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We are good… Very good!
Pastoral farming is an efficient way to turn sunshine into food! High-quality, nutrient-dense food.
Our New Zealand pasture based systems have lower greenhouse gas emissions than much of the meat and milk produced around the world: For Dairy, an estimated 40% lower per litre of milk than the global average. New Zealand is the world leader in pastoral food production. We are good… Very good!
Reality 1. Over 80% of the milk produced outside New Zealand comes from cows living under a roof. Grass forms only a portion of their diet.
For milk, any decrease in NZ production will likely be filled by production with a larger greenhouse gas (GHG) footprint elsewhere.
The situation for meat is the same in principle, although the gap is smaller, as pastoral grazing is somewhat more common in the global beef sector.
Most milk, and virtually all meat, produced in NZ comes from animals that eat at least 90 to 100% of their diet as pasture. In our systems, total emissions are lower than the global average due to minimal use of machinery, cultivation, spraying, harvesting, processing, transport of fodder and subsequently, effluent.
Our net emissions are lower still, as grass removes carbon and nitrogen from the atmosphere. This is a natural cycle that has been happening for eons.
Pastoral systems also have the potential to sequester carbon and nitrogen into the soil as humus, which builds up the topsoil. Any doubts about this can be put to rest by visiting the farms near Rerewhakaaitu which have built thick topsoil from what was originally a very light soil on top of volcanic scoria and pumice from the Tarawera eruption.
The IPCC (International Governmental Panel on Climate Change) recommend increasing production from low GHG systems and decreasing from high GHG systems.
Comparing agricultural emissions with industrial emissions is misleading:
- The “fuel” for cows and sheep is pasture, pasture which takes CO2 from the atmosphere only weeks before it is eaten... And then keeps on removing it, as it starts growing again straight away!
- The “fuel” for much industrial activity liberates carbon that has been out of global circulation for millennia. Petro chemicals are a major driver of costs for much of the global food production system. They are a small portion of the costs for NZ food production.
- The impact of methane needs to be acknowledged though, and is something we need to keep working on as an industry.
Pride: Unfortunately many New Zealanders aren’t aware of our world leading position as sustainable, pastoral food producers. We need to raise awareness of just how natural and animal friendly our systems are. We need to be proud of the positive aspects of our production systems! We also need to keep working to decrease the negative impacts we do have.
Reality 2. While farming does have some negative environmental impacts, many of the negative trends have halted, or are reversing.
The recent Ministry for the Environment (MFE) Aotearoa 2019 report shows that five out of eight water quality attributes show a majority of improving trends between 2008 to 2017.
Some direct quotes from the MFE report:
- “None of New Zealand’s river lengths exceeded the NOF bottom line for nitrate-nitrogen or ammonia toxicity (the point at which impacts on growth and mortality of multiple sensitive species are expected).”
- “Measured data for ten-year trends (2008–17) showed improvements (declines) in ammoniacal nitrogen concentrations at most monitoring sites in all land cover classes and improvements in nitrate-nitrogen in the urban land cover class.” (note-Urban waterways are coming from a base of higher concentration)
- Most sites had ‘likely’ or ‘very likely’ trends in nitrate-nitrogen (83 percent of sites) and ammoniacal nitrogen (85 percent of sites) over the 10-year period 2008–17.
- Of these sites, more sites had improving rather than worsening trends
Our national water quality sits within the top 5 on the Global Open Data Index. Our rivers compare well to many in the world.
We still have plenty of work to do. Our waterways can, and should be better than they are. But let’s be clear, we are not in a terrible place.
Pride: We need to have pride in the work completed to date, the programmes in place, and where we sit in the global picture. Continuing the work with pride is much better for everyone’s headspace.
Reality 3. Constant negative chipping away at farming, by people and entities pointing out only bad stuff, distorts public opinion. Selective or misleading reporting makes it worse. We need to call time on that. The above points are just a start.
Constant negativity is taken to heart by some, particularly younger, farming people. This does make a difference to people coming into and then staying in our industry.
Public opinion matters! Public opinion is now a major driver of government policy.
The recent “Essential Freshwater” package is an example. Some proposals look sensible, and some ignore excellent work, and programmes in place, with heavy handed, counterproductive, one size fits all, ineffective and disproportionately expensive regulation.
We all need to speak up on this! Remember – “If you are not at the table, there is a good chance you’ll end up on the menu!”
Summary. Let’s keep up the good work that’s happening. AND most importantly, let’s keep the whole scenario in perspective. Spread the word about the good stuff!
We have plenty to do in NZ, but cutting production here, which will be replaced by product with a greater negative footprint from elsewhere, is very like cutting off our nose to spite our face!
- Conall Buchanan