Opinion: This week, farming leaders were full of self-congratulations when they released their recommendations to government on how to price greenhouse gas emissions generated on farms.

“First in the world” and “doing our fair share” were just two of the phrases that tripped off their tongues.

Their He Waka Eke Noa report was just as effusive. The 13 organisations they represented had engaged in a “world-first collaboration”. Their proposals would “reduce agricultural emissions while enabling sustainable food and fibre production for future generations and competitiveness in international markets.”

Indeed, it was a remarkable report – because it was remarkably irresponsible. It was devoid of any reference to emissions reduction work underway in other countries. Thus, it was entirely self-serving. If the farm leaders’ goal was to recommend the least action possible backed by high subsidies from the government and the economy at large, they succeeded.

But they blew their cover by admitting that their pricing mechanism would at best only reduce methane emissions by between 4 percent and 5.5 percent by 2030. Coupled with existing government policies, the annual rate of methane reduction per litre of milk or kilogram of meat would barely match what the sector has achieved over the past two decades.

Meanwhile out in the real world, the climate commitments nations have made to the UN cover 81 percent of agricultural emissions in total, including 87 percent of methane emissions and 85 percent of nitrous oxide emissions, according to a report He Waka commissioned from Resource Economics.

“Owl Farm has reduced total greenhouse gas emissions by 8% and lifted operating profit per hectare by 14% through improving management practices over the past two years. Based on additional modelling, further farm management changes involving reduced feed use and lowering the stocking rate is expected to increase profitability by another 21%, reduce nitrate leaching by 14% and greenhouse gas emissions by 13%.”
– Interim Climate Change Committee

In contrast to New Zealand’s goal of only a 10 percent reduction in methane by 2030 from 2017 levels (of which 1.7 percentage points would come from the waste sector not farming), the Resource Economics report mentioned greater ambitions elsewhere.

For example, the Irish government has committed to a 22 to 30 percent reduction in agricultural emissions by 2030 from 2018 levels, in a country with pastoral farming systems very similar to ours. In the Netherlands, current projections suggest the country will achieve a 25 percent reduction in such emissions by 2030 from 1990 levels in farming systems more intensive than ours.

The He Waka report also stoked fears that anything more than minimal action here to reduce farming emissions would cause a loss in production here. Then other countries with higher emissions from farming per litre of milk or kilogram of meat would make up the difference. So the world would be worse off, it said. It made nine references to such “leakage” in its report.

The report conceded it was virtually impossible to model the overseas response, as our Climate Change Commission has also concluded. But still, on behalf of He Waka, Resource Economics offered a scenario that saw every tonne of emissions reduction in farming here potentially causing 1.15 tonnes of emissions overseas.

Owl Farm, near Cambridge, is one of the commercial farms monitored by DairyNZ, the sector’s farmer-funded research arm. Photo: Owl Farm

But how serious an issue is that? Resource Economics quotes OECD and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation data showing New Zealand exports constitute only 2.8 percent of sheep meat consumption and 0.9 percent of beef meat consumption globally. On dairy it singles out exports of whole milk and skim milk powder from cows which constitute 28.2 percent and 8.9 percent of global consumption of those products.

But the global dairy sector is far broader by animals and products. Thus, NZ’s share of total global dairy production is only 2.4 percent. In fact, total global dairy supply grows each year by more than the entire NZ sector’s output.

Moreover, the He Waka report says current modelling estimates that a farm-level split-gas levy would result in a loss of production of 0.1 percent of meat, which is so small it falls well within the range of statistical error.

He Waka says NZ milk production might fall 1.4 percent. But if it did, the global dairy industry would make up the difference in less than three hours of extra production per year, I calculate from the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s 2021 global Dairy Market Review.

He Waka also used the false-fear of New Zealand leakage to seriously misrepresent the Paris Agreement. He Waka labels leakage as a “food security” issue under Article 2(b) of the accord.

But the goal of Article 2 is “to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change, in the context of sustainable development and efforts to eradicate poverty…”

It then lists various pathways to do so, to which end (b) reads: “Increasing the ability to adapt to the adverse impacts of climate change and foster climate resilience and low greenhouse gas emissions development, in a manner that does not threaten food production.”

In the global debate on food, farming and climate two central themes are: The greatest danger is the loss of production because of increasingly adverse climate conditions; and the out-sized contribution ruminant animal farming for meat and dairy makes to that climate change. Carbon “leakage” is a very minor issue by comparison.

The He Waka report and its 13 organisations are big on pious proclamations about “doing their fair share” on climate. But our farming sector has a lamentable record to date on those utterly crucial goals of greenhouse gas reductions, climate adaptation and resilience.

For example, the John Key government proposed to the Copenhagen climate negotiations in 2009 a global research alliance on agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. That was agreed and more than a decade later that initiative goes from strength to strength. Our taxpayers have funded such research here since to the tune of some $200 million.

But for all the knowledge gained, remarkably little has translated into actual solutions. Are we just bad at commercialising science? Or are our farmers happy just to point to all that research-but-no-solutions and say “Don’t blame us. It’s too hard for us to do much.”

Instead, He Waka’s two biggest hopes for eventually reducing methane are based on science overseas – a seaweed discovery years ago by CSIRO in Australia, and a feed additive, Bovaer, developed by DSM of the Netherlands over the past decade. The first is still some way off commercialisation, and the latter is still unproven at scale for our type of pastoral farming.

Actually, it is possible to reduce agricultural emissions here without such silver bullets. It takes a range of actions, each achieving small improvements which can aggregate into excellent progress. They are well documented, such as in the 2019 report by our Interim Climate Change Committee, the precursor to our current Climate Change Commission.

For example, on page 33 of its report Action on Agricultural Emissions, the Committee described the success of one such farm:

“Owl Farm has reduced total greenhouse gas emissions by 8 percent and lifted operating profit per hectare by 14 percent through improving management practices over the past two years. Based on additional modelling, further farm management changes involving reduced feed use and lowering the stocking rate is expected to increase profitability by another 21 percent, reduce nitrate leaching by 14 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 13 percent. Owl Farm notes there is a potential downstream economic impact of reducing the intensity of their farming operation.”

Likewise some major farming/processing business have set themselves demanding climate goals and are making good progress on them, such as Synlait Milk, Pamu and Silver Fern Farms. And there is a growing number of farmers working on these issues in knowledge-sharing and advisory groups, such as Calm the Farm and Ata Regenerative.

As it happens, Owl Farm, near Cambridge, is one of the commercial farms monitored by DairyNZ, the sector’s farmer-funded research arm. But DairyNZ, which was a leader in the tortuous He Waka process, seems better at playing industry climate politics than disseminating climate advice to farmers.

DairyNZ is far from alone among the 13 organisations involved in He Waka. Their grossly inadequate recommendations to the government is a collective failure of primary sector leadership.

By playing to the lowest and most fearful common denominator, they robbed our farmers of a future in which they would have become true leaders on climate at home and abroad. A future in which they would have made them more profitable, more resilient, and more climate compatible.

Rod Oram is a weekly columnist who covers climate, economics and politics.

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