New messaging from Greenpeace suggests a thaw in the frosty relationship between eco-champions and dairy farmers may be coming

Greenpeace is changing its tactics in its battle with the dairy industry over sustainability and water pollution.

The environmental group has released a documentary-style video showing farmers who have moved away from intensive dairying to a lower-impact style of production called “regenerative farming.”

It portrays farmers in a good light. People who care about the environment and the future.

Greenpeace accepts it had something of an anti-farming image but says this has been due in part to the “sound bite” nature of today’s media where short negative comments from its spokespeople are all that end up in television news items.

“We are against a certain sort of farming, we are not against farmers or want farming to stop,” says Greenpeace’s agricultural campaigner, Genevieve Toop.

Relations between Greenpeace and farming leaders hit a low point last month when the environmental group issued a report entitled Sick of Too Many Cows.

The report said scientists had estimated that contaminated water was causing up to 34,000 cases of gastrointestinal illness in New Zealand a year. It also said that high nitrate concentrations in drinking water had been linked to some types of cancer.

It concluded that “not only is intensive livestock farming endangering the health of our rivers, but the latest science says there is a chance it may be putting our health at risk.”

Greenpeace was immediately attacked by Federated Farmers who described the report as “sensationist rhetoric and a misguided attack on the primary sector.”

“This is Greenpeace doing a good job of what they do best – plenty of headlines and hyperbole. Let’s be frank, those claims made about New Zealanders’ health being endangered due to livestock is extreme to say the least, said Chris Allen, Federated Farmers’ Water Spokesperson.

“What’s particularly disturbing is their accusation that irrigation and farming causes cancers and infectious diseases. Federated Farmers expects plenty of hyperbole and sensationalism and welcomes an open forum leading into the General Election, but this latest anti-farming rant smacks of desperation.”

The two groups have collided head-on over big irrigation schemes.

Greenpeace and others, including the Tourism Export Council, want the $480 million the Government has earmarked for irrigation schemes to be redirected to help farmers transition to what they see as more sustainable farming practices.

“These schemes need to be stopped and the subsidies need to be pulled immediately because basically they spell disaster for our lakes and rivers. They supply water on an industrial scale and they need an industrial scale user and the only one is dairy. The schemes don’t stack up (economically) without dairy,” says Toop.

According to Allen, Greenpeace got its facts wrong on the impact of large scale irrigation.

“What is also overlooked is that irrigation is crucial for many fruit and horticultural crops, and there is evidence that irrigation can have better environmental outcomes. The majority of the dams being built are for community water and security of supply for drinking water alongside irrigation,” said Allen.

Making short films to support its campaigns is not new for Greenpeace, it has long been part of its strategy.

But the “Regenerators” video marks a subtle change in style.

Directed by ex-television current affairs reporter Phil Vine, the film has less “shock and awe” and more of a soft-sell approach.

It is based around interviews with farmers from various regions of the country describing how they have adapted their farming practices to be kinder to the environment and gently urging others to follow suit.

It includes a brief interview with two children who talk about how proud they are of their parents for doing things differently on their farm.

The farming methods shown vary, but mainly revolve around letting grass grow longer before cattle graze it, applying less or no fertiliser and, in most cases, reducing stock rates.

Revenue is reduced but Greenpeace says profitability is the same if not better than for conventional dairy farms.

But as one of the farmers in the film dryly remarks, debt is a big hurdle to any change. He believes the high debt levels of many dairy farmers makes them very resistant to trying anything that might impact revenue in the short term.

Greenpeace’s Toop says farming leaders and the Government need to help farmers make the transition.

“We made the film because New Zealand’s rivers are crashing, and regenerative farming is the solution.

“[The dairy industry] is rapidly losing its social license to operate; public opinion is turning against them and that’s because of the state of our rivers.”

“We want to build diversity on farms and reduce emissions. A recent OECD environmental report said dairy was pushing up against its environmental limits, I would say we are well over the limit.”

Mark Jennings is co-editor of Newsroom.

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