to supply a public good (water) to private businesses (farmers) for private gain beggars belief. If we charged them for the water it wouldn’t be quite so obscene.
  2. Letting them flush their crap into our rivers and lakes. So far we are excluding stock from rivers on most dairy farms, but for other farms we have to wait a few years yet. As for taking care of the smaller streams and planting the banks to ensure that effluent doesn’t wash into the waterways, well…
  3. Soil erosion is mostly a historical problem from when we cut all our trees down, but is still a problem in some parts of the country. The loss of soil is a concern because once it is gone it is very difficult to get back. Plus it wreaks havoc in our rivers and estuaries by clogging life and carrying phosphorus (a nutrient) with it.
  4. Of course these are the easy problems. The main issue that is looming is rising nitrogen levels in our rivers and groundwater, from the urine of more intensively stocked livestock (particularly cows). The bad news is that in some areas there will be no way to mitigate the nitrogen problem other than having fewer cows on the land. The good news is that some farms are showing that with lower stocking rates and better feeding of the remaining cows they can reduce nitrogen leaching but keep their profit levels the same.
  5. Letting agriculture off the hook for greenhouse gases. There are questions around the accounting for methane, but we know we need to urgently act on long-lived gases like nitrous oxide. Agriculture should have to immediately account for nitrous oxide emissions like every other sector does. If necessary they can be granted the same protection as other emissions intensive trade exposed industries.