Comment

Winter grazing furore not out of the blue

Images of dairy cattle languishing in mud has created a minor scandal for the Government, with Minister Damien O’Connor leaping into action to declare that a taskforce is being formed to investigate the issue.

With such a stirring response, one might think this issue has arisen suddenly, and the Government is taking decisive action.

But the reality is that government advisors have been considering the issue of wintering dairy cows for years and been unable to reach a decision. And it is not just the issue of dairy cows languishing in the mud. Even more horrific are the conditions faced by cows in factory farms, which are slowly becoming more and more common in New Zealand.

NAWAC, the National Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, releases annual reports. Reading these reports is very enlightening.

In 2010, NAWAC investigated the welfare issues of long-term housing of dairy cattle. For those unfamiliar with the language of these reports, they are referring to dairy factory farms. Farms where cows can be kept indoors for months or even years at a time.

By 2012, NAWAC had prepared a draft code of welfare amendment and opened it to public consultation. It was at this stage that myself and many other activists pointed out to NAWAC the legal issues with factory farming dairy cows. Transitioning from grazing cows to keeping them locked up indoors potentially violates the intentions of the Animal Welfare Act.

NAWAC continued to refine and consult on this amendment in 2013. It continued that process in 2014.

In 2015, NAWAC finally had something ready and submitted it to the Minister of Primary Industries. The most recent report on the Dairy Code of Welfare gives no indication that this amounted to any actual changes in the current laws.

NAWAC’s 2017 report reveals a completion of “multi-criteria decision analysis” and a “decision on minimum standards for off-paddock housing” during that year. No report is currently available for 2018.

So what is holding up the Government’s advisors?

Essentially, there are three ways to deal with winter grazing for dairy cattle.

The first option is to simply require high standards of welfare. That is, cows should be kept on land that is able to provide suitable pasture. If land is unable to provide for those cows, it cannot be used to farm cows. And stocking densities should be kept low enough to ensure that the land is not overwhelmed and is able to provide pasture.

The second option is to simply allow cows to languish in the mud, as seen in recent photos circulating through the media.

The third option is factory farms. Industry likes to promote factory farms as ‘welfare-improving’, but they only mean that they are an improvement over the cows languishing in the mud. And even that is a seriously questionable claim.

Every iteration of winter dairy cattle standards that NAWAC has produced since its 2010 investigation has involved permitting the continued growth of dairy factory farms right here in New Zealand. Their answer to winter grazing has been ‘long-term housing’.

NAWAC may have ‘animal welfare’ in its name, but it answers to the Minister for Primary Industries. The challenge for NAWAC has been trying to figure out how to implement the second and third options, so that farmers’ profits will be protected.

The issue for NAWAC is that these factory farms might not be compatible with the current law. In 2012, the Balfour Case indicated that the courts believe the Animal Welfare Act should be interpreted quite broadly. One potential implication of this is that all factory farming practices might contradict the Animal Welfare Act. In fact, there is a case before the courts at this very moment regarding factory farming of pigs.

The Animal Welfare Act was reviewed in 2012 and updated in law in 2015. The documents from this period are just as enlightening as NAWAC’s reports.

Prior to this period, the Animal Welfare Act permitted practices to fall short of the requirements of the law in ‘exceptional circumstances’. The first draft of the new law produced by the Ministry for Primary Industries in 2013 allowed for this to be an indefinite exemption from the law whenever the Minister considered it necessary. Both NAWAC and MPI supported this provision for ignoring the requirements for the Animal Welfare Act indefinitely.

Various provisions also attempted to emphasise the importance of ‘economic considerations’ in animal welfare law.

A large public campaign against loopholes in the law followed. As a result, a compromise was reached and now the Government can only permit practices that breach the Animal Welfare Act for a limited time, to be set at a length no greater than 10 years.

Which brings back the same problem NAWAC initially faced. There is no way to apply high animal welfare standards to intensive dairy farming. So, either NAWAC can attempt to write codes of welfare that are not compatible with the law, or they can force the dairy industry to comply with it.

With NAWAC caught between strict animal welfare requirements on the one hand, and a desire to avoid hurting the dairy industry’s bottom line on the other, it is no wonder they have done nothing since starting the review in 2010. It is easier to ignore the law than to apply it.

So, what has the Government done? It has appointed a taskforce. The taskforce is dominated by industry interests. Four members are direct representatives of the industry and three have ties to the farming industry.

But perhaps most ridiculous of all is the chair of the new taskforce. It is John Hellstrom, the man who was the head of NAWAC when this all started.

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