Who should pay to protect the environment?


By John Holland, GWCT Head of Farmland Ecology

New Zealand’s dairy farmers are currently getting a lot of stick about their impact on the environment and especially water quality with nitrates being one of the main contaminants. The media has also picked up on this with articles in various newspapers from around the world.

The situation here though is very different to Europe as there are no agri-environment schemes and few other sources of funding for farmers to help prevent off-farm pollution. Instead most of the activities they have to take to mitigate off-farm pollution have to be self-funded, sometimes at considerable cost. Which begs the question – who should pay for environmental protection?

It is easy to blame farmers as they are causing pollution that is actually being measured and is also relatively easy to measure. Yet all businesses have an environmental impact and in some cases they too have to pay to reduce this, although I imagine most do not pay that much, especially when the majority of the production occurs in another country.

Add to this the fact that farmers are not the only ones making money out of the product. Few agricultural products are sold direct to the consumers, before we even see them a range of other businesses from haulage companies to food processors and retailers are also making a profit, so should they also be contributing to the cost of environmental protection?

The issue also becomes more complicated when we to start to consider the necessity of some goods. Generally, farmers are producing goods that are required by society, milk is a staple product, but there are millions of goods that are produced solely to provide a profit for the company and could be regarded as “superfluous” to society. Should these companies be paying more for the greenhouses gases they produce and use of non-renewable resources, never mind the recycling cost if indeed they are even recyclable?

There are of course many other factors determining the environmental impact of goods, where and how the raw materials are sourced, the power source used in their manufacture, etcetera, etcetera.

Public perception

Farmer bashing may seem fair game given what has occurred yet everybody, especially those in the developed world have an environmental impact and our actions determine the strength of this. Everyday decisions such as whether we drive or cycle to work, the choice of products we buy and the holidays we take all have implications for the health of the planet. Most of us know this, yet how many take much notice even though our actions may even impact on the quality of life our children will have. We all live in glass houses.

Protection measures

The leaking of nitrates into rivers is a waste of natural resources and one which the farmer has had to pay for in some way or other, so it makes economic sense to reduce this and is the approach being adopted in New Zealand. Guidelines have been produced on best management practices and most farms must produce a Farm Environment Plan that is audited.

There are a range of different FEP templates but they all cover aspects such as soil, nutrient, irrigation and effluent management. Aspects of livestock management and biosecurity are also included in the plans. Not all plans address other environmental issues such as supporting biodiversity, energy usage and agricultural pest management.

There aren’t any agri-environment schemes in NZ, but one component that has been adopted is the fencing of river courses to prevent stock contamination, E. coli having been found in some surface waters. These fenced areas are then sometimes planted with native plants. This can greatly benefit the indigenous wildlife, much of which favours forest habitats, but can also encourage some of the undesirable species such as mustelids, feral cats, possums and deer.

Land is also being taken out of production through voluntary measures in which farmers place into trust areas of their farms that are rich in biodiversity, typically native bush, thus protecting it for perpetuity.

So as BREXIT looms should we continue to pay farmers to protect the environment? I believe so because the situation is different in the UK, where our landscapes have been moulded by agriculture and most of our biodiversity is integral to it. However, farmers should also be encouraged to adopt sustainable practices not least for economic reasons and to protect the quality of their land for future generations. 


Has the horse bolted.

at 16:26 on 03/04/2018 by Paul Bowman

After being a salmon angler for 35years I now face MANDATORY catch and release the decrease in salmon and sewin stocks started in the 80's just when sprays and dishwashers were being more widely used. The National Rivers Authorities have dropped us in the S*** they refused to check the silts in a local pond saying that the water quality was good. But the silts are where the poisons collect. Back in the 1970's there used to be thousands of shelducks in our estuary (Milford Haven) now there are none. Look in the fields and you see a monoculture with no other weeds or plants. How long do chemicals stay active in the soil for and where do the spray residues go? straight into the silts on our rivers and estuaries. Of course our governments would not take on Monsanto for the sprays or Proctor and Gamble for detergents would they. Maybe its time for some truths and bring an end to a lot of this chemical usage. Sorry farmers your fields may already be on the downhill path to destruction by all the sprays you use. Paul


at 21:35 on 20/02/2018 by Nick

A fascinating discussion is emerging. So far no one has really defined what pollution really is. Man has always changed his environment to suit his needs and requirements. As do all living things. So if they are in excess are they "polluting" the environment for their own ends as well? My view is that man in essence only has one problem:- There are too many of us. The question is not whether the human race should reduce in size to fit the planet but how do we do it with the least impact on those living now. So bearing in mind modern medicine for instance should it be your right to still have as many children as you want? Should the elderly (and this includes me) be allowed anything more than palliative care. Should the elderly be given flu and pneumonia jabs. (the old man's friend) Should we encourage everyone to smoke again? I only mention all this because if you want to feed everyone you need to use fertilizers and that means N,P,& K. Some may not like that but clearly just leaving nature to it's own devices will not feed us all and indeed even modern methods must in due course fail in that sense. only the use of things like yeasts and insect meal will prolong the rise and rise of the homo sapiens. and by then many of the pollinator insects will have disappeared. The question as posed by John Holland is well put.

Farm certification

at 12:42 on 15/02/2018 by Brin Hughes

Farmers should definitely be rewarded for protecting (and encouraging) biodiversity. But the payments should come from across the whole supply chain, including consumers who ultimately benefit from plentiful, safe, healthy food produced in a safe, healthy environment. That means there needs to be a scheme to charge all members of the food supply chain (including retailers/supermarkets) and a scheme to audit farmers for delivery of environmental goods/public goods/biodiversity etc. Thats all sounding like something I used to be involved with....Fair to Nature farming.


at 1:25 on 14/02/2018 by NEIL HAYES

New Zealand is possibly the most over regulated country in the world, and in spite of at least forty Environmental Protection Acts all New Zealand natural rivers, lakes and wetlands are now so polluted that very few will ever recover. Whilst dairy farmers are responsible for a large slice of this pollution the country’s antiquated sewage treatment systems are also another major contributor; along with the illegal use of sprays on the banks of our rivers and the aerial bombardment of the insidious poison 1080 (Sodium fluoroacetate). 1080 was originally developed as a pesticide then ‘tested’ as a rodenticide – then used as a poison to eliminate predators of our endemic wildlife: such as feral cats, ferrets, stoats, weasels and rats. Whilst the use of 1080 has had modest success in controlling rats it has failed to control any other predators. What is also now known is that 1080 eliminates all invertebrates in New Zealand rivers and forests; severely reducing the numbers of endemic Kiwi, the endemic Blue duck - and our once very lucrative tourist trout fishing industry! But the manufacture and use of 1080 is a major industry and its manufacture and use looks likely to continue for some considerable time! Neil Hayes QSM CEnv Carterton New Zealand

cap payments

at 19:44 on 13/02/2018 by jdumont

We've paid farmers for 30+ years to protect the environment via CAP. Bio-diversity has dropped by 50%+ Only 17% of English river s are classed as "good" in WFD Salmon and trout poulations in the NW are at crisis levels. Diffuse Farm Pollution research provides all proof. How much more evidence of a failing system do you need? Self interest rules, profit comes first in agriculture and without effective policing any payment is wasted. Cross compliance figure prosecutions are derisory. Paying farmers to protect the environment is clearly a failure.


at 11:41 on 13/02/2018 by Nicholas watts

There is a difference between protecting the environment and polluting the environment. I believe that all businesses should be responsible and so there fore pay for any pollution that their business makes or causes. I am not including air pollution from vehicles. By continually farming land all farmers are gradually destroying the environment, even the most environmentally friendly farmers. It is the insects that they are gradually destroying and I believe that farmers at least should be paid to have areas that these insects can live and breed in peace. Insects of course are basis of all life when they decline other species that eat them will decline. I believe the type of farming that has the least impact on the environment would be an organic system with livestock that has 4 years arable and 4 years grass with stock on it and power driven implements are not used to cultivate the soil.

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