Nicki Atkinson

nickiPhosphate fertilisers are one of the key ingredients that created and remain fundamental to the NZ agricultural economy and in fact the world food source. Ever since the 1930’s the use of phosphate fertilisers has increased pasture and horticultural production and has been vital in the increasing intensification of our agricultural land uses. But at what cost? Phosphate is mined and so its extraction is not only damaging to the environment but it is a finite resource that globally we are running out of. It is therefore critical to look at the efficacy with which we use it. Part of such an analysis is to highlighting the unintended consequences of its use; namely phosphates role in the eutrophication of lakes and waterways and the accumulation of the heavy metal cadmium in agricultural soils (which is a toxic impurity within phosphate). Furthermore, there is evidence to suggest that the rate at which we apply phosphate as a fertiliser is well in excess of what is optimal to produce the maximum grass growth. If that is the case, does NZ’s use of phosphate fertilisers fit Ronald Wright’s definition of a Progress Trap? Given our knowledge of the phosphate cycle, is there a sensible way to avoid such a trap?

Dairy is the backbone of the New Zealand economy.

We’re feeding the world and we’re making more money… or are we?

Have you ever wondered how much food goes into a cow and how much waste comes out? One dairy cow produces as much effluent as 11.6 people, meaning New Zealand’s six million dairy cows produce as much effluent as 70 million people.

We can no longer grow enough grass to feed all our cows just from the soil itself. Even by adding 800% more fertiliser and twice as much water as we did 20 years ago, we still fall short – so we import palm kernel – 1.4 million tonnes of it a year, more than any other country.

Does this matter? Do New Zealander’s know that all this fertiliser has poisoned our land with cadmium – a carcinogenic heavy metal – leaving us with soil that is unsafe to grow vegetables on? Is the decline in our water quality and recreational opportunities not an important issue? Just how clean and green are our farming practices?

Despite the common rhetoric, the economic picture painted by the dairy industry is not entirely rosy either. Intensification has driven land values so high that ‘family owned’ dairy farms are now a rarity. Only big companies can afford to buy farms, and even then large portions are financed though loans. This results in a massive $200 million a year going to offshore banks in interest repayments.

Some might say we are using our capital to pay the mortgage and at the same time fouling our own nest. They may well be right.

My thesis will evaluate the inputs, outputs, and effects of dairy farming on both the environment and the economy. To do this I will compare two different farming systems, a conventional intensive dairy farm and an organic dairy farm. I hope to be able to assess the long term viability of dairy farming in NZ from this comparison and suggest ways in which it could be more sustainable.

For the creative component of my thesis I will team with Susan Harvey to produce a film that shows what changes have occurred to our country because of the intensification of dairy farming. The Hurunui River and its advocates will be the central thread that helps to investigate and showcase these changes.

See here for information on her creative thesis work on the documentary on freshwater health:  Beneath the Surface