(NZ) -- My heart sank when I heard about Fonterra's idea to reduce the dairy industry's impact on our environment.
Fonterra has come up with a strategy to make the industry more sustainable, and included it in a 10-year growth plan it has submitted to the Government.
Explaining this strategy, Fonterra chief executive Theo Spierings acknowledged our dairy industry is eight to 10 years behind Europe in terms of sustainability, and it "can't keep growing the way we have been without changing the way we deal with sustainability issues because the industry is having too much of an impact on the environment".
But then he went on to explain that one of its "high-impact sustainability solutions" is the promotion of "indoor farming" of cows, because this will allow farmers to increase cow numbers on the same area of land, while reducing nutrient run-off and increasing profitability.
Now, I doubt anyone would object to sheds on dairy farms where cows can shelter in inclement weather and manure can be collected - provided cows are able to wander freely in and out of the sheds.
But Fonterra's high-impact sustainability solution is the promotion of large-scale "indoor" or factory farming - a radical departure from our tradition of farming cows outdoors on pasture.
And the Government is supporting the move to factory farming. One of its key economic growth strategies is to intensify agriculture so agricultural output can double by 2025. To help achieve this, it has come up with a new "code of welfare" for the dairy industry that will make it legal for dairy farmers to keep cows inside factory farms all year round.
The industry has come up with various euphemisms to make factory farms sound acceptable - describing them as "off- pasture management" systems or "indoor housing".
But the reality is factory farms are large-scale industrial operations where cows are kept indoors for up to 10 months a year, forced to stand in overcrowded conditions on concrete floors all day, and milked by robotic milking machines.
Cows' hooves are not designed to stand on hard surfaces, and so their feet become inflamed, making it hard for them to walk. International research has found factory- farmed cows, kept indoors for months on end, often develop lameness, high levels of mastitis and disease, which results in an increased use of antibiotics.
Cows are intelligent creatures who develop friendships and social hierarchies, recognise people, hold grudges and have long memories. A cow in a herd, for example, knows exactly where her place is in line at the milking shed.
Cows need freedom of movement and the ability to walk and graze. Ordinarily, they will spend five to 10 hours a day grazing and chewing grass.
Instead of grass, factory-farmed cows are fed a totally unnatural diet of grain and supplements such as palm kernel, which makes their milk higher in coronary-causing trans-fatty acids for humans who drink their milk.
For decades New Zealand has traded on its reputation for grass-fed, free-range milk and butter and this has been one of our competitive advantages.
If word gets out that a lot of our butter and milk comes from factory-farmed cows, our competitive advantage will disappear and we won't be able to differentiate our milk and butter from produce originating in factory farms anywhere else.
Mr Spierings has dismissed suggestions that factory farming would damage the clean green brand our dairy industry has traded on for years. He argues that since other countries practise factory farming, we should be okay.
Five years ago there was an uproar when three companies applied for resource consent to house 18,000 cows in indoor cubicles in the Mackenzie Basin. Back then, Prime Minister John Key and Federated Farmers said they didn't support factory farming.
But in their eagerness to intensify agriculture, Fonterra and the Government have apparently changed their minds. Presumably, they are hoping public opinion has shifted.
Consumers need to let Fonterra and the Government know in no uncertain terms that we don't want factory farms in New Zealand.
By Sue Kedgley, The New Zealand Herald