AGRICULTURE – The things we can’t seem to talk about

1 November 2016

SBN’s Emily Dowding-Smith digests the new Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment report. Climate change and agriculture, understanding the biological greenhouse gases. Burp.

It seems odd needing a special role in government for the environment. It’s like needing a special department for reality. And then trying to ignore it. 

The latest report from the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment is especially difficult to ignore. It tackles the elephant/giant cow in the room on New Zealand’s climate emissions. It uses clear and concise terms. It comes complete with endearing low budget diagrams of sheep and cows and their emissions. It contains a useful analysis of the science of greenhouse gas emissions. It focuses on methane and nitrous oxide.

But there’s a lot we need to hear more about if we are going to shift the system.

The report says land owners should plant more trees on degraded land. They should breed low emission livestock. They should use low emission feed. They should vaccinate to make the saliva in the rumens produce less methane-generating gut bacteria. 

But we should be doing all that anyway.

Beyond that the report assumes business as usual. That won’t shift us from the current trajectory of our greenhouse gas emissions. We need to do more to reduce our emissions and improve our food systems’ impact.

Destock, not denial 

The most understated sentence in the report is on page 79.  

“It is axiomatic that the fewer sheep and cattle there are on a farm, the lower the biological emissions will generally be.”

Correct. So why is this not explored as a viable option? It’s brushed past in a discussion on changing management practices. There is one good example from the Waikato. 

Quite a few farmers are already demonstrating lower stocking. They are seeing improved environmental benefits beyond greenhouse gas emissions. They are tackling soil quality issues and reducing waterway pollution. They are still making a profit. Take a peek under the nitrogen cap in the Taupō catchment for some examples

We impact the climate and it impacts us

Agriculture’s impact on climate change is discussed in the report. Climate change’s impact on agriculture is not. 

It is forecast that Kiwi farmers will need to deal with hotter drier summers in some areas and wetter conditions in others. But we are not doing enough to adapt.

Some steps to tackle climate change like tree planting will also mitigate climate change effects. Other choices may not be so clear, but will still need to be made.  

Resilience and diversity

Climate change means more frequent extreme storm events. To reduce the impact of crop damage farmers need to cultivate a more diverse range of produce.

Proactive and engaged farmers are already doing this. They have experience to share. The same is true for potential biological disasters. We have already seen PSA in the kiwifruit industry and Queensland fruit flies in Grey Lynn.   

Apples, kiwifruit, lamb and milk are New Zealand’s main products. We need to diversify and adapt to the changing climate.

Farming has always been multi-generational. It has had to adapt to new conditions, weather and market demands. Right now we need stronger leadership and a better understanding of the changes needed. 

Soil is the solution

The role of organic farming was left out of this report. This doesn’t do justice to the progress being made. It doesn’t promote organic conversion as a viable option to reduce agricultural greenhouse gas emissions.

Most references to soil in the report were about the impacts of urine from cattle. What would be useful is a broader discussion of the critical importance of improved soil management.

There was also no discussion of the impact of synthetic fertilisers, except to note the rise in urease inhibitors to reduce their greenhouse gas impact. The report made no case to persuade farmers to steer clear of using them in the first place.

In all this report represents a useful addition to the discussion. But we have a lot further to go before we can say we are addressing the issue.  

Want to talk food, farming and the environment? Contact emily@sustainable.org.nz