Armed with such statistics, a new doctor-founded lobby group, Evidence-Based Eating New Zealand, has recently been set up to lobby for the transition to a plant-based diet and challenge the scientific analyses and justifications promoted by the meat and dairy industries. This month it disputed Fonterra’s defence of cows’ milk against plant-derived substitutes on the basis of far superior comparable nutrient density, saying other environmental factors and health effects make milk less desirable.
New Zealand’s profile is globally highly unusual, in that its biological emissions from agriculture make up nearly half of all our emissions – that’s including livestock methane, nitrogen fertilisers and the nitrous oxide generated by stock’s liquid and solid emissions breaking down in the soil.
In economic terms, the elephant is the room. Our only comparable earner to meat and dairy is tourism with, unfortunately for us, air travel being another front-line culprit for climate change. The farm sector’s hopes of surviving the Emissions Trading Scheme system and the IPCC’s road map in competitive shape are pinned on our existing status as a world-leading sustainable food producer. Even the Guardian, a newspaper notoriously hard-line about climate change, recently instructed its readers to buy New Zealand lamb, ahead of British, because even counting food miles, it remains the world’s most sustainably produced.
Agri-business and farm sector representatives have being laying out their rationale to the Zero Carbon Bill hearings at Parliament, including a call by Federated Farmers for some form of credit for farmers who do better than the eventually agreed methane-emissions targets.
“But we don’t want a return to subsidies,” says Federated Farmers spokesperson Andrew Hoggard. That’s hardly surprising – painful and destructive as it was for farmers when the Lange Government axed subsidies in the 1980s, it’s generally agreed to be the change most responsible for the international competitiveness of the sector today. Almost all other countries’ farm sectors continue to be subsidised. New Zealand’s sheep and, more lately, dairy farmers have found ways to be as or more profitable with smaller stock numbers than most subsidised competitors. Export earnings today are about as much from the existing 24 million national sheep flock as when it was 70 million.
Charge of the farm brigade
The sector’s chief argument with the Government is over the pace and range of future methane-reduction targets. It wants more transition time while new technology comes into play. Submitters are telling the select committee that vital investment could be jeopardised if targets are too tough too soon, especially given what’s widely recognised as the banking sector’s over-exposure to farm debt.
Crucially, agri-businesses with overseas investors, including fertiliser companies, say their backers will not fund research or new technology here if local earnings capacity dries up or looks uncertain.
The latest IPCC report has redoubled the dismay farmers feel at being expected to be first in and hardest charging of the climate-mitigation cavalry. As Hoggard told Parliament, “It seems easier to tell people to eat less animal-based protein than it is to cut back on trips to Bali.” Federated Farmers says the Zero Carbon Bill has taken the IPCC’s general guidelines too literally when it was never intended as a “cut and paste” for every country. Hoggard says, if guided by science, New Zealand agriculture needs to reduce methane by about 0.3% a year to get to zero net emissions by 2050. That would require much less drastic cuts than the 10%, rising to 47%, that is being proposed.
The farm sector is in a position reminiscent of the classic TV game-show conundrum, “The money or the bag?” Should it accept the Zero Carbon Bill’s emissions targets as set provisionally by politicians, or lobby for the yet-to-be-established independent Climate Change Commission to set them instead, in the hope that it will be more lenient? As it’s as yet unknown who will be on the commission, and how much weight it will give to agricultural and business considerations, the choice of where to put lobbying efforts is a gamble.
The commission will have the primary say over the targets’ range into the future, but some in the sector are worried that settling for the bill’s existing targets as a starting point will get its adaptation to climate change off to a hobbled, stumbling start.
Farmers are basing their call for an emissions-target delay on the emergence of new carbon-reducing technologies. From robo-vac-style machines that rove pastures neutralising cattle dung, to the eagerly awaited gene-edited rye grass being trialled in the US, help is on the way. The farm sector is telling Parliament it can lead the world in applying these improvements, and it has an ally in Lincoln University’s Lincoln Agritech. It has many research irons in the fire for sustainability and productivity. Chief executive Peter Barrowclough says farmers are “not sticking their heads in the sand”, and are capable of being green exemplars in their adaptation to climate-change strictures.
Although New Zealand is responsible for only a tiny percentage of the world’s carbon emissions – somewhere between 0.1 and 0.4% – Barrowclough says we can definitely take a lead role in helping the rest of the planet clean up its agricultural act. “I don’t disagree with vegans and vegetarians saying we need an urgent call for action, but I don’t think people will give up meat that easily. It is part of a balanced diet and we have a long history with it, but we do need to be sure that meat is produced in the most sustainable way.”
Among Lincoln Agritech’s projects are new groundwater sensors, which measure concentrations of nitrates; standoff pads or voluntary “herd homes” that allow effluent to be collected, stored and separated, then spread evenly over paddocks; new cereal catch crops to mop up soil nitrates; and sensors for better targeting of nitrogen fertiliser. Barrowclough says farmers are already using a variety of new techniques to lower emissions, including restoring wetlands, using new fertiliser and effluent monitoring systems, moving to once-a-day milking and trialling low-emission feeds.
Revisiting genetic engineering
Low-emission feed has become something of a holy grail, but the giant obstacle is New Zealand’s strict controls on gene-modifying technology and genetically engineered (GE) crops. The Royal Society Te Apārangi, which convened a panel of biological scientists and law and economics professors to review the status of GE, has just received a provisional yes from Environment Minister David Parker on its plea that the Government review the 20-year-old legislation governing hazardous organisms. Even Climate Change Minister and Greens co-leader James Shaw, whose party is militantly opposed to GE, has said New Zealand needs to revisit the issue.
However, neither minister has expressly discussed this insomuch as it might apply to agriculture. The Government’s fear is that loosening the rules for GE and allied technology here would damage our “clean, green” brand and premium export marketing advantage. The flourishing organics sector says any loosening would kill its businesses. In the politicians’ other ear are scientists such as former prime ministerial chief science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman, who says GE technology is going to be an important weapon against climate change, and he doubts New Zealand will be able to duck it. He also believes public opinion is softening against GE.
Meanwhile, high hopes are held for Dutch company DSM’s chemical methane inhibitor, expected on the market within a few years. It’s suited to intensive farms where animals are fed indoors, but DSM is also developing an equivalent for pasture-fed stock.
In addition, there’s also the option of rape forage feeding, which field trials have shown can cut sheep emissions by up to 35%. Selective-breeding for low emissions is also well under way, but it’s a long game. In the meantime, excitement surrounds development of a rumen vaccine that could change the gut bacteria in ruminants to reduce methane.
Balance Agri-Nutrients and Hiringa Energy are working at the former’s Kapuni ammonia-urea plant on producing green hydrogen with renewable energy. Up to four large wind turbines are to supply electricity and power electrolysers at the plant to produce high-purity hydrogen, either for feed stock use or as zero-emission transport fuel.
Barrowclough says not all farmers will initially be able to afford the relevant new technologies, and the cost will have to be factored into production. But as the National Party’s agriculture spokesperson, Todd Muller, says, “The history of our farm sector is one constant arc of innovation and adaptation. The IPCC report is really about how the world can sustainably feed itself when the population is expected to grow from 7.7 billion to 10 billion [by 2055]. Our producing less food, as some would suggest, is not going to help.”
Muller says New Zealand has so many ways forward it’s spoilt for choice. “It’s pretty hard to think of anything we can’t grow here.” He says few other countries have what we have: plentiful water, sun, good soils and the vital fourth pillar of no subsidies to distort what use we make of the other three.
What our future food production needs is bigger and better water storage, he says. “We’re so lucky. We’ve got so much water, but it’s not always where we need it. We need to make some big calls and big investment decisions.”
Dams are controversial in terms of environmental displacement, Muller admits, but he says they would be a powerful enabler of sustainable food production by optimising our natural advantages.
He cites Transpower’s estimate that electricity production will need to double if the country is to meet its sustainable energy targets. Water management is critical to that. The agriculture sector is open to further diversification away from livestock, including to more horticulture, but that, too, takes water and will need adaptation to make it more sustainable, Muller says.
One plant-based product, using rain-fed rather than irrigated land, is Otis Oat Milk, a dairy alternative made from Southland and Otago oats. In Dunedin cafes, baristas are already serving their lattes and flat whites using this locally produced “milk”. “Oat milk is not anti-dairy,” says founder Tim Ryan. “Kiwi farmers are doing a great job of producing fantastic globally exported produce, but we want to give choice to consumers and encourage more diversification in New Zealand’s agriculture sector. New Zealand could be a world leader in plant-based agriculture.”
Trillions of trees
As New Zealand Beef and Lamb spokesman Jeremy Baker points out, much of New Zealand’s meat is produced on land that wouldn’t be suitable for any other food production.
For some farmers, swapping cash crops for some stock could be the most achievable adaptation. Worldwide, there are plenty of lessons for what New Zealand’s future food-growing templates should avoid. Overly intensive monocropping has devastated ecosystems, imperilled vital pollinating insect populations through pesticide use and provided miserable wages and lives for workers.
But although there’s near-universal agreement that mixed land use is essential, there’s a big, green spanner in the works: radiata pine. The Government has lately conceded that its twin afforestation policies, the One Billion Trees Programme and the heavy reliance on forest sinks in the Zero Carbon Bill, risk generating perverse incentives for land use. Already productive farmland is being converted to forest, and the appeal of carbon farming to overseas investors is expected to be an increasingly forceful driver of agricultural land pricing.
Shaw, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor and Forestry Minister Shane Jones have agreed to review the policy settings – another reason the Zero Carbon Bill’s report back to Parliament is so keenly awaited.
But New Zealand is hardly alone in questioning where and how to grow all the forestry needed to mitigate climate change. Science has published a university study that postulated the need to plant 1.2 trillion trees over about 900 million hectares globally. As the Atlantic magazine’s climate-change analyst, Robinson Meyer, pointed out, that just happens to be about the size of the continental United States, and would heavily comprise land that is already being used for much-needed food production.
Plants are clearly capable of saving the planet, but the balance between how many we grow to eat against how many we grow to sequester emissions is going to keep scientists and politicians heavily preoccupied.