Monday, January 4, 2016

Tackling the sacred cow

Chancing upon this colonial artwork by William Strutt at Te Papa, depicting Taranaki Māori chasing off settlers’ cattle in 1861,* prompts some questions about our country’s ‘sacred cow’. I’m not talking about a beast that we won’t slaughter, but rather the beasts we do slaughter – and other environmental sacrifices – made to feed the great God Mammon, aka export earnings

It’s almost sacrilegious to question our dependence on dairy exports as the key driver of our economy – but isn’t the increasing pollution of our waterways and atmosphere arising from the intensification of dairy a signal that perhaps we’ve gone too far and need to look at other ways to do dairy and agriculture – or even go further and question: what is the best use of this particular bit of land?

SAFE’s highlighting of cruelty to bobby calves merged into a wider challenge to the ethics and morality of separating newborn male calves from their mothers, to feed our appetites for milk and dairy. But most of the concern was about the threat to our dairy export industry.

This topic – apart from the fact that I enjoy my milk and cheese so much – makes me doubly uncomfortable, because my father was part of the dairy industry all his working life. In fact, when he arrived in New Zealand from the Netherlands in 1954 he began work in a cheese factory in Taranaki – ironically on Parihaka Day (5 November).

Thirty years later, I also came to be living in Taranaki for a couple of years. Working for South Taranaki District Council, my wages would have been partly paid by the rates from local dairy farmers.

But only recently have I come to appreciate – and question – our huge reliance on dairy industry and the environmental impact it has – unnecessarily in my view.

And Māori ‘difficulties’ with dairying are not only historical: the Parihaka community on the western slopes of Taranaki still face the loss of traditional tuna (eel) and piharau (lamprey) sources due to stream diversion and other practices from neighbouring dairy farms.

The Māori depicted in William Strutt’s painting were only defending their lands to protect their own wellbeing and local livelihood. Perhaps things may have been better if they had succeeded. The dominant view that ‘we need dairy for our national livelihood’ is only one perspective. There are two sides to a coin, and many angles on any particular story.

Te Papa’s notes on William Strutt’s painting (painted in 1861) interestingly observes that, “Strutt heightens the action by placing us, the viewers, with the group of Māori – an unusual vantage point.”

* The oil painting by William Strutt is entitled: “View of Mt Egmont/Taranaki, taken from New Plymouth, with Maori driving off settlers’ cattle, 1861.” It was painted from sketches he made in 1855-56, after hearing about the land wars that broke out in the 1860s.

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