Volkswagen is a cautionary tale for our farmers. Like them, it believed it had the best low emissions technology in the world. Even better, continuous incremental improvement in its petrol and diesel engines would keep it onside with regulators and sweet with its customers.
It neglected new hybrid, electric and hydrogen technologies, confident people would keep buying its sophisticated fossil-fuelled cars.
But in September 2015 its delusions were shattered. US environmental regulators charged it with building into its engine management systems ways to fool emission tests. So far the worldwide scandal has cost it US$33 billion in fines, penalties, financial settlements and buyback costs.
Can NZ switch entirely from fossil-fuel derived fertilisers to natural fertilisers and make other radical changes necessary to reform its food production? Click here to comment.
This forced Volkswagen to make a radical strategy shift. In 2018, it committed to investing tens of billions of dollars to ensure it produced no more petrol or diesel cars after 2026. Last June, its plant in Zwickau, the “city of cars”, made its last internal combustion engine car. The 116-year-old plant had made six million of them since 1990. By the end of last year, it was making only electric cars.
Yet, Volkswagen was only belatedly following industry, market and regulatory trends. For example, Hamburg was the first German city to ban some diesel vehicles. Stuttgart, home to Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, is one of the strictest. It only allows on its streets cars that comply with Euro 6 emission standards which came into effect in September 2015. Many countries are banning the sale of any new petrol and diesel cars by various dates from 2025 on.
We have spectacularly increased the volume and affordability of food. But the harder we’ve pushed food’s biological and economic systems, the more unsustainable we’ve made them.
Farming and food production worldwide are facing their own version of such radical strategy changes in response to intense environmental challenges. Climate, agriculture and food have a deeply symbiotic relationship. Yet, for much of human history we have usurped nature. The way we produce food often degrades land and water, depletes ecosystems, reduces biodiversity and contributes to the climate crisis.
We have spectacularly increased the volume and affordability of food. But the harder we’ve pushed food’s biological and economic systems, the more unsustainable we’ve made them. This vicious cycle is exacerbating our damage to nature and climate, and to farming and food production.
The responses of farmers, consumers and regulators around the world are not yet as intensely focused as they are in the car industry. But that’s changing very fast in many countries.
There’s only brief reference to all this, though, in our Climate Change Commission’s draft recommendations on agriculture, or the response to them from the main representatives of our farming industry.
The Commission advocates only very modest emission reductions by agriculture over the next 15 years, relying on existing or very near term tweaks to existing technologies. Essentially, it proposes widespread adoption of current best practices. ‘Yep, we can probably just about do that but absolutely no more’ was the response from the likes of DairyNZ, Beef+Lamb and Federated Farmers.
Meanwhile, many of our competitors abroad are being far more ambitious. For example, the UK and Irish equivalents to Fed Farmers have made big commitments to help their countries tackle the climate crisis, as I reported in this column on the former and this on the latter.
… our land-based systems remain our greatest farming and food opportunities. But only if they join the worldwide revolution to ensure they work with nature and not against it.
Likewise, some of the best food producers in the world are investing with their farmers in regenerative agricultural practices. These go beyond simply minimising environmental damage, to practices which help restore the health, resilience, diversity and productivity of ecosystems. Two examples are Danone in dairy and Unilever across all its crops.
The competition from non-farmed foods is heating up rapidly too. Last December Singapore became the first country to approve the commercial sale of laboratory-grown meat. The wide array of synthetic foods, drinks and other products which are on the verge of commercialisation is described in this recent New York Times article.
While here in New Zealand some brave innovators and entrepreneurs are working on such technologies, our land-based systems remain our greatest farming and food opportunities. But only if they join the worldwide revolution to ensure they work with nature and not against it.
This is our very considerable competitive advantage. Such farming delivers positive outcomes such as enhanced ecosystems and biodiversity and sequestration of atmospheric carbon. In contrast non-farm food production from labs or totally enclosed environments can at best only deliver zero negative impact.
Land-based farming systems have another huge advantage, here and around the world. They require only modest spending on new science and technologies and capital investment to implement them compared with the spend on new food technologies. But even across the entire gamut of existing and new foods, those sums are still minor compared with the trillions of dollars needed to decarbonise the likes of the steel and cement industries, electricity generation and land, air and sea transport.
Nature-based solutions are at the heart of the farming and food revolution. One useful guide is this set of reports recently released by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation and The Nature Conservancy, a US NGO. This was a contribution to the UN’s Food Systems Summit, held virtually two weeks ago and based on the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals.
Th EU says its Farm to Fork agriculture strategy is heading in that right SDG direction. But a grouping of European NGOs says it is not. Likewise the US Department of Agriculture has articulated a bold Climate 21 strategy for the new Biden Administration. But there is considerable scepticism in the sector that Tom Vilsack, the President’s new agriculture secretary who held the same role in the Obama administration, is capable of delivering it. A transformative Agricultural Resilience bill, focused on climate responses, has been languishing in the House since February last year.
New Zealand is the lowest emissions producer of milk in the world, as DairyNZ has recently confirmed again. Likewise with red meat. But that is only business-as-usual.
Some amongst showing the way
Instead, we have to be among the leaders in the global farming revolution. Thankfully, some organisations are showing us the way. Here’s just a small sample:
– The Primary Sector Council launched its Fit for a Better World vision and strategy based on regenerative agriculture, last year;
– Landcorp, the state owned-enterprise which is our largest farmer, is showing a 40-60 percent increase in profit and a similar relative reduction in carbon emissions on the few farms it has converted to organic so far, Steve Carden, its CEO, recently told a parliamentary select committee;
– Our Land and Water, one of the National Science Challenges, released this week an important research paper laying out how regenerative farming systems can be measured and compared with conventional farming in ecological and economic terms;
– Toitū Envirocare, part of Landcare Research, the CRI, has a well-developed system for farmers to measure, manage, reduce and offset their carbon emissions;
– Synlait has made a good start with its Lead with Pride farm certification system. But it readily acknowledges it still has a long way to go to meet its big ambition to make a distinctly New Zealand contribution to the global farming revolution. (Fonterra declined to be interviewed for this column.)
We can rise to this task, and enjoy the rewards it brings. Or we can rely on existing technologies then suffer the huge cost and disruptions of cleaning up farming later.
While drastically reducing methane emissions over the next few decades is one important goal in making our farming sustainable and climate enhancing, we need to set ourselves a second audacious goal: ending the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers made from natural gas. Our consumption of those has grown by more than 600 percent since 1990. The residues from them are powerful pollutants in water and drivers of climate change in the air.
Switching entirely from fossil-fuel derived fertilisers to natural fertilisers by, say, 2030 would be an enormous challenge. We can rise to this task, and enjoy the rewards it brings. Or we can rely on existing technologies then suffer the huge cost and disruptions of cleaning up farming later.
And we’re all in this together. Urban Kiwis have towering challenges to make their towns, transport, industries and consumption sustainable and climate compatible, as last week’s column discussed.
While we will largely use technologies developed elsewhere we’ll still need to invest tens of billions of dollars to implement them.
Rural New Zealanders have equally huge tasks to make their economic activities and lifestyles just as sustainable and climate friendly. But their investment in devising new technologies and implementing them is far lower, and the economic and environmental payoff greater.
At the heart of this, we all have to accept responsibility for our climate impacts and to help each other address them.
New Zealand, this is your Volkswagen moment.