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Rod Oram: ‘Let true farming leaders lead’

The red meat and dairy sectors are holding New Zealand’s economy, climate, natural environment and international reputation hostage to the political power of the lowest common denominator in their ranks, writes Rod Oram.

Our farmers say they want to lead the global dairy industry’s response to the climate crisis.

“Our global agricultural emissions footprint is small but our ability to accelerate the reduction of global livestock emissions through farm system expertise and technology transfer is significant. [This] presents New Zealand with an opportunity to take a leadership role in aiding the reduction of global livestock emissions through farm system expertise, research, and technology transfer.”

So writes DairyNZ, the farmer funded research organisation, in its submission to the Government on the Zero Carbon Bill.

But it doesn’t explain in its submission how its farmers are going to be world leaders. Instead, it devotes the entire 47 pages to explaining how hard it all is and why New Zealand and the world shouldn’t expect them to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by much at all.

The Government’s proposal of a 10 percent reduction in methane, the most potent of all greenhouse gases, by 2030 will be “tough”. The proposed target of a 24-47 percent reduction by 2050 would slash dairy farm profitability by 34-42 percent, Dairy NZ writes.

Yet, DairyNZ says in the submission farmers have averaged a 1 percent a year reduction in emissions for the past 25 years – and have enhanced their farm profitability in the process.

Ah, so that means all they have to do is continue on that trajectory for another 30 years? That would be more than enough to meet the Government’s proposed targets, make money along the way, make their fair share of the considerable effort required to get New Zealand to a net-zero carbon economy…oh, and lead the global dairy sector.

Oh, no, DairyNZ replied when I asked them that question. “There is no evidence at all that those efficiency gains will continue.”

Fearing the fallout of responsible and rational actions

Well, then, what about the stellar performance of Owl Farm near Cambridge? It is one of DairyNZ’s 12 Partnership Farms, exploring a range of options to reduce greenhouse gas emissions alongside other objectives such as increasing profits, reducing nutrient losses, ensuring animal welfare and providing a safe and rewarding work environment.

As it happens, our Interim Climate Change Committee featured Owl Farm on page 33 of its Action on Agricultural Emissions report written in April and published this week.

“Owl Farm has reduced total greenhouse gas emissions by 8 percent and lifted operating profit per hectare by 14 percent through improving management practices over the past two years. Based on additional modelling, further farm management changes involving reduced feed use and lowering the stocking rate is expected to increase profitability by another 21 percent, reduce nitrate leaching by 14 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 13 percent. Owl Farm notes there is a potential downstream economic impact of reducing the intensity of their farming operation,” the Commission wrote.

The last sentence is the best explanation of the game the dairy and red meat sectors are playing on all environmental issues, not just on the climate crisis. Owl Farm and many other leading farmers are showing the sector has many of the tools, technologies and systems they need to significantly improve their profitability and their ecological performance.

For God’s sake, Fonterra is not some two-bit bunch of cockies out in the backblocks. It, its farmers and their cows are by far the largest single source of emissions in our country.

But a modest reduction in production volume which drives those very desirable outcomes would become bad news for the downstream dairy and processors such as Fonterra and Silver Fern Farms if lots of farmers acted responsibly and rationally. The processors fear the somewhat reduced throughput would turn some of their plants into stranded assets, to use the term that applies to companies that fail to respond adequately to climate issues.

Of course, the processors could have their own modest revolution to fix that problem and share in the gains. They could learn how to earn a substantial premium from selling such deeply sustainable food products to discerning customers around the world.

But the dairy and meat sectors are also playing another game. They argue that such beneficial changes in farming practices will take a massive upskilling of farmers. Thus, they are arguing for only modest changes over many years to improve environmental performance on the likes of water, greenhouse gas emissions and animal welfare.

Quite simply, they are trying to grandfather their current volumes and practices by refusing to let true farming leaders lead. Instead, they are holding New Zealand’s economy, climate, natural environment and international reputation hostage to the political power of the lowest common denominator in their ranks.

As Fonterra said this week when it released its submission on the Zero Carbon Bill: “The Co-op is committed to doing its bit in New Zealand’s transition to a low carbon future.”

A bit? For God’s sake, Fonterra is not some two-bit bunch of cockies out in the backblocks. It, its farmers and their cows are by far the largest single source of emissions in our country. They generate a fifth of New Zealand’s entire climate crisis causing gases.

The enormity of the problem the dairy and meat sectors are refusing to address was laid out in a recent report by the New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre. “While small in absolute terms, New Zealand’s share in global warming to date is more than four times greater than its share of the global population and about 1.5 times greater than its share of the global land area,” it noted.

“New Zealand’s biogenic methane emissions currently make a bigger estimated contribution to global warming than cumulative [New Zealand] emissions of fossil carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide combined. If gross emissions of those three gases continued at current rates, biogenic methane would remain New Zealand’s largest single contributor to global warming for the next six decades despite its relatively short lifetime in the atmosphere compared to carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.”

The report bravely disproved the deeply flawed arguments some in the farming sector are using to justify minimal action, even though the centre is partially funded by farmers. For more on this, please read this excellent Newsroom article by my colleague Eloise Gibson.

This week the Government released its policy proposals for how our agricultural sector can be encouraged to reduce their emissions so they can contribute to the nation’s response to the climate crisis. These were based in large part on the proposals of our Interim Climate Change Committee.

... the Government should focus intently on supporting true leaders like Owl Farm, Landcorp and other farmers who are already delivering on far bigger ambitions; then if the laggards don’t get their act together quickly penalise them until they do.

While sector leaders such as Fonterra, DairyNZ and Beef + Lamb expressed support at a very broad level for the proposals, they made it very clear they wanted to make only small reductions in emissions, plus receiving plenty of money and support for making them, plus allowing plenty of get-outs along the way if they found it all too hard. For a full account of the proposals and the response to them, please read this Newsroom article by Marc Daalder.

One measure of the intense modesty of the proposals is that farmers would only be liable for 5 percent of their emissions. At the current price of $25 per tonne of carbon in the Emissions Trading Scheme, the cost would be only 1 cent per kilogram of milk solids, which are currently worth around $5.71 per kg, and 3 cents per kg of sheep meat, which currently fetches around $6.20 per kg.

The Government proposes applying that cost from 2025, when it proposes mandatory farm-level reporting on emissions. But it also proposed that processors collect the sums from 2021 until 2025, and recycle the money collected into funding to help develop the farm reporting systems.

But the dairy and meat sectors reject that interim stage or larger emission reductions, even though those are what climate science tell us we must make. Moreover, previous work by the sector and Government in the likes of the Biological Emissions Reference Group show there are economic and practical pathways to those larger cuts if the sectors and Government made big, long term commitments to them.

Instead, the dairy and meat sectors have come up in the last few months with a complex set of proposals called Our Future in Our Hands. Launched after the Government’s proposals this week, it doesn’t have much ambition beyond getting farm-level emissions reporting up and running over the next five years, even though trial projects on that by DairyNZ and Fonterra are already progressing well.

If these are the only climate commitments dairy and meat leaders can come up with the Government and country can’t afford to leave farming's future and ours in the hands of those leaders.

Instead, the Government should focus intently on supporting true leaders like Owl Farm, Landcorp and other farmers who are already delivering on far bigger ambitions; then if the laggards don’t get their act together quickly penalise them until they do.

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