New Zealand is a country of just under five million people and just over 10 million cows. The cows produce large amounts of lucrative beef and dairy — our two biggest export goods by dollar value — and even larger amounts of greenhouse gasses and nitrate pollution, and are therefore much discussed at the national level. Internationally, we try to downplay them. We prefer to tell the world about our hobbits, our pristine rivers, our unspoiled natural environment. These things are all fictional. The cows, alas, are real.
“On arrival at Edoras,” says the advertising copy for a typical New Zealand tourism venture, “enjoy the natural unspoiled beauty and breathe in the fresh mountain air.” Edoras is the chief settlement of J.R.R. Tolkien’s horse nomad nation of Rohan. In Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” movies it was portrayed by Mount Sunday, a picturesque shoulder of land in the middle of a river valley in the southern end of New Zealand’s Canterbury district. It does possess natural beauty, and from a distance it still looks unspoiled.
This region has a long history of acting as the stunt double for British fantasy worlds. In the 19th century, the English writer Samuel Butler used it as the setting for his satirical utopian novel “Erewhon,” about a secret nation on the far side of an unexplored mountain range. (Any tourists who don’t feel like visiting Edoras can book a trip to neighboring Erewhon Station instead). The opening chapters, which detail a young British drifter’s experiences on a sheep station just to the east of this range, are based on Butler’s years working a Canterbury sheep station in the early 1860s.
The young Butler would not have had much difficulty finding this sort of work: Sheep farming was the major form of land use throughout Canterbury from the 19th century through the 1980s. And for good reason: The region is in the rain shadow of those striking Middle-earth/Erewhon mountains. Its soil is stony, light and permeable. The relatively sparse rainfall it receives flushes through it quickly, making it hard to grow enough grass to support larger animals, such as cows.
But suppose you did try to put large numbers of cows on land like this. They would eat the fields bare, after which they would simply starve, unless you invested in heroic levels of irrigation and used heavy industrial fertilizers. After these interventions, you would discover an inconvenient consequence: A lot of your fertilizer would pass right through your animals, washing back onto the land in the form of copious floods of urine, which the porous soil would not retain. Your groundwater and local rivers would end up doused with nitrates. We know this for a fact, because we tried it. We are still trying it.
The plains of Canterbury are the most extreme example of a land-use conversion wave that swept through New Zealand from the 1990s onward. The country had been known as a sheep-farming nation. But over the past three decades, for a range of reasons — the collapse of wool prices, the rise of China as a market for dairy products, a lack of central or local government regulation — the move to dairy farming has had the air of a rural-sector gold rush. Canterbury provides a disastrous case study in the consequences for our freshwater systems.
The river you can see winding its way through Edoras in the Jackson films is the Rangitata, one of numerous river systems running east from the Southern Alps across the Canterbury Plains. Like other rivers in the area, the Rangitata now provides the source water for multiple large-scale irrigation schemes. To distribute this water, sprinkler systems are needed. Most farmers have opted for pivot irrigators. These irrigators have rotating arms half a mile long or more, making them excellently efficient at getting a lot of water onto a lot of land with minimal human supervision. The only problem is, you need the land to have no trees on it.
Canterbury is regularly afflicted by Nor’Westers: famously hot, dry winds that can suck moisture out of the soil. Over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, thousands of protective tree shelterbelts were planted around the local fields and carefully nursed to maturity. To run the pivot irrigators, most of these tree belts had to be cut down, so the Nor’Westers are once again free to drink their fill. This detail sums up the ecological insanity of our dairy conversions: To irrigate the plains to the level cow farming requires, we have carefully ensured they will dry out whenever the Nor’Westers blow, so that we can drain still more water from our increasingly damaged rivers.
Because of the vast numbers of cows we insist on cramming onto our fields, we have also ensured that irrigation alone is not enough to keep them fed. Despite importing large quantities of ecologically unsustainable palm kernel extract from Southeast Asia as a feed supplement, we mostly pasture our cows on grass. This requires ultra-fertile soil, which requires high nitrogen content, which requires constant inputs of fossil-fuel-derived fertilizer. The nitrogen ends up as a concentrate in the constant flood of cow effluent that washes through Canterbury’s thin soil into the region’s aquifers and rivers.
New Zealand has been using the slogan “100% Pure New Zealand” to advertise itself as a tourist destination since 1999, with admirable success. “Clean Green New Zealand” is another phrase closely bound up in our national self-image. The country is certainly a beautiful one, and thanks to our low population levels, it has previously not had to face heavy consequences from our lax environmental stewardship. But the rivers of Canterbury are not 100 percent pure; they are a long way from clean, and if they seem green, it’s because of the algal levels. Dams built for irrigation have reduced flows, concentrating nutrients and reducing the power of floods to move sediment and algae. Fecal contamination from cows has closed many swimming areas. Fishers and recreational users of rivers in Canterbury have become increasingly vocal about the destruction of the natural environment.
Meanwhile, those nitrate concentrations have been building in the region’s groundwater, which serves as the water supply for most Cantabrians. Recent studies in Denmark and the United States have shown that our current maximum allowable value of nitrate in drinking water is greatly above the level associated with colorectal cancer. Monitoring of Canterbury’s water supply shows many people are drinking water contaminated to levels well exceeding safety. New Zealand has very high rates of colorectal cancer. By staggering coincidence, the highest number are found in Canterbury.
The contamination of Canterbury’s freshwater easily ranks among the worst environmental disasters in New Zealand history. In hindsight, you can see where we went wrong. Canterbury’s environmental regulations are enforced, where they are enforced at all, by a regional council that cannily uses the name Environment Canterbury. To the uninitiated this suggests a focus on environmental protection. And indeed, the council is tasked under New Zealand’s Local Government Act with protecting the environment; but the same law stipulates that the council has a responsibility to achieve economic growth.
There will always be a tension between those two roles. The solution is an easy and obvious one, although the dairy lobby will resist it tooth and nail. Give the duty of environmental protection to an independent agency, equivalent to the Environmental Protection Agency. Give it teeth, staff it with scientists and public servants who know what they’re doing, and get out of their way.
Mike Joy is a freshwater ecologist and senior researcher at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, in New Zealand. David Larsen is a New Zealand journalist working at the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington.