Week in Review

When will NZ be real about our scary future?

Climate change has the planet on the brink of catastrophe, yet the debate here in New Zealand is paralysed by our fear of the cost of action. Cat MacLennan says it's time to take our heads out of the sand. 

Less that one per cent of New Zealand land is used to grow fruit, vegetables and berries.

That is a startling statistic and contrasts sharply with the 31.9 per cent of total land devoted to sheep and beef farming, and 9.8 per cent to dairying.

The future looks scary for this country. How will we earn an income when both our main sources of export returns are unsustainable in the long term?

Dairy comprises the largest sector of our economy and is also our biggest source of export income from goods – between 25 and 30 percent of goods’ export returns.

But, within as little as a decade, large-scale animal farming will decline massively all over the world, and thereafter it will end almost completely.

A report released last year by RethinkX states that the “fastest, deepest, most consequential disruption” of food and agriculture in history is already under way, driven by technology and new business models.

The paper says that, by 2030, modern food products will be higher-quality and far cheaper than the animal-derived products they replace. The dairy and cattle industries will collapse and other animal farming will follow suit.

They will be replaced by precision fermentation and a new model of production called Food-as-Software.

Report co-author, Catherine Tubb, describes the industrial livestock industry as one of the “oldest, largest, and most inefficient food production systems in the world”.

The cost to produce a molecule using precision fermentation was US$1 million per kilogram in 2000, $100 in 2019, and will fall to $10 by 2025. That will make such proteins five times cheaper than traditional animal proteins by 2030, and 10 times more cost-effective by 2035.

This country accordingly faces an uncertain future. But, to date, we don’t even appear willing to acknowledge that, let alone to take the necessary action. We are still stuck in denial.

Finnish start-up Solar Foods was set up in 2017 and is already using a proprietary organism, carbon dioxide, water and renewable electricity to manufacture a high-protein ingredient. The ingredient will be used to increase protein in pasta, bread, yoghurt and ready-to-eat meals, but the company also envisages that it will be a “platform technology” for use by the meat analogue sector.

And it is not only cost that threatens New Zealand’s animal farming industry. Our agriculture is not environmentally sustainable, regardless of whether this country’s farmers are more efficient than those in other nations.

A University of Otago study released in January agrees that New Zealand beef and lamb production is more efficient than the global average, but confirms that a vegan diet is far less harmful than one based on animal products. The researchers say that, if all adults in this country adopted plant-based diets, the impact would equal a 59 percent reduction in car emissions and save up to $20 billion in health costs over the lifetime of the present New Zealand population.

The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization calculates the animal agriculture sector is responsible for 18 percent of human-induced greenhouse gas emissions. There are 23 billion chickens, 1.5 billion cattle, 1.2 billion sheep, one billion goats and one billion pigs being farmed worldwide at present. The consequence is increasing methane and carbon dioxide. Jones and Millstone say that the top five meat and dairy companies in the world produce as many greenhouse gas emissions as Exxon Mobil.

And a Humane Society International report describes the farm animal production sector as the single largest anthropogenic user of land, contributing to soil degradation, shrinking water supplies and air pollution. The devastating Amazon fires last year drew attention to widespread deforestation - up to 70 percent of which is linked to the beef industry.

The RethinkX report predicts that the rise of alternative protein will free 60 percent of United States’ land currently used for livestock and feed production for other uses by 2035. Dedicating that land to maximising carbon sequestration will mean that all current sources of American greenhouse gas emissions could be fully offset by 2035.

Water consumption in United States’ cattle production and associated feed crop irrigation will decrease by 50 percent by 2030 and 75 percent by 2035, while oil demand in the American agriculture industry will shrink by at least half within a decade. These are huge figures, with massive implications.

2019 was the wider New Zealand region’s hottest year on record. Accelerating climate change will mean that areas that have been suitable for animal farming in the past will in future no longer be able to sustain it. We only need to look to Australia to witness the calamity that is already unfolding.

New Zealand farmers can keep producing the animal-based products they have always produced, but both consumers and financiers are going to desert them in future.

Our supermarkets stock almond, soy, rice, oat and coconut milk and vegan cheeses and ice cream not to lead consumer behaviour, but because of the exploding demand for such products. International fast food franchises traditionally based around meat have also started selling vegan products. That includes both Burger King and McDonald’s, while Nestle has launched soy and pea-based burgers.

We are acting as though land which in the past has been suitable for particular purposes – such as large-scale animal farming – will still be suited to those uses in coming years. That will not be the case.

If all that is not enough, we should heed the warning sign of the divestment calls starting in relation to animal agriculture. Divestment of fossil fuels ramped up in 2018 and 2019, with 180 American institutional investors slashing fossil fuel stocks from their portfolios in 2018, and a massive 1100 following suit last year.

Now, there is campaigning for divestment from industrial livestock agriculture. At the same time, money is pouring into plant-based meats and alternative proteins.

New Zealand is also on notice about our other major income earner: tourism. In the year ended March 2019, tourism contributed 21 percent of foreign exchange earnings, with international tourism expenditure increasing by 5.2 percent.

But we are a country at the bottom of the planet. Two out of three of the longest flights in the world at present are to and from New Zealand: Auckland to Dubai and Auckland to Doha.

And a new concept has entered the global lexicon: flygskam, or flight shame. As people become more aware of the damage flying does to the environment, travellers are starting to choose to stay at home, or to travel shorter distances by land or sea.

Swiss Bank UBS in an October 2019 report predicted that, if flight shame accelerated, the previously-expected growth in air passenger numbers could be halved. The paper reported on a mid-2019 survey that found that, on average, 20 percent of travellers in the United States, France, Britain and German had cut air travel by at least one flight in the past 12 months because of climate concerns. The percentage of people considering reducing their flying for environmental reasons rose from 20 percent in a May 2019 survey, to 27 percent by August.

Former Prime Minister and Air New Zealand board member Sir John Key acknowledged that airlines would be “stupid” if they did not take the growing flight shame movement seriously, saying it posed a risk to the national carrier.

However, the risk is a far broader one for this entire country. A slump in flying will mean a slump in inbound tourism, as it is highly unlikely that northern hemisphere tourists who no longer fly will still decide to visit New Zealand. Instead, they will seek out destinations much closer to home.

On top of that, the coronavirus is already having a negative impact on tourism.

As a country we show little sign of preparing ourselves for what is occurring. Our climate change debate is paralysed by our fear of the cost of action, while we disregard the immeasurably higher price of doing nothing.

This country accordingly faces an uncertain future. But, to date, we don’t even appear willing to acknowledge that, let alone to take the necessary action. We are still stuck in denial.

The new climate change teaching resource unveiled in January was described by ACT leader David Seymour as “state-organised bullying of kids”. He criticised the curriculum for not allowing students to “debate” the science.

National Party deputy leader, Paula Bennett, said her party might in future withdraw the resource, and Federated Farmers launched a petition asking for the content to be changed.

When Air New Zealand revealed its meat-free Impossible Burger in 2018, the Deputy Prime Minister said he was “utterly opposed to fake beef” and the airline should be promoting New Zealand’s agricultural produce. Another New Zealand First MP described the burger as a “slap in the face” for this country’s red meat sector.

And the $12 billion infrastructure package unveiled by the Government in late January included $5.3 billion of spending on roads, as though we will be able to continue blithely driving up and down motorways in the coming decades as we have in the past.

Scientists could not be clearer about the situation we need to acknowledge. Or about the fact that it is the present, not some future time.

They warned in January that the immediacy and seriousness of climate change risks to the planet had been underestimated, while better understanding of the impact of tipping points such as the Amazon rainforest and the Greenland ice sheet had raised the prospect of tipping points combining to create an irreversible cascade.

We are acting as though land which in the past has been suitable for particular purposes – such as large-scale animal farming – will still be suited to those uses in coming years. That will not be the case.

Between 2002 and 2016, land used for dairying in New Zealand jumped by 42.4 per cent. Grain-growing land increased 101.4 per cent over that period, but by 2016 comprised just 1.7 per cent of total land use. The area in fruit and berries climbed by 13.2 per cent, but vegetable-growing land decreased by a staggering 29.2 per cent.

Neither those trends nor their ad hoc nature will serve us in future. We need to plan our land use, and factor in climate change mitigation. A 2018 Motu report for the Biological Emissions Reference Group pointed the way. It modelled three mitigation targets and concluded that doubling the size of the country’s horticulture sector would reduce greenhouse gas emissions as much as full implementation of a methane vaccine. Growing horticulture and forestry would also add an additional 50,000 jobs to the agricultural sector.

The “high-ambition scenario” of reducing net land sector emissions by 30 percent by 2030 and by 50 percent by 2050 was only possible with high horticulture and the cessation of dairy conversions. That scenario involved a 212 percent expansion in horticulture, and a 28 percent reduction in dairy and a 13 percent decline in sheep and beef.

Horticulture also has the benefit of producing more food per hectare than other types of farming.

But as a country we show little sign of preparing ourselves for what is occurring. Our climate change debate is paralysed by our fear of the cost of action, while we disregard the immeasurably higher price of doing nothing.

The Australian bushfires could not have provided a clearer warning for us: we could literally witness their impact from 2000 kilometres away.

If that was not enough of a wake-up call, surely the moving of the Doomsday Clock to 100 seconds to midnight should be. It has never shown the world to be this close to catastrophe.

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