What if New Zealand farmers grew less meat and dairy for the climate’s sake?

In New Zealand we all know that agricultural emissions are the second biggest sector at 48%. We have a big beef and dairy sector, the latter having expanded into dry regions once irrigation became available. These areas are entirely unsuitable for dairy conversions.

Since the New Zealand government announced in October 2019 that it would not include farm emissions in the Emissions Trading Scheme just yet, I have been wondering how farmers will adapt during this initial trial period. The scheme aims to cut emissions by charging companies a price for each unit of greenhouse gas produced and farmers will be exempt till 2025 while they adapt. Under the scheme, farmers would be responsible for collecting data, reporting it, and paying directly for emissions. If the government doesn’t think they are moving fast enough they will legislate earlier.

People seem to think it is just their farm practices that will have to change. So is it just their farm practices or is it something else as well?

It’s not just about adopting good water management practices. Emissions come from burps.

In a significant study by a 37 experts-strong EAT-Lancet commission called Food in the Anthropocene, published in The Lancet in January 2019, there is this astounding statement:  “We estimated that changes in food production practices could reduce agricultural greenhouse-gas emissions in 2050 by about 10%, whereas increased consumption of plant-based diets could reduce emissions by up to 80%.” Well, it looks like experts from our agricultural colleges might quibble with that factor, but nonetheless the potential is huge. Even the 11,000 scientists who recently declared a climate emergency wanted us to eat less meat and dairy.

So while we may be the first country in the world to include agriculture in our emissions pricing scheme, the future is in the hands of farmers. The government wants methane emissions down 10% by 2025.

And of course it’s not just methane emissions that have to come down. According to Professor James Renwick (email 2 Nov 2019) “The key thing to do is limit CO2 concentrations as they decide the long-term change in climate. How important methane reductions are depends on what’s happening with CO2 concentrations.
Reducing methane emissions will buy us decreases in methane concentrations over just a few years, but it’s pretty much wasted effort if we continue to let CO2 continue to build up.”
Feed lots in New Zealand are becoming more common

The main agricultural greenhouse gases (GHG) are methane and nitrous oxide. Methane is produced in the rumen of the cows by certain microbes and are naturally present in all ruminant animals. … Nitrous Oxide (N2O) is emitted from soil when urine, faeces and fertilisers are broken down by microbes in the soil.

The EAT-Lancet study, which had 357 references at the end, and was done by an international team of experts from health, agriculture, climate change and politics, puts methane as 56 times as powerful a greenhouse-gas as carbon dioxide over a 20 year period and nitrous oxide as 280 times as powerful. (It also recommended that protein be just 10% of the daily calories)

It’s fairly horrifying to find that over a period of 55 years (1961-2016) there has been a worldwide 89% increase in agricultural emissions (not CO2). That is methane and nitrous oxide mostly. But on that same climatewatchdata site, we have agricultural emissions being only 11.5% of total emissions. That, of all estimates, is the lowest, the highest being from the consultants that Worldwatch commissioned in 2009, at 51%. The FAO in 2006 estimated 18% and revised that down later to 14%. Goodland, one of the Worldwatch Institute’s consultants noted that by then FAO had ‘partnered with international meat, dairy and egg organisations so was no longer objective.’

Wise Response, an environmental organisation comprised mainly of academics, said in their submission on agricultural emissions, “While CO2 is the dominant greenhouse gas, keeping global warming less than 2°C or 1.5°C clearly requires control of all greenhouse gases and in particular of methane (CH4) that is the second most significant. As noted in a recent and very detailed comparison of different pathways consistent with the 1.5°C target, “early mitigation of CH4 emissions would significantly increase the feasibility of stabilising global warming below 1.5 °C, alongside having co-benefits for human and ecosystem health”.

They also state that because of New Zealand’s knowledge from agricultural universities to date, “In terms of dairy emissions reduction, anything up to 24% can be done without any drop in farm profitability (i.e. zero marginal cost of abatement). ”

The good thing about this is this. The Interim Climate Change Committee said, “Innovation in the agricultural sector has reduced its emissions intensity (emissions per unit product) by about 20% over the last 25 years. But overall agricultural emissions have increased 13.5% since 1990. The improvements farmers have made have helped keep agricultural emissions relatively stable since 2012”

While Wise Response referred briefly to the benefits of eating less meat and dairy, the sad thing is that as the Western world reduces its meat intake, the developing world is increasing. And that means China and India. Our exports are going increasingly to China and in fact China is New Zealand’s top market for red meat now. It’s just no good for global emissions for a few developed countries to reduce meat and dairy products because they have heard the health message and the environment message. China and all the other developing countries  must stop their demand for animal products.

And that is something we can’t control. If we grew less beef and dairy, what would we replace our exports with? A tiny movement is detectable I believe which is reported on by Country Calendar on TVOne and by Country Life from RNZ of farmers experimenting with growing pumpkin seeds and hazelnuts as well.

 

 

 

 

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