New Zealand co-op Fonterra announces plan to clean up country’s waterways

The dairy giant has already been working alongside the rest of the industry to improve practices that have affected the environment

New Zealand dairy co-op giant Fonterra has announced a new environmental initiative to clean up the country’s natural waterways.

Chief executive Theo Spierings said the co-op wants to restore 50 freshwater catchments.

“We acknowledge we have an important role to play in addressing water quality in New Zealand,” he said. “Kiwis want swimmable waterways and that’s an aspiration we share. We’ll work with local communities to improve the quality of our streams and rivers.”

Fonterra launched its 10-year Living Water partnership with the Department of Conservation in 2013, with the aim of achieving sustainable dairying in healthy freshwater ecosystems. The programme focuses on five catchments and aims to improve natural habitats, and freshwater outcomes.

“Living Water has taught us a huge amount and we are making a significant impact on the initial regions,” said Mr Spierings. “Now we want to amplify those results with the launch of a new initiative that will target 50 catchments.

“Our immediate focus will be on working with communities, government and key partners to identify the catchments and develop a strategic framework for the programme. This is a major undertaking and we need to get it right, but we are committed to making substantial progress.”

Mr Spierings made the announcement at the annual meeting of the New Zealand Sustainable Business Council held in Auckland. The council’s executive director, Abbie Reynolds, said she was delighted Fonterra was making a significant commitment to improve water quality.

“The business case for sustainability is clear and it’s pleasing that a growing number of organisations are making robust commitments to improving New Zealand society and the environment,” she added. “It is great that Fonterra is making an ambitious commitment, which is both bold and restorative.”

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The dairy industry has been working to improve its practices and repair years of damage from intensive farming practices. Industry body DairyNZ has produced the Farm Enviro Walk Toolkit and devised the Sustainable Dairying Water Accord to help this process.

Environmentalists have welcomed improved dairy shed effluent management, and the fencing off of streams on dairy farms to keep cows away.

Fonterra’s Kauri plant in Northland

Dr John Quinn, chief scientist for freshwater and estuaries at the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research, noted these “industry-led” initiatives, and suggested planting trees along river banks to add further protection.

Speaking of the industry in general, he said: “More than 97% of streams running through dairy farms are now fenced, so cows are out of waterways. Waterways are still receiving E. coli and Campylobacter from other unfenced stock and wild animals. They’re also getting microbial pathogens from land runoff when it rains. A 2005 NIWA study found that rain can wash a million to a billion E. coli bacterium per square metre of hillside into streams.

“Riparian strips can help. These are the areas where plants grow alongside streams. They trap and absorb nutrients and microbes, including E. coli, in surface water. In the best conditions, riparian strips can remove at least 60% of nitrogen and 65% of phosphorus from runoff and groundwater.”

He added: “Trees holds together river banks, which stabilises them as habitats for insects and prevents silting and cloudy water that disturbs fish. The shade of trees creates cooler and more humid conditions, which insects need, and prevents over-growth of plants in the stream. Their branches and leaf litter provides direct habitat and food for many of the insects that like riverside conditions.”

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