Greenpeace calls for more substance and less stardust from the Government over climate change. David Williams reports

New Zealand farming’s addiction to synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is now causing more than double the greenhouse gas emissions of domestic flights.

It’s another twist in the country’s arm-wrestle between the economy and environment, an issue that has seen its reputation take a hit internationally over what’s been described as the “dirty truth”.

The country’s latest greenhouse gas emissions inventory, published last October, shows direct emissions from synthetic nitrogen fertilisers in 2019 were 2.3 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions (Mt CO2-e). That’s a 636 percent increase since 1990.

Emissions from domestic aviation in 2019 – pre-Covid – meanwhile, comprising jet kerosene and aviation gasoline, were a touch over 1 Mt CO2-e.

“It’s shocking,” says Greenpeace Aotearoa’s senior agricultural campaigner Christine Rose.

“We need to wean ourselves off the synthetic nitrogen fertiliser addiction. It’s unrealistic to think that we can continue to pollute our climate and our waterways, the way we have.”

The environmental group made the comparison after the Ministry for Primary Industries provided graphs tracking a significant rise in synthetic nitrogen fertiliser use and total emissions.

Greenpeace has been campaigning for the phasing out of such fertilisers, which Rose says are the drivers of “many environmental evils”. She focuses on “industrial” dairying, which Greenpeace describes as the country’s biggest climate polluter.

Urea fertiliser is used on dairy land to promote pasture growth, which leads to more cows (and therefore, higher methane emissions), more water pollution, and, potential health problems for some people from drinking water.

“If we turn the tap off with synthetic nitrogen fertiliser, then it opens up opportunities for premiums for organic, regenerative and organic products, but also for the use of organic waste – materials that are otherwise seen as waste and just diverted to the landfill.”

(However, a report from MPI estimated only 4271 tonnes of organic material would be available for use in food production.)

Research into nitrous oxide emissions, published in the journal Nature in 2020, suggested attempts to keep global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels might be threatened by the ongoing use of nitrogen fertilisers for food production. Clearance for farming also contributes to the biodiversity crisis.

Emissions happen when soil microbes convert fertiliser into nitrous oxide (N2O). Urea, a fertiliser compound manufactured into white granules, also releases carbon dioxide, or CO2. Three-quarters of direct emissions from synthetic nitrogen fertilisers are nitrous oxide, the rest are carbon dioxide.

Nitrous oxide is perhaps lesser known than the big two greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide and methane, but it’s a long-lived gas which is almost 300 times more potent than CO2 over 100 years. About 10 percent of gross greenhouse gas emissions in this country come from nitrous oxide.

Shamefully for New Zealand’s international reputation on climate change, its gross emissions have increased 26 percent since 1990. Two of the major reasons are increased fertiliser use and an increase in dairy cattle. The national herd of milking cows sat at 4.9 million last year. (Total cow numbers, including heifers, was estimated at 6.3 million in 2019.)

Farmers say synthetic nitrogen fertiliser is a key building block for protein and essential for promoting grass and crop growth. The industry believes a ban would be economically catastrophic – and, it claims, not achieve environmental goals. (This appears to be because fertiliser emissions are dwarfed by emissions from livestock peeing and pooing, and while alternatives are more costly and less efficient they might be affordable enough to keep livestock numbers high. It may also disrupt plant-based farming.)

The country’s fertiliser industry is dominated by farmer-owned cooperatives Ravensdown and Ballance Agri-Nutrients.

They are big businesses. Ravensdown made a $52 million profit, before tax and rebate, from continuing operations in 2021, on revenue of $712 million. Ballance’s 2021 revenue before rebate was $897 million, and it made a $63.1 million profit, before tax and rebate.

However, they didn’t comment for this story. Ravensdown said the Fertiliser Association was “best-placed” to respond, while Ballance couldn’t be reached.

Similarly, Fonterra, New Zealand’s biggest company and the world’s largest dairy exporter, declined to comment. A senior communications manager said “it’s an industry matter”.

Fertiliser Association chief executive Vera Power responds “on behalf of Ravensdown and Ballance”, saying via email the cooperatives are working hard to reduce nitrous oxide emissions.

(This ignores, somewhat, that between 1990 and 2019 the use of synthetic nitrogen fertilisers increased 663 percent. Over the same period, as a proportion of agricultural emissions, nitrogen fertilisers have increased from 0.9 percent to 5.8 percent.)

“The use of smart products and precision application means farmers are able to minimise nitrogen use while maintaining the enormous economic benefit it contributes to New Zealand agriculture,” Power says.

“Last year, nitrogen use actually declined as more farmers used coated products which enable them to use less nitrogen because of the increased efficiency of these new products.”

Another incentive to use less is soaring prices.

Power points out when it comes to nitrous oxide losses and the leaching of nitrates into waterways, the vast majority comes from animal urine.

Dr David Burger, DairyNZ’s strategy and investment leader, says nitrogen use is decreasing with better science and improved farming practices, and there’s extensive research to find alternatives.

Under farm environment plans, farmers are reducing nitrogen fertilisers, using alternative feeds, like plantain, to reduce nitrogen-loss. Other strategies include more modern irrigation systems.

However, warnings are being sounded on farm plans, and there’s is evidence, called the “efficiency paradox”, to suggest lower groundwater levels from more efficient irrigation and increased dairying is leading to a spike in nitrate-nitrogen concentrations.

Burger says farm businesses must remain profitable while doing environmental work, “as that not only benefits our national economy, but local economies too”.

Increasing scrutiny of farming’s environmental impacts has piled pressure on the Government. The Climate Change Commission will review progress on farm emission reductions later this year.

Duty Minister Poto Williams says the Government remains committed to working with farmers to reduce emissions from agriculture, alongside other sectors like energy and transport.

“It’s a big challenge but many farmers are already taking action.”

Freshwater reforms are “ongoing and comprehensive”, she says. “They include introducing a limit of 190 kilograms per hectare, per year of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser on grazing land.”

Not far enough

Greenpeace disagrees with Williams.

“Our argument is the [fertiliser] cap isn’t low enough,” says senior agricultural campaigner Rose. “It’s not targeting the bulk of the pollution that’s being generated by industrial dairying … the water quality or the climate issues, or the freshwater contamination.”

Most farmers are using less than 190kg/ha, she says. That’s backed by Fertiliser Association figures for major regions, taken over five years to 2018, showing only one province, Canterbury, has average use above 200kg/ha. Only two other provinces, Southland and West Coast, are above 150kg/ha.

“It’s unlikely to make a significant difference,” Rose says.

None of the signals are strong enough, Greenpeace argues: the fertiliser cap’s too conservative, elements of the freshwater reform package have been diminished or delayed, and concessions were given over tough new intensive winter grazing rules.

Taxpayers are also spending $700 million to help clean-up freshwater, including riparian and wetland planting, she says – although there are strings attached, with stricter rules.

Last November there was another blow, when the Government-primary sector partnership He Waka Eke Noa put forward draft options for pricing farm emissions that weren’t expected to reduce emissions by even 1 percent by 2030.

The draft discussions document said: “The majority of emissions reductions are expected to be achieved through recycling revenue into research and development, incentives to uptake technology, or actions on-farm that help reduce emissions.”

(Creating pricing proposals which effectively won’t shift the rudder is a head-scratching position for an organisation formed “to equip farmers and growers with the knowledge and tools they need to reduce emissions”.)

Even if the Climate Change Commission were to recommend agriculture enter the Emissions Trading Scheme – which, for the first time, would put a price on agricultural emissions, comprising almost half of New Zealand’s gross greenhouse gas emissions – Rose worries about the level of subsidies the industry would get from the Government.

“It would take 100 years for us to have agriculture fully into the ETS in a way that would be equitable to other producers and every other New Zealander.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called it her generation’s nuclear-free moment, and the Government declared a climate emergency in 2020. Yet, last year it was criticised for a lukewarm emissions reduction plan, and a disappointing showing at the UN climate conference in Glasgow, known as COP26.

What’s needed from the Government is “more substance and less stardust” on climate, Rose says – and that includes addressing the elephant in the room, agriculture.

* This story has been updated with the country’s total cow numbers.

David Williams is Newsroom's environment editor, South Island correspondent and investigative writer.

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