Stop defending patch and show ambition

The dairy and meat sectors are still defending their patch rather than embracing changes in the way we farm and the way we eat to fight climate change, writes Rod Oram.

Our climate change opportunities fall broadly into two equal parts. This column explores the rural half; next week’s the urban half; and the following week’s the synergy between the two.

If we want to rise to the challenge of climate change, both halves have to transform the way they work. They must significantly improve their environmental performances, including large reductions in emissions. Then they will be at the forefront of the clean technology revolution underway in the world.

We’re all in this together. If those responsible for one half of our emissions act and the other half don’t, we will fail to meet our climate ambitions. We will lose what’s left of our environmental reputation and become a technology and economic laggard.

These issues will become very intense over the next few months. An all-of-society debate is underway to determine the scope, scale and effectiveness of the Zero Carbon Bill the Government will table in Parliament. The goal of the legislation to is commit New Zealand to a 2050 climate change goal and create mechanisms to guide us to it.

Rightly the bill, and the subsequent act which needs to be supported by all parties to ensure its longevity, will deal with principles. It will leave detailed mechanisms and incentives to the work of the independent climate commission it would establish, and other legislative, regulatory and business processes.

Any analysis of the rural half of this equation has to be deeply informed by and contribute to the global transformation of food and farming. Quite simply, current agricultural practices are the largest drivers of climate change and environmental degradation in the world; and too much of the food produced isn’t healthy.

These ills and their remedies are well documented in, for example, the EAT-Lancet Commission’s report published in January, which I covered in this column.

While the food we eat and the way its farmed has to change significantly in the next few decades, dairy and red meat will still have a role in some people’s diets. However, those sectors will have to drastically reduce their adverse environmental impacts if they are to earn a role in this revolution. If they don’t, they will lose the confidence of consumers in particular and society at large.

However, our dairy and meat sectors are still defending their patch rather than embracing the revolution.

“The pushback from agriculture leaders and the National Party is not about excluding their sector from targets - it is more around creating a framework which allows livestock farming to claim it is doing its bit while in reality, creating a set of privileges through to 2050 that can allow a large degree of 'business as usual',” says Guy Salmon, a veteran environmental policy and strategy adviser to business, government and agencies here and overseas.

While that will seriously harm our economy, the impact will be far greater. “New Zealand is in the process of creating leadership around how ruminant livestock-based agribusiness can continue to prosper notwithstanding global action on climate change,” Salmon says.

For example, as I reported in this column, our Government hosted at the UN’s annual climate negotiations last December a series of events and initiatives featuring NZ farming leaders promoting this strategy of business-largely-as-usual.

However, such leaders do not represent all farmers. Pioneers around the country are achieving more ambitious farming goals, and far more quickly and economically than the mainstream believe is possible. Their ranks and influence are growing. Agriculture’s role in our climate policies should be led by those shapers of the future, rather than by the defenders of the past.

Such enlightened, practical leadership by farmers is crucial. Many farmers look to the innovative neighbours they trust to help them fulfil their environmental, economic and inter-generational ambitions. Similarly, farmers who are at the forefront of good practice are increasingly frustrated by their neighbours who are not, particularly where dairying has an intense impact on the environment.

For example, some milk processors are starting to reward farmers for meeting higher environmental standards. Synlait and Miraka are two examples, and the Tatua 360 programme looks to be heading in that direction.

This week Fonterra announced its new Co-operative Difference programme to foster best practice. But it will only reward farmers meeting high standards with the likes of “certificates, awards, external publication, and Farm Source Reward Dollars.”

In stark contrast, there are some massive disincentives to change. For example, the Waikato, Canterbury and Bay of Plenty regional councils have grand-fathered nitrogen losses from farming systems (which are damaging to water and air). This amounts to a “ruminant animal privilege” that disincentivises early adopters of new practices.

This in turn sets up conflicts such as the head-on clash in the Waikato between Beef+Lamb and DairyNZ over the allocation of those pollution rights between their two different farming systems (and by extension in due course, free credits in the Emissions Trading Scheme).

Undaunted, many farmers are incrementally improving their environmental performance. But few farms are adopting a comprehensive approach to deliver big change fast; and doing so at scale is even rarer. The best example of the latter is Pamu, which is the market-facing name of Landcorp, the state-owned enterprise which is the largest farmer in the country.

It is, for example:

- moving away from forages dependent on high levels of nitrogen fertiliser (irrigated ryegrass, for example, needs on average 250 kg of N per ha per year, whereas Lucerne requires none);

- reducing nitrogen losses in many other ways too, since on average a 30 percent cut results in a reduction of greenhouse gases by some 7 to 10 percent;

- using livestock genetics to help it breed animals with inherently lower emissions than average to repopulate its herds;

-starting to shift to regenerative agricultural practices such as reducing stock per ha, low/no use of N, no pesticides/herbicides, building organic soil health (which sequesters carbon in the soil), diversifying plant species and integration of tree systems;

- reducing dairy farming and developing instead lower emission alternatives such as ewe and deer milk - in these and other products Pamu is finding ways to develop a premium for them in the market place, and a closer connection to consumers;

- retiring marginal land into trees and other plantings, which supports biodiversity, protects water, provides shade and shelter and reduces what are vulnerable areas for stock and the environment; and

- in 2015, it set itself the goal of being a carbon-neutral farmer by 2025.

The efforts of such progressive farmers are only a small start. To achieve real speed, scale and complexity of change the whole farming sector needs much more research, development and deployment of new technology and business models and a framework to help guide it over the next few decades.

The best way to do that is for farming to be an ambitious and fully committed participant in our journey to a low emissions economy under the Zero Carbon Act. That framework in turn will help the sector attract much more financial, scientific and practical resources from home and abroad to fast forward its transformation.

The worst response is the one it has now. It's signalling it might grudgingly accept being tied into the Zero Carbon Act but only if next-to-no change is required of it. If, for example, agriculture was in the ETS but it was allocated free credits for 95 percent of its emissions, the actual cost of the remaining 5 percent, at the current price of around $25 a tonne of carbon, would be only $3.50 per cow per year, DairyNZ calculates.

Instead, what farmers really need is a strong financial incentive so they invest in making dairy and red meat production truly sustainable, while also diversifying where appropriate into other food crops or land uses. Then their business will be economically and ecologically rewarding and resilient.

With such ambition, the dairy and red meat sectors would be the global leaders they say they want to be.

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