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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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Peak cow?

7 May 2018

In recent years it has become apparent that our two largest export industries are fighting over the same resources.

On the one hand we have tourism which, for quite some time now, has operated under the slogan "100% pure New Zealand".

On the other hand we have the dairy industry which has increasingly posed a threat to the nation's environment by way of effluent runoff, nitrogen leaching from fertilizer and greenhouse gas emissions.

If recent environmental reports are to believed, the dairy industry is winning -- not in terms of export receipts but in terms of its use/abuse of the environment.

The nation's waterways have gone from "pristine" to putrescent in just a few short decades, to the extent that it's no longer to swim in, let alone drink from, many of the rivers and streams that criss-cross our countryside.

The once-iconic images of a tourist stooping to scoop a handful of fresh water from a bubbling river are now slapped with a health warning and the claim that this country is "100% Pure" has become part of a Tui's beer advertising campaign (Yeah, right).

So where do we go from here?

It would seem that our second-largest export-earner (dairy) is now posing a very real threat to the future of our largest earner (tourism).

Is it time to pick a winner and throw the other under the wheels of the bus?

Or can both industries continue to grow and prosper despite the fact that dairy poses such a huge threat to the very environment we're trying to use as a selling point to attract overseas visitors?

Well environment Minister David Parker has fired a warning shot over the bow of the dairy industry by making it clear that his government intends to tighten up on the environmental effects of this industry, particular in respect to the harm being done to waterways.

If this initiative goes ahead it could well mean that we've reached "peak cow" and that in order to comply with future environmental regulations, farmers may have to find ways to stay in business whilst engaging in less intensive operations.

Personally, I think this is a move that is long overdue.

For far too long, NZ has simply rested on its laurels as "the most efficient dairy producer in the world". It's now time to wake up to the fact that our rivers and streams are not just bottomless pits, able to soak up whatever is thrown at them without any damage or harm. It's also time that the dairy industry was made to pay its way in respect to greenhouse gas emissions. Right now, every other industry is penalised for carbon emissions -- except farming. Despite what governments may claim, this amounts to a subsidy and I thought NZ was dead-set against farming subsidies?

We need to be rapidly diversifying our export base instead of blindly believing that dairy will always provide almost half of our earnings... because that's just not going to happen.

We are a tiny island nation with very limited natural resources and at some time in the not too distant future, we'll need all those resources just to feed our own population.

Other nations are also ramping up their own dairy production (look at China for instance) and if you combine that with the ever-present risk of trade wars, such a heavy reliance on one or two key industries is a folly.

With synthetic meat and dairy alternatives rapidly being developed around the world, this country should already be well down the road of developing new heavy-hitting export industries. If we leave it until dairy has either savaged our environment or until the demand for dairy products has waned then it will be far too late. And don't even get me started on the devastating effect a simple unwanted pathogen could wreak, virtually overnight, on our number-two export earner.

Sadly, recent governments are devoid of visionaries and I see little or no light on the horizon in this area. That leaves it entirely up to the entrepreneurs and innovators. Yet these are the very people who find it so much easier to develop their ideas outside of New Zealand, where costs are often lower, funding is cheaper and more readily available, and there are visionaries to champion the entire process.

I wonder just how many Kiwis there are who, given the opportunity and support in this country, would be come the next Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg -- but instead either catch a plane out of NZ or simply let their ideas and enthusiasm be conquered by the "she'll be right" and complacency that iconifies NZ in the early 21st century.

Is it time we really started planning ahead to diversify our export earnings with high-value *sustainable* industries?

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