Opinion: G’day, Jamie! Thanks for having me back on your farming radio show a few weeks ago to chat about the future of farming and food.

As I mentioned then, we had a great line up of innovators and leaders – speakers and audience, from home and abroad – coming to the E Tipu Summit in Christchurch last week.

It lived up to its name. You really could feel the discussions “grow” the hopes and ambitions of the 500 people in the Town Hall and online. It was a privilege and pleasure for me to MC.

Oh, and the local kai we ate – red meat included! – was sensational, thanks to Dan and Grenville, the reigning national champion hangi masters.

So, when I spotted your Herald column this week, I thought: if you’d said this to me on air, how would I’ve replied? Here’s the discussion I imagined:

Jamie: Last week on my radio show I threw a hypothetical scenario at the Minister of Agriculture and Trade, Damien O’Connor. So it’s 1990 and I’m living alone on a tropical island, say Madagascar, and I’m surrounded by three million bison cattle and 60 million goats.

Rod: Bison, yes! Best ruminants ever! Way back, some 60 million of them roaming the Great Plains of North Americas, living in harmony with their ecosystems, thanks to millions of years of their intricate evolution with the rest of nature. But hunters and settlers almost wiped them out. Just 541 of them were left in 1889. Then over the past century, widespread, monoculture, industrial farming of plants and animals has caused massive ecosystem degradation and declining agricultural yields.

No doubt we can learn something from the bison – and the goats. As we can, from our cattle and sheep. Then we could farm animals in ways that help restore ecosystem health, farming fertility, food abundance and healthy diets here and around the world.

Oh, and help solve the climate crisis too. Such nature-based solutions can reduce global emissions by 1/3 in cost-effective ways, while lifting 1 billion people out of poverty; create 80 m jobs; add US$2.3 trillion to the global economy, and prevent US$3.7 tr of climate change damages. Such solutions are available today, are scalable, and can transform key industry sectors, such as forestry and agriculture, says Nature4Climate, just one of many organisations on to it.

Jamie: But I’m getting lonely in my tropical paradise so I invite some people to fly in, bring vehicles, build cities and factories and urbanise my island.

Trouble is, my carbon footprint has now gone through the roof. My transport emissions alone, from fossil fuel burning, have gone up by 85 percent in the past three decades. In the meantime, my ruminant livestock emissions have gone up 7.5 percent since 1990, because I swapped goats for cattle in the bison boom. However, those emissions have been dropping slowly since 2005.

Rod: Ah, your Madagascar sounds like Aotearoa to me! Between 1990 and 2020, our gross greenhouse gas emissions increased by 21 percent. This was mostly due to increased methane from growth in the dairy cattle population and carbon dioxide from road transport.

Sure enough over those 30 years, the dairy cattle numbers increased by 82 percent from 3.4 million to 6.3 million, and their milk we processed tripled to 21.7 billion litres.

Carbon dioxide emissions from the energy sector rose 32 percent, mostly from road transport (up 76 percent), and the use of fossil fuels for food, electricity and heat production. Though they have been relatively stable over the past 15 years.

Don’t forget, though, the primary sector also generates a lot of CO2 from its transport and processing – about 5.5 million tonnes a year. By comparison, all the households of Aotearoa generate less than double that.

Ah, yes…and the methane. It rose by 12 percent from 1990 to its peak in 2006, according to the government’s latest greenhouse gas inventory. More cows, fewer sheep; and greater productivity in herds and flocks were the main factors. But since agricultural methane peaked in 2006, it has only declined by 7 percent. So it’s still a big problem, accounting for more than a third of our entire greenhouse gases.

But nitrous oxide, the other very powerful agricultural greenhouse gas and largely a function of our use of artificial fertilisers, has risen by almost 50 percent since 1990. While it accounts for only 6 percent of our entire greenhouse gases, the nitrogen surplus per hectare has doubled in the past 20 years. Excessive use of fertilisers also causes declines in water quality and human health, as David Williams writes in another of our recent food and climate articles.

It’s now double the average of farms in all OECD countries, according to the latest, just released, annual review of agricultural practices and policies in the OECD. This year’s theme is “Reforming Agricultural Policies for Climate Change Mitigation”.

All up, our farmers are the sixth most greenhouse gas intensive in the world per dollar of output, as this chart from the latest OECD report shows.

Emissions intensity of agriculture (kg CO2-eq/US$)

Emissions intensity of agricultural output (GHG emissions per US$ of production value). Source: OECD, ‘Reforming Agricultural Policies for Climate Change Mitigation’

Jamie: To make matters worse I’m getting no credits for all the carbon my tropical jungle shelter belts are sequestering because they’re not deemed forests, even though they comprise several billion trees.

Rod: Jamie, you can’t see the wood for the trees. Humanity can’t sequester its way out of the climate crisis. We have to drastically cut emissions in all sectors, and only offset the last 5 to 10 percent of the really, really hard stuff we can’t, the UN tells us in its latest climate assessment. Steel, cement, car makers and other greenhouse gas intensive sectors are making great strides on reducing their emissions. Farmers must as well.

Jamie: I’ve had a moan about that to my industry-good bodies, Dairy Madagascar, Beef + Lamb Madagascar and Federated Tribesmen. But they’re too busy engaging with government in a process called HCEN (He Canoe Eke Noa) where they all seemingly sit round in a circle, holding hands, singing Kumbaya.

Rod: Not singing, just playing to the lowest and most fearful common denominator among farmers. They’re robbing our farmers of a future in which they would have become true leaders on climate at home and abroad, as I wrote in a recent column.

That said, there are merits in the greenhouse gas measurement, pricing and mitigation system that grouping’s advocating. But developing it to the point it becomes useful requires far greater urgency, rigour and conviction from them and the government.

Jamie: I did briefly contemplate joining the wild rebel tribe from down south, Groundswell Madagascar, but some people reckon they’re cannibals who chop people’s heads off. Especially if you’re a left-leaning urban politician!

Rod: I’ve some sympathy for its members. Farming is risky and complicated. But their fight to go back to a simpler past won’t work. Worse, it’s making it harder for true leaders in agriculture and politics to achieve a wealthier, more secure, climate compatible future for all farmers.

Jamie: Besides, in a faraway Kingdom called New Zealand, the all-powerful Queen Jacinda says small countries like Madagascar have to do their bit to get the world to carbon zero by 2050. And that’s despite some much bigger countries doing bugger all for the cause.

Rod: Sorry, mate. You’re dead wrong on that one. Look in the chart below at how much our emissions have risen compared with the falls in the US and the EU. And look how well Ireland’s done, which is closest to us in terms of prodigious agricultural GHGs.

Moreover, all the small countries in the world combined contribute about a quarter of GHG emissions. Every country, every citizen has to take responsibility for its emissions. We must all play our parts.

Change in total greenhouse gas emissions

Emissions are measured in carbon dioxide equivalents. This means non-CO2 gases are weighted by the amount of warming they cause over a 100-year time scale. Emissions from land use change – which can be positive or negative – are taken into account. Source: CAIT Climate Data Explorer, via Climate Watch/OurWorldInData.org

Jamie: So, here’s my dilemma. Do I cut my bison cattle herd by 15 percent (as championed by the jungle-dwelling Green Party) and suffer the subsequent drop in food production? Even though the methane they’re emitting produces considerably less warming than CO2?

Rod: Wrong climate science. Wrong solution. Don’t cut the animals; reduce their inefficiencies. GHG emissions are a damaging by-product of their digestion. So, if you choose animals that genetically do a better job of turning their feed into more meat and milk and thus less emissions, you’re on to a double-win. Also, come up with better feed for them and restorative grazing practices. A fair few farmers around the country are already doing just that.

By the way, watch out for our international competitors, particularly in dairy. Here, for example, are the climate neutral plans of Arla and Friesland Campina, major European dairy co-ops trading globally. They have set themselves strategies to get to net zero. Fonterra hasn’t.

DairyNZ, as the sector’s science body funded by farmers, also knows a lot about all of this. But its agenda is set by some high intensity, corporate farmers. Yet there are other large scale farmers and processors who are driving positive change, such as Synlait in milk and Silver Fern Farms in meat. They must step up their leadership.

And you’re dead wrong on methane. Yes, it is much shorter-lived than CO2. But it’s immensely more damaging while it’s up in the atmosphere. Farmers have to take responsibility for it. They’ve got to pay for polluting, for the warming their methane generates. Just as we all pay for the emissions of every litre of petrol or diesel we burn.

Of course, you should have time and help to reduce your animals’ methane emissions. Set a big goal, and the government will give you a lot of help (including lots of money from the taxes we pay) and we’ll cheer you on. But if you keep arguing against science, good business and common sense you’ll fast lose public support.

Jamie: Or do I cut my CO2 emissions from fossil fuel burning, back to 1990 levels, using new renewable energy technology?

Rod: Wrong goal again. Humanity has to get to zero GHG emissions in the next 25 years. To rid ourselves of fossil fuels by then, we must achieve stupendous breakthroughs in science and technology and spend tens of trillions of dollars to implement them. I’m confident we’ll do both. But nowhere near fast enough. So we’ll make the climate crisis far worse, and the damage from it far greater and largely irreversible.

Jamie: So, which is the easiest, most efficient and sustainable way to save the planet while feeding its inhabitants?

Rod: Farm with nature, not against it. So, you help nature restore its ecosystems. So, they are more productive and more resilient to the climate crisis. So, we have more than enough food for everyone at affordable prices. If nature thrives, we thrive.

To do so, you need more science and some money. But nowhere near as much as the energy sector needs. We, your customers, can help by changing our diets. Plant-based food has a far lower impact on the environment than animal-based foods, and makes more efficient use of nature’s resources. Don’t worry. You’ll still have more customers for dairy and meat than you can serve…if you’re working with nature.

Jamie: The point of this parable is that New Zealand is no different to any other country on planet Earth. We’ve all got a collective responsibility to do our bit to mitigate climate change and resultant global warming.

Rod: Sure thing. Just like them, we pull on our trousers one leg at a time, as Lyndon Johnson once said of himself. So, come on farmers. You’re responsible for half our emissions. Do your half of the heavy lifting. If you don’t, we’ll fail to meet the climate commitments we’ve made to the rest of the world. When you pay the price for that failure, don’t expect us to bail you out.

Jamie: No other country, thus far, has imposed a carbon tax upon its farmers. New Zealand will be at the bleeding edge when it does so in 2025.

Rod: A mere pinprick. Barely a drop, given the emissions price will be a fraction of the true cost. Anyway, carbon pricing is only one tool. We have to work with many others to reduce emissions, as the latest OECD report says many countries are. We are far from alone.

Jamie: Admittedly our emissions profile is different from any other country I’m aware of. Nearly half of ours come from agriculture. That’s because the primary sector is our biggest export industry. We are a nation of five million people feeding 40 million people globally.

Rod: Sure, we help feed 0.5 percent of the people on the planet, equal to the population of Tokyo. No way we can scale that up. We can help, though, by pioneering climate-compatible, ecosystem-restoring farming practices. Those will inspire and help millions of other farmers to likewise join the food revolution. Oh, and bring more high-paying customers to you.

Jamie: There’s also an argument to be had that emissions should be paid for at the point of consumption (much like oil) rather than at the source of production.

Rod: Ha! That’s just what the fossil fuel producers are doing. Denying their responsibility. Blaming the consumer. Forcing the challenge and change on them. Surely our farmers really don’t want to do that? After all, farming with nature is the best business opportunity they will ever have.

Jamie: I’m not arguing that farmers shouldn’t do their bit when it comes to paying for their emissions. But Article 2b of the Paris Agreement says agricultural emissions reductions should not threaten food production.

Rod: That’s an old, dishonest trope from the “we’re doing our bit” crowd. It completely misrepresents the goal of Article 2, which 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 to that made by ruminant animals farmed for meat and dairy.

Jamie, I’ll make a bet with you right now. When our farmers are climate-compatible farmers, they’ll produce more food than ever, including climate-compatible meat and dairy products; and be more profitable and secure.

Jamie: What I would like to see, and what Minister O’Connor has agreed to pursue, is farmers being given credits for everything on their farms that sequesters carbon. That includes shelter belts, native bush, woody vegetation and – some scientists argue – grass. I talked to a farmer with in-excess of 200,000 trees in shelter belts on their property. As it stands at the moment, there are no carbon credits for shelter belts, because they’re not wide enough to be deemed a forest.

I would argue that most sheep, beef and deer farms on extensive properties are already carbon neutral, or positive. And they are farms most likely to be hit hardest by the He Waka Eke Noa recommendations.

Rod: Sure, work with the government to figure out how to do that. But only with practical areas. Anything smaller is not worth the trouble to count. Far more importantly, sequestering carbon in trees is a sideshow. Trees and soil can’t sequester methane. Storing the CO2 equivalent is a poor substitute for the real challenge and rewards that come from cutting methane emissions, restoring biodiversity and enhancing ecosystems. And the latter two, being in due course more beneficial than simply sequestering carbon, will become good income sources in their own right for farmers.

Jamie: So don’t blame cows. Ruminants have been roaming the planet for millennia. Blame people. Climate change is a man-made problem.

Rod: Indeed, way back when wild bison grazed the Great Plains, they had a totally symbiotic relationship with their ecosystem. They were good for each other. No way can our cows and sheep achieve that on their own in our current farming systems. So, it’s up to you farmers. If you fail them and us, you’ll lose your licence to farm.

Jamie: The primary sector is responsible for 80 percent of our export income. This pays the bills for a country which, in the next few months, will depressingly have 80 percent of the population receiving some sort of state benefit.

Rod: Sorry, Jamie. You’re exaggerating big time. In the year before Covid, the entire primary sector (not just farming) contributed only 43 percent of our exports of goods and services.

As for paying the bills, the government has taken in some $100 billion a year in recent times. About 40 percent of that is via GST, and 55 percent from taxes on income and profits. So, one way or another everybody pays to help keep the country running.

As for beneficiaries, 11.7 percent of people aged 18 to 64 (368,172 people) were receiving a main benefit in the last quarter of 2021. As of March 2022, 853,725 people (17 percent of the population) were receiving Super.

So, some 24 percent of the population are receiving some kind of government benefit. Unless, of course, you are including essentially free education and healthcare, plus all manner of help to farmers and other businesses through grants, subsidies and the like. But that’s what a healthy democracy does.

Jamie: There are factions in this Government who would gladly see the back end of farming. But like farming seasons, what goes round, comes round. Winter for this lot, could well come in the spring of 2023. You reap what you sow.

Rod: No farming? I’ve never met anyone that stupid! But I know lots of people across society, especially farmers, who deeply desire much better farming. They know humanity’s future depends on it. So, let’s reap those utterly sustainable rewards.

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

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