Ideasroom

Why NZ should say no to silver bullets

The fundamental problem with silver bullets is they permit a ‘business as usual’ approach to farming when that is neither ecologically sustainable nor economically desirable, writes the Victoria of Wellington's Peter Fraser and Dr Mike Joy

Climate Change Minister James Shaw has said he is enthusiastic about a new technology for reducing methane emissions from cows. This ‘silver bullet’ is a compound known as 3NOP, developed by Dutch giant DSM, which is pushing for fast-track approval.

Woah – just wait a moment.

Irrespective of whether 3NOP works (or not), there is a fundamental problem with its prospective application here: as it permits a ‘business as usual’ approach to farming when that is neither ecologically sustainable nor economically desirable. Methane is only one of a raft of dairy industry problems – one can quickly add soil compaction, pugging and sediment loss, nitrate contamination of drinking water, unswimmable rivers, the despoliation of previously iconic landscapes, the creation of a Ponzi scheme in rural land values, and misdirected – and debt-fuelled – investment.

Given these problems all need to be addressed, silver bullets like 3NOP (or, for that matter, nitrogen inhibitors or managed aquifer recharge) are like continuing to smoke five packs a day while waiting for Pharmac to subsidise a new lung cancer treatment. 

It is fundamentally the wrong approach.

Rather than hope for any number of silver bullets to address any number of symptoms, what is needed is a clear understanding of the actual problem. The answer is simple: New Zealand has too many cows for a pasture-based system. Having intensified and overstocked areas suitable for dairying (Taranaki, Waikato), farmers have relentlessly expanded into completely unsuitable areas (Canterbury, the McKenzie Country, Southland). 

This is why New Zealand imports over two million tonnes of palm kernel annually and nitrogen fertiliser use has increased 800 percent in 30 years.

The result is not just an unmitigated environmental disaster but an economic catastrophe too. While it is intuitively obvious the ‘flipside’ of too many cows is reduced water quality and increased greenhouse gas emissions, what is less well known is the debt-fuelled nature of the dairy expansion. Since 2000, on-farm dairy debt has increased by over 400 percent yet milk production has increased by less than 65 percent. 

And over the next decade much of this expansion will need to be reversed.

The solution is simple: reduce stock numbers – as fewer cows = fewer nasties.  But this is where we run into the entrenched vested interests: with the incessant mantra being “fewer cows = less money”.

While seeming sensible, it is actually wrong. If the starting point is too many cows then it is possible to have fewer cows producing fewer nasties and generating more money.

And this is hardly untested theory: the Lincoln University Dairy Farm undertook a major destocking exercise in 2011/12 and again in 2015/16. The Lincoln lesson was that if one has fewer cows and feeds them better (on low-cost grass) then you get more milk at lower cost.

Let’s say that again: cow numbers went down but milk production and farm profitability went up.

In a nutshell, Lincoln got rid of its overstocking problem, reduced negative environmental effects and made money doing it.

And the Government’s 2030 greenhouse target was exceeded 13 years early – so a 95 percent exemption is not required.

And this was before the application of silver bullets like 3NOP.

The Lincoln farm started as a well-run one rated in the top 5 percent in the country. The corollary is that most farms will be worse. This suggests scope for even more significant gains in other farms across New Zealand.

So, pulling this all together, using methane inhibitors is the wrong answer to the right question. We can solve our methane problem, while simultaneously solving many of our other dairy industry problems, and we do not need to make ourselves a technology testing ground to do it. 

The bigger issue here is the Government needs to retake the initiative in the face of a political onslaught from agricultural interests.

But how?

Fortunately, the Government owns an entire portfolio of dairy farms via Pamu (formerly Landcorp). If Pamu simply adopted the same approach Lincoln did, across its entire portfolio, the result would be a large-scale demonstration that sensible greenhouse gas policies work.  

There is no need to cave into farmer privilege yet again.

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