Reducing nitrogen loss 'absolutely critical' to farmers, says dairy boss

Source: 1News

The head of DairyNZ says reducing nitrogen loss is "absolutely critical" to farmers in the wake of calls to slash the nitrate pollution limit in waterways .

The current health limit of nitrate in drinking water is 11.3 mg/L, in line with the recommended limit set by the World Health Organization.

However, that number is over ten times higher than 0.87 mg/L, the nitrate level linked to increased bowel cancer risk in a major Danish study published in 2018.

Tim Mackle, DairyNZ chief executive, said although nitrogen fertisiler is a key part of any farm, reducing nitrogen loss is "absolutely critical" to farmers. 

"We've invested 20 years in research to look for ways to reduce it." 

He said $22 million put into researching whether plantain pastures can help dairy farmers improve freshwater quality could offer "significant reductions" — about 30 per cent — in nitrogen.

"This is a really important thing to us. We actually don’t want to waste nitrogen full-stop and we don’t want to see high levels.

"[Farmers] know they have to be real careful with its use, not the least because it costs them as well."

On Breakfast yesterday, Greenpeace senior advisor Steve Abel said the steep increase in the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser on farms in the past 30 years was the cause for high levels of nitrate in New Zealand's drinking water.

It is not about blaming farmers.

—  Greenpeace's Steve Abel

"What we’ve seen is an increase in the amount of nitrate in groundwater contamination. The cause of that is a big increase in the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, a big intensification of dairying primarily, that leads to nitrogen leeching down into the ground, into groundwater and into people’s drinking water.

"We’ve got to lower the nitrate levels for ecological reasons, but also for human health reasons."

Farmer milking cows

Abel said it was not the fault of the farmers, but rather fertiliser companies Ravensdown and Ballance, who distributed 98 per cent of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser in New Zealand.

"They’ve been pushing farmers to put it on the land to grow the grass, to cram the land with cows. They are the ones who are liable, it is not about blaming farmers."

In response, the fertiliser companies and the Fertiliser Association of New Zealand told 1 NEWS they were determined to assist their farmer owners with reducing environmental impact and said banning synthetic nitrogen fertiliser would leave a gaping hole in the economy.

"It is not for an activist group or a farmer-owned co-operative to tell farmers which system they must adopt," they said in a statement.

"Real livelihoods and local communities are at stake. Banning manufactured N fertiliser would leave a $7 billion hole and cost 70,000 jobs."

Mark Julian, Pāmu's dairy general manager, told Breakfast this morning its organic farms had seen a 50 to 75 per cent drop in the amount of nitrogen. 

Eight of its 45 farms are organic and he said it had seen yield drops (milk output) of about 20 per cent. Despite this, it had seen a 20 per cent improvement in milk price.

Although one per cent of the total dairy production in New Zealand is currently organic, Julian said he "absolutely" saw it as a future for farming due to the country's temperate climate which allows cows to be outdoors all year round.