Seeing Green: Here a sheep, there a sheep

Opinion by Holly Moeller
Feb. 16, 2012, 12:28 a.m.

Seeing Green: Here a sheep, there a sheepLINCOLN, N.Z. Acre after acre of pastureland scrolls by the car window as Ian Dickie — an eminent fungal ecologist — croons his rendition of “I Am Cow.”


“I am Cow, hear me moo, I weigh twice as much as you, and I look good upon your barbecue,” the Arrogant Worms’ parody begins, going on to discuss “liquid from my udder” and how “methane gas comes out my –”…well, you know.

The song fits a landscape which, once covered with sheep, has recently been converted to dairyland. Wherever I go in New Zealand, I seem more likely to run into a herd of mooing milk producers than the skittish balls of wool the country is known for.

Once, the joke went that for every person in New Zealand, there were 20 sheep. Today, with a human population around 4.5 million and a sheep population that’s been halved to 30 million, the ratio isn’t quite so impressive.

Meanwhile, the number of dairy cattle has doubled from 3 million in 1999 to 6 million in 2009. Simultaneously, the dairy industry has grown by 77 percent to become New Zealand’s largest exporter.

Today, 95 percent of New Zealand dairy products are shipped abroad, earning over $11 billion annually. Most go to Asia, where the growing markets of China and India crave a protein-rich middle class diet. A (relatively) near neighbour, New Zealand is well-positioned to meet this demand, producing 1.5 billion kilograms of milk solids (shippable concentrate produced by evaporating the water from milk) each year.

This growth has piqued foreign interest. Harvard got in on the action last year, purchasing the former Big Sky Dairy Farm for $32 million. Now Chinese firms are buying in. It’s a brilliant investment from their perspective, banking on a market driven by their own economic growth. But locals are balking at the latest proposed purchase of 16 Crafar dairy farms, citing concerns about job loss (the Chinese firm would import labor from overseas) and threats to environmental quality (foreign owners don’t have to live amid their messes).

According to some, this public disapproval stems from subtle racism. The media here constantly discusses foreign takeover and threats to New Zealand sovereignty from Asian buyers. Yet the biggest foreign landholders here are United States citizens. American nationals purchased almost 200,000 hectares of New Zealand land in the last five years (including the Harvard farm). The Chinese bought a paltry 225.

It would also be a shame to wait for foreign ownership before acknowledging environmental degradation. Despite New Zealand’s reputation for forward-thinking environmentalism, its dairy industry is, by all accounts, an ecological nightmare.

Back in 2003, in a nod to the pollution threat dairy presented, the Ministries of Agriculture and Environment and Fonterra — the company with a virtual monopoly on milk processing — signed an “accord” basically saying that they would put their best feet forward. The government would develop regulations, and Fonterra would use its economic clout to sanction noncompliant farmers.

Among other things, the accord acknowledged the threat cattle pose to waterways — by trampling through carrying mud and feces — and vowed to fence off 90 percent of streams by 2012.

That’s this year. Needless to say, the goal hasn’t been met. Downstream from one farm, a popular swimming hole is regularly plastered with warning signs. Ian points out the turnoff. It’s hardly unique.

Nitrous oxide — the greenhouse gas 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide — emissions are also up, the result of excessive fertilizer used to milk as much productivity from the land as possible. Cows also produce methane, a byproduct of their ruminant digestive tract that is another potent greenhouse gas. And because so many cattle are crowded onto each field, nutrient loads are becoming unbalanced, leaking effluent into local waterways and stimulating algal blooms and eutrophication.

As we know from our own experiences in the United States, industrial farming is an unsustainable practice. However, trying to regulate a growing industry makes for equally unsustainable politics. Still, in a country like New Zealand, where — as a function of lower population densities and an adventurous national culture — people live closer to the land, it seems possible that some of these issues will be addressed sooner, rather than later.

Ian closes with a rousing chorus of “I Am Cow.” I gaze out the window; a black-and-white heifer stares back.

Holly welcomes questions, comments and wool socks at hollyvm “at” stanford “dot” edu.

Holly is a Ph.D. student in Ecology and Evolution, with interests that range from marine microbes to trees and mushrooms to the future of human life on this swiftly tilting planet. She's been writing "Seeing Green" since 2007, and still hasn't run out of environmental issues to cover, so to stay sane she goes for long runs, communes with redwood trees and does yoga (badly).

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