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New Zealand's longest-running online daily news and commentary publication, now in its 24th year. The opinion pieces presented here are not purported to be fact but reasonable effort is made to ensure accuracy.

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Can't have our cake and eat it too

11 January 2017

New Zealand has two key industries that account for the vast majority of its international earnings.

We have dairy and we have tourism.

If you think of the idyllic image of a herd of cows grazing on lush New Zealand grass with snow-capped mountains in the background you could be tempted to think that the two could co-exist quite happily together.

Sadly, this is increasingly not the case and I expect that pretty soon we're going to have to start making some hard decisions as to which industry we give priority to.

The big problem is that NZ Tourism has spent a boatload of money building the "100% pure" image of this country as a way of attracting visitors from around the world -- whilst the reality is that we're a nation of increasingly polluted and unsafe waterways.

Now I'm no sandal-wearing, touchy-feely, tree-hugging greenie, but I do have significant concerns at just how much damage the growing over-farming that this country is fostering has already done to the environment.

We tout our dairy industry as being the most efficient in the world -- but that's only true if you ignore the environmental cost.

Firstly, our dairy farmers have conveniently been exempted from the need to pay for greenhouse emissions and, as we have been told, those emissions are quite significant.

Secondly, huge tracts of forestry (native and exotic) have been felled and converted into dairy farms, something that has an insidious long-term effect on the countryside.

Then there's the effect of over-fertilization, something that has poisoned the soil in parts of the upper central North Island to the extent that it can no longer be used for some agricultural purposes. Cadmium is the big issue here and anyone who does even a small amount of research will probably be quite horrified at what's happened in this regard.

Finally, we have the effect on our waterways.

Apparently there's a video which shows quite graphically just how bad the dairy industry has polluted our waterways and the effect this has had on their safety. I have to admit that I've not seen that video - but I don't need to, I've been aware of this problem for quite some time.

So now we're reaching crisis point.

How do we explain to tourists who have come to clean, green, "100% pure" New Zealand that it is too dangerous to swim in our rivers and lakes because of the dairy effluent they contain?

I think that any tourist who comes here with the expectation that they'll be getting what they were sold on the travel agent's brochure has good grounds to sue for deceptive advertising.

Yes, New Zealand has some wonderful scenery and compared to some third-world countries we are relatively clean and safe -- but for how long?

Sadly, we've been resting on our laurels for far too long in respect to the number of eggs in our basket of key export earners. As I've said many times in this column, by allowing ourselves to remain so very reliant on primary product, we have created a huge vulnerability. One single pathogen (such as foot and mouth) could cripple our export earnings overnight -- and we've got nothing that comes even close to taking up the slack, should that happen.

It's all very well patting ourselves on the back and telling ourselves just how fantastic we are at creating dairy products -- but we really do need to look at just how corrosive our primary product is to our other major export (tourism) and how we are solely reliant on good luck to protect those earnings.

Good managers plan for "the worst" and manage the risks. It seems that New Zealand is too busy having a big "isn't dairy wonderful" party to do that. I don't know about you -- but that makes me nervous.

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