We must protect our waterway ecosystems

Originally published at stuff.co.nz

The water contamination debate between freshwater ecologist Dr Mike Joy and Professor Jacqueline Rowarth on the Country Radio Show recently has generated heated controversy.

Joy is primarily concerned about the level of waterway degradation in New Zealand. There are important reasons for this.

Waterways act like a sponge, preventing flooding. They have also been likened to the Earth’s kidneys, purifying water systems and controlling water flow.

Degradation of our waterways has been in the spotlight for a while now. In March 2013 the Environment Ministry’s freshwater reform paper reported a worsening state of water quality in lowland streams, wetlands and lakes. They called for a once in a generation opportunity to reverse the trend.

But are we really prepared to do what it takes to protect our waterway ecosystems? Joy has argued that meat must be removed from Kiwi cuisine by 2050 if we are to have any hope of addressing the many environmental ills resulting from animal agriculture.

It’s a paradigm shift not many New Zealanders are prepared for.

Yet Joy is unequivocal in his view. He blames intensive animal farming in New Zealand as the cause of waterway quality degradation.

Intensive animal farming has damaged waterways by habitat destruction as wetlands have been drained for farmland.

Farming also generates lots of effluent from stock who which seeps into waterways. Sediments and nutrients from farming also run into waterways, causing weed growth and algae blooms.

Ecologists like Joy have, since at least the 1960s, been canaries in the coal mine, alerting us to the unsustainable degradation of the ecosystems that support all human and animal life. And New Zealand has (contrary to our clean green image) a devastating ecological record since European habitation.

New Zealand is a biodiversity hotspot and has exceptional endemism, including the birds, fish, invertebrates and insects that live in and around the waterways. However there has been an unduly rapid loss of habitat due to farming since colonisation, resulting in the extinction of many species.

It’s not rocket science to see that animal agriculture is a danger for our waterways and amazing ecosystems. Rather its ecological science. And Joy knows his stuff.

But for many, if social media responses are anything to go by, Joy has taken it one step too far. It seems most New Zealanders are not prepared to give up their meat for anything or anybody.

Joy may as well be speaking Martian.

Meat-eating is deeply entrenched in the New Zealand cultural psyche.

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