Green New Deal News

Agriculture's role in getting to Zero Carbon

OPINION: In the wake of the Zero Carbon Act passing, a recent Stuff article presented "everything NZ needs to do to get to Zero Carbon".

It lays out a comprehensive pathway for cutting emissions from energy and transport, but falls badly short on what to do about our nation's biggest climate emitter - agriculture. 

The article leaves one with the distinct impression that the only way to tackle agricultural emissions, is to cross our fingers and hope that unproven technology will eventually deliver. Even though decades of research and millions of dollars later, these fanciful technological fixes have persistently failed to deliver. 

The existential climate crisis requires more from us than hopes and prayers for a methane vaccine. It requires us to transform food production and how we treat land. 

Climate Change: Everything NZ needs to do to get to zero carbon
NZ's lack of data risks 'irreversible damage' to the environment
* Climate explained: Regenerative farming can help grow food with less impact
* PCE climate change report: all you need to know
* Banning New Zealand's hidden climate killer - synthetic nitrogen fertiliser
* NZ needs to get rid of up to a fifth of livestock methane emissions to stop more global warming

Since 1990, emissions from agriculture in NZ have risen 13.5 per cent, fuelled by a dairy herd which has doubled in that time, and an explosion of synthetic fertiliser use. It is a pretty straightforward problem. New Zealand has too many cows and uses too much synthetic fertiliser, which is resulting in more methane and nitrous oxide emissions than our climate can handle.

Successive Governments have let emissions from the dairy industry spiral out of control. They've avoided action by spending years entertaining fairy tales of mythical methane vaccines. 

The reality is that there is no technology coming to save us from the bloated dairy herd that's sending our climate emissions through the roof. The Parliamentary Commissioner made that very clear in its report which investigated potential techno-fixes to ruminant livestock emissions. It stated, "During this investigation it has become clear that there is no silver bullet on the horizon."

Luckily, we don't actually need a new technological silver bullet, we already have the solutions. Fewer cows, the elimination of synthetic fertiliser and diversification of land-use into more plant-based, regenerative farming. We can and we must enact those solutions without delay.

Experts are telling us just that. The Vivid Economic Report commissioned by members of parliament investigated three different scenarios to getting to net zero emissions by 2050.  There was only one scenario where we overshot this net zero goal and it was the one where we kept livestock numbers at current levels.

The two scenarios that did get us on track to net zero carbon both required a reduction in the number of livestock. One of the scenarios required livestock numbers to be 20-35 per cent lower than they are today.  

Dairy industry lobby groups will bleat on that reducing the herd like this would be economic ruin but in fact the Vivid report found the opposite, stating "This shift in land-use patterns away from pastoral agriculture delivers lower emissions, a robust agricultural sector and continued economic growth."

How so? It's because no one is saying we have to stop farming land, we just have to change what we are farming and how we are farming it. There are many other land uses that are very high-value and don't have the same emissions problems as dairying. For example, the report suggests some of the land use shift away from livestock farming goes into "horticulture: a highly profitable, high-growth industry… export earnings (of which) have doubled in the 12 years to 2016."

We have the solutions we need, and we have quite simply run out of time to wait for a mythical methane vaccine, a genetically engineered ryegrass which will never be socially or economically acceptable to our proudly GE free nation, or a new nitrous oxide inhibitor to add to the dangerous agri-chemical cocktail already being spread en masse onto our land. 

Industrial dairying in New Zealand can no longer be treated as sacrosanct. It is our biggest emitter, causing more greenhouse gases than our entire transport sector. It is polluting our rivers, endangering our drinking water, harming our biodiversity and degrading our soil. 

We're not just facing a climate crisis. We're also facing an ecological crisis. These yet to be proven techno-fixes seek only to address climate emissions, yet they do nothing to address all these other serious environmental issues caused by industrial dairy. The already available solutions to reducing agricultural emissions - eliminating synthetic fertiliser and reducing cow numbers - have been proven to decrease water pollution and improve soil health.

And there are some regenerative farmers in New Zealand who are already leading the way. They're bringing their stocking rates back within environmental limits. They're diversifying.  And most important of all, they are turning their backs on Ravensdown and Agri-Ballance - the agri-chemical companies that for decades have been peddling synthetic fertiliser and advising farmers to treat their land like it's a factory, not a living ecosystem with natural limits to growth.

These regenerative farmers no longer treat their land like its a factory. They work with nature rather than chemicals to grow our food. And their ambition is much higher than carrying on business-as-usual and reducing emissions with a vaccine. They are aiming to transform farming from a climate problem into a climate solution by turning their farms into carbon sinks.

It's time for the Government to ensure the rest of New Zealand's farmers follow suit by regulating the phase out of synthetic fertiliser, introducing a maximum stocking rate, and investing heavily in regenerative farming.

- Gen Toop is Greenpeace's sustainable agriculture campaigner