Time for agricultural industry to lead the way

National MP Shane Ardern drives his tractor ``Myrtle'' up the steps of Parliament in September 2003 to protest against the Government's gas emission tax. Photo: ODT archives
National MP Shane Ardern drives his tractor ``Myrtle'' up the steps of Parliament in September 2003 to protest against the Government's gas emission tax. Photo: ODT archives
It seems a long time ago that National MP Shane Ardern rode ''Myrtle'', his elderly tractor, up the parliamentary steps in protest at the proposed ''fart tax''.

That was back in 2003 and there have been many iterations of carbon reduction schemes since then with agriculture sliding along relatively unscathed. One did feel that it was only a matter of time before the grace period was over. Climate change has not gone away, a raft of regulations are on their way, but they do look a little different from what we were expecting.

The biggest difference to the current scheme versus previous schemes is the split gas regime, where methane is treated separately due to its shorter lifespan in the atmosphere - the target is a 10% reduction in biological methane emissions by 2030, with a provisional reduction of 24% to 47% by 2050.

All other greenhouse gases - including carbon dioxide from power production and transport - have to be reduced to ''net zero'' by 2050.

The biggest surprise for farmers is that biological methane emissions cannot be offset by planting trees, leaving them a tool down for mitigation of livestock's most significant greenhouse gas (non-methane gases can be offset by tree planting). Such plantings may have financial value in the growing carbon market which should be factored into the equation for farmers. This is likely to be of relevance to farmers operating extensive hill country, but not those operating on expensive and more-intensive flat land.

Another implication will be pressure on the use of synthetic nitrogen (in the form of fertilisers), in order to reduce nitrous oxide production. Such nitrogen use is already under pressure, given water quality regulations, especially in the dairy industry.

Initially, the point of obligation for collecting emissions payments will be at the processor, meaning farmers don't have an ability to prove they have better than industry average emissions. This means they will be lumped with an industry tax, regardless of whether they are good or poor operators - certainly not inducive to practice change.

It is important to understand that the Government is aiming for a total carbon reduction for the country, not a reduction per unit of output. This means that improvements in efficiency will not have an overall impact on national carbon levels. The main way for farmers to achieve total carbon reductions will be by reducing stocking rates, unless scientists are able to come up with methane reducing technologies.

For farmers, increases in efficiency should still be on the agenda to maintain farming revenue with fewer livestock - this can be done with better quality feed at critical times, and by increasing fertility and survival rates.

Reducing livestock numbers sounds daunting to someone whose business is built around producing milk or meat products. Especially right now. when the dairy industry is under considerable financial pressure. But thinking about this with a 30-year window out to 2050, fundamental patterns of land-use change may be enough to reach these targets regardless of what farmers do individually.

Urban sprawl is predicted to continue, plant-based foods are increasingly demanded by consumers and horticulture is booming. Will market-led land-use change to fruit trees, cropping, forestry and housing lead to attrition of livestock by stealth?

Finally, I believe it is worth thinking about our food chain with an alternate lens. A colleague who attended the recent Rabobank Farm2Fork Summit, in Sydney, described to me such a lens: measuring our food and land-use by nutrient value rather than, or in addition to, carbon value. This then recognises the place high-density nutritious foods, such as venison, have in our diet compared with the ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup, destroying Western diets.

Let's compare some products: cows' milk has a much higher carbon footprint than soy-milk, but it also has a much greater nutrient density index. At the other end of the spectrum, beer has a similar caloric index to cow and soy-milk but a nutrient density index of zero. Putting them all on a level playing field, what does the world need and what should we be producing?

New Zealand has to play its part in addressing climate change. In the same breath, we must not underestimate the value of high-density nutritious food in future diets and the value of livestock industries to our economy. In its current form, the new regulations are a crude tax on farmers - I think we can do better. We need to constructively respond as an industry - but I am afraid, whinging and riding tractors into parliament are acts of the past - the threats of climate change are too big to ignore. It's time for the agricultural industry to demonstrate sophisticated, pan-sector thinking to lead the way in creating value for our nation's future.

-Anna Campbell is managing director of AbacusBio Ltd, a Dunedin based agri-technology company.

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