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Why I made Milk and Money, a series about the cost of dairy

Milk and Money is a six-part documentary series by Re: investigating New Zealand’s dairy industry. This week it launched on Re: and TVNZ OnDemand. Re: journalist and host of the series Baz Macdonald explains why he made it.

During filming of the series, journalist Baz Macdonald spoke to people on all sides of the debate across Aotearoa. Source: Supplied

By Re: reporter Baz Macdonald

About a year ago I was sitting on the coast of Riverton, a tiny seashore village in Southland, and all I could smell was cow shit.

I was kilometres away from a farm and my boots were clean. What I was smelling was the stink of hundreds of thousands of dairy cows wafting off the plains and out to sea.

Having grown up in Southland, I have countless memories of this spot. In fact, as kids me and my brother had driven a truck off the very cliff I was sitting on (a story for another time).

None of those memories had the smell of cow shit in them, and that’s because back then there were very few dairy cows. In 1990 there were only 40,000 dairy cows in all of Southland. Only 30 years later there are over 600,000.

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But it isn’t just in Southland. Over the past three decades, our country has experienced a massive dairy boom, with whole regions transitioning much of their land use away from vegetables, sheep, and beef, and towards dairy farming.

In that time we’ve more than doubled the number of dairy cows in the country to 6.3 million, and increased the amount of land we use for dairy by 81 per cent.

In traditional dairy country like Waikato and Taranaki, this transition was less obvious. But in places like Southland and Canterbury which were once thought of as too wet and dry for dairy respectively, it has been a stark transformation.

The landscape of Southland has looked increasingly foreign to me. My memory was of diverse green pastures, some dotted with white sheep, others lined with row upon row of vegetables.

That diversity has been replaced with the sickly smell of silage and waste coming from paddocks packed with dairy cows in frequently muddy paddocks.

At the same time, like many New Zealanders, I was encountering article after article discussing the impacts we were seeing from the dairy boom.

These include impacts on our water, with 50 to 90 per cent of farming waterways exceeding key pollutant limits, which contributes to three-quarters of our native freshwater fish ending up on the threatened or at-risk species list.

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And impacts to our atmosphere, with our dairy cows responsible for a quarter of our national emissions - more than our cars.

And impacts to our soil, with 84 million tonnes of soil eroding off pastures every year.

My family still largely lives in Southland, and many work in and around the dairy industry. I have personally benefited from the dairy boom, and so understand its importance to the livelihoods of many New Zealanders.

The dairy industry directly employs over 40,000 people and supports many others - particularly in ag-focussed regions like Southland, where one in five jobs is in the dairy industry.

Agriculture isn’t the be-all and end-all of our economy as it once was - dairy currently makes up 3.5 per cent of our GDP - but it is still a significant part of it. Particularly because of its role in our export market, where 25 cents of every dollar made comes from the dairy industry.

Whether we know it or not, all New Zealanders benefit from having a strong export market. Without bringing in money from exports, the cost of many luxuries we have become accustomed to like phones or computers would be prohibitively expensive for many more people.

But seeing and reading about the strain our intensive dairy was putting on the landscape, I started to worry about how sustainable this practice could be for our environment, and ultimately for the livelihood of my family and many others.

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Sitting on that cliff in Riverton, smelling the cow shit on the air, I resolved to investigate how sustainable our current dairy practice is for Aotearoa.

Now a year later, we are releasing that investigation in the form of a six-part documentary series on Re: and TVNZ OnDemand called Milk and Money, the true cost of dairy in Aotearoa.

There are aspects of the series that will be confronting for farmers, as we explore the scale and cause of some of the industry’s environmental, cultural, and human and animal health impacts.

But likewise, there are conversations about the role of the industry in the economy and community of New Zealand that those detached from it may need to hear.

There are also conversations that have too often been left on the sidelines when discussing dairy, particularly those concerning the colonisation of the whenua and tangata whenua of this country.

It’s a difficult conversation, but a vitally important one for the continued health and happiness of our country and people.

Our hope is that this series can help get us all on the same page, with at least a shared baseline understanding of how the industry operates, what the issues are, and what the barriers are to fixing them.

Perhaps then we can work together to create a more sustainable and equitable Aotearoa.

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For those who stuck with me through my earnest discussion of sustainability, here is your reward - the story of me and my brother driving a truck off a cliff.

I was about two years old and my brother was four. We had just arrived at the house, which sits across the road from the cliff's edge.

I was too young to remember this, but my brother’s memory is that as my parents unloaded the truck (a long blue ute) my brother jumped in the front seat and began pretending to drive it.

In his playing, he must have taken off the handbrake. We began rolling backwards. My dad rushed for the truck, but we were moving too fast for him to catch up.

We rolled right through the gate, across the road, and off the cliff. We dropped what must be five or six metres onto a section of the coast called the Riverton Rocks.

Miraculously, both my brother and I walked away with nothing more than scrapes and bruises.

The truck had to be hauled out by a crane.

And then almost 30 years later I sat smelling cow shit in that same spot.

Watch the series on TVNZ OnDemand and the Re: News website to find out where it took me.