environment

NZ’s dairy industry passes ‘peak cow’

Jacinda Ardern called climate change her generation’s nuclear-free moment but it's one that’s been put off till 2025. Dileepa Fonseka explains.

An agreement on a path forward for tackling agricultural emissions confirms cows are as sacred to New Zealand’s politicians as they’ve ever been.

At an announcement at Parliament on Thursday morning, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern trumpeted the importance of consensus between government and the agricultural industry to avoid the spectre of tractor-led protests that tanked previous attempts at regulating agricultural emissions.

Agriculture is the country’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gases and 11 primary sector organisations, including the Federation of Māori authorities, have signed up to a measure that will price the sector’s emissions at the farm gate by 2025.

“New Zealand cannot wait until 2025 for the agriculture sector to contribute to efforts to reduce emissions”. 

If it doesn’t, agriculture will be automatically rolled into the Emissions Trading Scheme. 

The measure was consistent with one part of the findings of the Interim Climate Change committee report published last year. 

It said a specific emissions levy/rebate for farms would be the best way to lower emissions, but estimated it would take until 2025 to develop one. 

But the committee also noted: “New Zealand cannot wait until 2025 for the agriculture sector to contribute to efforts to reduce emissions”. 

It recommended processors of agricultural products be brought into the Emissions Trading Scheme in the interim; a back-down on this part of it is what has likely caused Greenpeace to label the government “sellouts”.

Greenpeace campaigner Gen Toop said rapidly reducing emissions in New Zealand could only be achieved with “far fewer cows and a swift transition away from intensive livestock into more plant-based regenerative farming".

Largely unspoken during the announcement was a line of research running through the committee’s findings that a rise in cow numbers was the primary driver behind the growth in New Zealand’s agricultural emissions over the past 25 years.

It's the cows

New Zealand’s agricultural industry has made great strides in reducing the amount of greenhouse gas emissions its animals give off, but the growth in its livestock numbers have largely negated these gains.

The dairy industry’s “emissions intensity” - emissions per kilogram of milk produced - has declined by 20 percent since 1990, but agricultural emissions as a whole grew by 13.5 percent during that time anyway.

Agriculture will be automatically rolled into the Emissions trading scheme by 2025 if the sector doesn't find an alternative. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

Rapid growth in the number of cows in New Zealand was largely responsible for that. Sheep numbers halved since 1990 and beef cattle numbers shrank by a quarter during that same time period, causing a decline in the emissions from the lamb and beef sector.

“The milk growth that we saw in the last 15-20 years has curtailed in the last few years and that’s for a bunch of reasons.”

But while sheep and beef cattle numbers were diving, the number of cows in New Zealand was rocketing upwards, causing emissions from the dairy sector to double.

If New Zealand’s dairy industry hadn’t taken steps to improve its emissions intensity while stock numbers grew, the sector’s emissions would have been 40 percent higher, according to the commission’s findings.

Averting the culling of cows is a fate the National Party’s spokesman for climate change Scott Simpson wants to avoid. 

He alleges - in the absence of technological advances - “herd culling” is what would have to happen if the sector were instantly moved into the Emissions Trading Scheme. 

“Right at this minute that’s really the only option.”

That there was tremendous growth in the dairy sector over that time is not disputed by DairyNZ Chief Executive Tim Mackle, but he believes it’s a thing of the past.

“The milk growth that we saw in the last 15-20 years has curtailed in the last few years and that’s for a bunch of reasons.”

Mackle said dairy farming had hit its limits in areas like the Waikato and parts of Southland, an assessment echoed by Simpson.

“Cow numbers have actually been dropping for the last couple of years we probably reached ‘peak cow’ a couple of years ago to be honest,” Simpson said. 

The focus is now on increasing efficiencies, allowing for the same or greater level of production with lower numbers of livestock, a fate achieved in the beef sector in the period after the 1990s when production rose by 46 percent despite a drop in beef cattle numbers. 

In giving the sector more time, Ardern and her Government have made a judgment call, not just that better technology will reduce the emissions of the agricultural industry relatively painlessly, but that New Zealand’s dairy industry has now shuffled past ‘peak cow’ and is unlikely to return.

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