environment

Talk but few answers to the problem of belching cows

DairyNZ, supported by Fonterra and the Government, has formulated a "Dairy Action for Climate Change" plan, but it is unlikely to slow down the calls from environmental groups for a cut in cow numbers, reports Lynn Grieveson.

The plan released by DairyNZ and Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett at Fieldays on Wednesday outlines steps the industry will take between now and the end of 2018 to address the problem of methane and nitrous oxide emissions from dairy farming.

Landcare Research estimates that the release of methane gas from cows and sheep accounts for almost a third of New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions, and is the largest single contributor.

A single dairy cow can emit up to 120 kg of methane each year – mostly by belching rather than farting.

In addition, nitrous oxide is emitted from soil when cow manure and urine, as well as fertilisers, are broken down by microbes in the soil.

Calls for a reduction in cow numbers redoubled following a report last year from Motu and The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment which found that, to reduce agricultural emissions, New Zealand would need to constrain production at current levels and move away from sheep and cows unless there were significant scientific and technological breakthroughs.

But DairyNZ's plan makes it clear that is not one of the options up for discussion.

"Underpinning the plan is a common desire by the partners, the Ministry for Primary Industries, and the Ministry for the Environment, to address on-farm dairy greenhouse gas emissions in the context of a profitable and sustainable dairy industry," it said.

“New Zealand’s agricultural output of greenhouse gas is accentuated because we have a relatively small population, and we are not heavily industrialised. In other countries where there are larger populations the greater contribution is from the transport, manufacturing, construction, and energy sectors," said CEO Tim Mackle.

The plan commits the partners to linking up researchers and farmers to test mitigation methods and "explore the role of incentives in improving practices".

There will be a trial of dairy farm reporting and benchmarking of emissions, and work done to ensure dairy farmers are receiving consistent and accurate advice.

One of the first steps under the plan will be to identify farming practices with the potential to reduce emissions, and establish ten "partnership farms" where the systems can be tested and the effect on production and productivity quantified.

One hundred Fonterra suppliers will also take part in a test of an on-farm greenhouse gas recording system "to ensure it is fit for purpose if it is rolled out further". The farms' methane emissions will be included with the environmental performance reporting they already receive from Fonterra.

In conjunction with MPI and MfE, DairyNZ has committed to hosting climate change workshops and discussion groups around the country to inform farmers about ways to reduce emissions – while admitting that "currently there are limited cost-effective ways" to do this.

Overseas research on reducing methane emissions has centred on altering the feed given to dairy cattle, which is not as relevant to the New Zealand experience where most cows are grass fed.
Research is currently underway on breeding cows that produce fewer methane emissions, and a methane vaccine.

DairyNZ's current advice on its website on mitigating climate change focuses entirely on cutting nitrous oxide emissions through grazing and crop management techniques, stand-off pads, changes to fertiliser use and riparian planting.

Until research into methods to significantly reduce methane emissions is successful and implemented, any gains will be limited.

Polluters and emitters should pay, say Greens

Currently on-farm emissions do not face a price under the Emissions Trading Scheme.

The Green Party, which wants a "polluter-pays" approach for farming, described the plan as "a small step in the right direction" but said it lacked a serious commitment to actually reducing climate-damaging pollution from the dairy industry.   

“Paula Bennett should have used today to set a firm date for when the dairy industry will need to start paying for the pollution it emits, just like other businesses have to in New Zealand,” said Green Party Co-leader James Shaw.   

"A charter to keep doing sweet nothin’ about the biggest problem facing New Zealand and the world."

“There are some good initiatives in this package, like the trial of on-farm recording, but National still hasn’t given farmers any certainty about when they will have to start paying for and reducing climate pollution on the farm.  

“More and more farmers know that it's possible to both reduce climate pollution and boost profits on the farm, but they’re being let down by a government that's more interested in pushing pollution-intensive dairying.  

Pollution by the dairy sector had increased "by a whopping 68 percent since National came into government", said Shaw.

"We have got to get serious about reducing cow numbers", Green party primary industry spokesperson Eugenie Sage told Newsroom last month. "There are no magic bullets on the horizon."

Labour has also called for limits on further dairy intensification.

Greenpeace described the plan as "a charter to keep doing sweet nothin’ about the biggest problem facing New Zealand and the world."

"The dairy leadership has been given a free pass on the Emissions Trading Scheme which is the Government’s only way of trying to control the problem. Today’s so-called action plan commits itself to “climate change workshops” and “discussion groups” but says nothing about any concrete actions to reduce emissions," said Greenpeace campaigner Amanda Larsson.

"Dairy bosses and the Government keep ignoring the simplest and most effective way to reduce climate emissions and river pollution – fewer cows."

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