Big Dairy worldwide is contemplating faster cuts to its emissions – but here in New Zealand Fonterra, the Ministry of Primary Industries and the Government don’t seem to want to discuss doing anything more.

OPINION: In response to a rising tide of reports deeply critical of its significant climate impact, the global dairy sector has finally launched an initiative to accelerate the reduction in its greenhouse gas emissions.

“Pathways to Dairy Net Zero” was announced on Tuesday in an online session at a UN food systems conference in Rome. But so far, the initiative has agreed neither a definition of net zero emissions nor set a deadline for achieving it.

The backers say it is impossible to do so because dairy farming systems vary so widely around the world, as does the scope of each to reduce their emissions.

However, they say some systems might be capable of up to 40 percent reductions of methane, the most potent of farming greenhouse gases. That’s far more than the modest cuts the New Zealand dairy sector says it can manage given farming technologies and practices available now or likely in coming years.

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Instead, the initiative’s work programme for the next few months will bring together a body of knowledge and proposals for further research to submit to the UN’s Food Systems Summit in New York City in September and the UN climate negotiations, COP 26, in Glasgow in November.

At both UN gatherings the global dairy sector will face increased hostility from critics arguing plant-based diets are far more compatible with the climate than food from ruminant animals might ever be.

For example, FAIRR, a group of institutional investors with US$5 trillion of funds under management, supported by Ban Ki-moon, the former UN Secretary General who helped achieve the Paris climate agreement in 2015, published a highly critical report on the dairy and red meat sectors in June.

“Cows are the new coal. The emissions from agriculture and related land use are on a level with the greenhouse gases emitted by the EU, US and Japan combined. If the COP26 process can transparently set out each country’s plans to address agriculture’s climate footprint, it would boost the confidence of investors to mobilise capital towards more sustainable food and farming,” said Jeremy Coller, Chair of FAIRR and Chief Investment Officer of Coller Capital.

Meanwhile, some dairy leaders have set themselves ambitious, science-based targets. Such as Arla, based in Denmark, which is committed to a 30 percent reduction in emissions by 2030 and net zero by 2050; and Valio, based in Finland, which is targeting net zero by 2035.

Both will cut methane emissions as far as they can and offset the remainder of them based on the carbon dioxide equivalent of their global heating potential.

Similarly, the Innovation Center for US Dairy has set its goal for the US sector to “become carbon neutral or better: Both the goal and 2050 timing align with what we believe is achievable based on today’s science, technology and innovation.”

Here in New Zealand, though, Fonterra has yet to set goals for emissions reductions on the farms of its shareholder-suppliers. Together they account for some 23 percent of New Zealand’s total emissions. Our dairy and red meat sectors say it will be challenging for them to meet NZ’s modest targets for methane cuts of 10 percent by 2030 and by 24 percent by 2050.

Yet, Fonterra and New Zealand used to be international leaders on the sector’s climate challenges. Back in 2006, when Andrew Ferrier was the co-op’s chief executive, it led the creation of the Global Dairy Platform, based in Chicago, to further a progressive agenda for the global dairy sector. Its three co-founders were Arla, Campina, a Dutch co-op, and Dairy Farmers of America, the largest US dairy co-op. Today, GDP has some 130 members in 37 countries, which sell dairy products in more than 150 countries.

Similarly, Prime Minister John Key took a proposal for a global agricultural greenhouse gas research alliance to the UN’s 2009 climate negotiations in Copenhagen. Today, the alliance has 65 member countries and extensive programmes involving more than 3,000 scientists.

The Global Dairy Platform initiated and led the development of the dairy sector climate programme presented this week in Rome. It has brought onboard a who’s who of global dairy research, such as the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, the International Dairy Federation, the IFCN Dairy Research Network, the Dairy Sustainability Framework and the global ag gas research alliance.

GDP will lead the extensive work programme announced this week. While many organisations are contributing, the NZ Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre is playing a particularly important role collecting methane data from dairy farming systems around the world and assessing those systems’ scope for methane reductions. The chief executive of the NZ centre is Harry Clark, who is also one of the eight commissioners on our Climate Change Commission.

GDP is led by its long-standing executive director, Donald Moore, a Kiwi who used to be a senior Fonterra executive; and Fonterra contributes two members to GDP’s governance group – Miles Hurrell, the co-op’s chief executive, and Kelvin Wickham, its chief executive for Africa, Middle East, Europe, North Asia, and the Americas.

Following GDP’s global launch of its climate initiative on Tuesday, I asked Fonterra for an interview with Hurrell. All I got in reply was a written statement:

“We know that the world is heading towards net zero and we support this ambition, it’s a challenge for everyone.

“Our grass-fed dairy puts us in a unique position among most other dairy producers. New Zealand already has the lowest carbon footprint in the world. But we know we can do more.

“Over the years the Global Dairy Platform (GDP) has worked to explore what is possible for the dairy industry. It’s conducted research into the nutritional benefits of dairy, including protein and fat and now it’s looking at how the industry can do its bit to find pathway to a net zero world.

“The work GDP is doing recognises that there needs to be different pathways to low carbon dairy for different dairy industries. Here in New Zealand this means keeping on our current course of a 10 percent reduction of methane by 2030 and a net reduction of 24 percent by 2050 from a 2017 baseline.”

And I asked the Ministry for Primary Industries for further information, since Phil Houlding, its director of international policy, had spoken at the GDP launch. He represented the NZ Government, which was one of the four country co-hosts, with Costa Rica, Uruguay and Kenya.

MPI’s one-paragraph written reply merely reiterated a few obvious facts about the launch.

Why are the Government, Fonterra and other leaders in the primary sector refusing to talk about agriculture’s crucial role in helping to solve the climate crisis?

Surely they can’t be cowed by the sound of revving tractors?

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