Staying ahead of the compliance curve
There is no doubt that greenhouse gases (GHG) are back on the government agenda. As part of our Paris Accord commitment to reduce emissions, our post-2020 climate change target is to reduce GHG emissions to 30% below 2005 levels by 2030.
To achieve this will require significant commitment by the government, industry and consumers, especially considering our GHG emissions have grown since 1990 and are projected to continue to grow.
Within New Zealand, direct emissions from agriculture make up almost half of gross GHG emissions, mostly in the form of methane from ruminants. Gross agricultural emissions have increased since 1990 (due to an increase in total production), but emissions per unit of product (emissions intensity) have fallen consistently in the same timeframe due to increased productivity per animal and improved system feed efficiency of farm enterprises.
There are many idiosyncrasies in national and international climate change policies. As an example, a country which exports raw materials from mining, such as coal, is only under emissions obligation for product used in their own country.
If we were to apply the same logic to food production, we should only be liable for 10% of our agricultural emissions, as 90% of the food we produce is eaten elsewhere. Of course, I moan about this but there is probably very little we can do to change it and once again New Zealand is in a position of determining how we include agriculture in a future Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).
Applying a broad tax to livestock farmers is a blunt tool, especially given there are wide variations in emissions on-farm related to intensity, management practices and farm systems. Original ETS models placed the point of obligation on the processors (meat and milk) and farmers had no ability to demonstrate that they had lower emissions than average and should have a lower tax accordingly.
This seems inherently unfair to those land-users who do everything they can to manage their land in such a way as to minimise their environmental impact and many such farmers exist. In my mind, an ETS which includes agriculture must provide incentive to support best-practice. However, this brings in a whole layer of reporting and compliance, which would go down like a lead balloon in farming circles.
The current pragmatic position is to invest resources into science and technology solutions to make significant advances in finding solutions to reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions, such as a vaccine to reduce methane production. However, what is increasingly clear, is that there is no silver bullet on the horizon for livestock farmers.
It is my belief, a greater portion of the research and development spend needs to be put into the development of practical tools that farmers can implement immediately, such as incorporating environmental targets within genetic improvement programmes and research into the use of high-energy forages across multiple land environments.
This won’t have the hoped-for silver bullet effect, but gradual, cumulative progress is of significant value when placed across an entire industry and lays a good platform for when and if, the silver bullet does appear.
Afforestation and mixed land-use - integration of arable cropping and horticulture, into livestock systems - are also options that farmers should be exploring.
There is a series of reports, by consulting company Coriolis, commissioned by the Western Australian government, where land-use options are matched with market metrics, with a particular focus on growing Asian markets. I recommend all land-owners read these reports: see example - Growing the north - Market opportunities for irrigated agricultural produce from northern Western Australia.
Similar analyses for some of Otago and Southland’s key agricultural areas, would be of great value asking the question what could land-use look like in 20 years’ time on the Taieri, Clydevale, the Catlins or the Maniototo, Hokonui or the Southland Plains?
One thing I can say for certain is that things are happening in Government circles. Add that to urban requirements around a “social license to farm” and there is increasing pressure on farmers. As agriculturalists, we must be proactive. We need a plan for how we move ahead so that we remain profitable and ahead of the environmental compliance curve.