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Forget Agricultural Emissions: Fresh Water and Synthetics are the Real Farming Challenges

It is time to declare a truce between farmers and environmentalists over agricultural greenhouse gas emissions. They aren’t as bad as we once thought. Yes they exist, but they should be able to be mitigated without wholesale changes to farming practices. It is time to focus on the real challenges to farming: fresh water and the rise of synthetic meat and milk.

Commissioner Upton’s Report

Commissioner Upton’s report on agricultural greenhouse gases came out last week, you can read a summary of it here. It acknowledged a long held uncomfortable truth that many people have felt around the way we think about agricultural emissions. His analysis suggests that they aren’t as bad as the official data tells us.

The claim that agricultural emissions make up half of our total emissions is based on a whole bunch of assumptions. You could easily tweak those assumptions and cut the number to a quarter or even less. That sort of margin for error should be pretty uncomfortable for anyone setting policy that will affect the way we use our land for the next century. I for one don’t want to see the whole country covered in trees to offset our emissions while not actually solving the real problem: fossil fuel use.

The conclusion of Commissioner Upton’s report is that farmers should be able to mitigate agricultural emissions amongst themselves. In other words they should plant trees, but only to mitigate agricultural emissions. Farmers should plant their low productivity erosion prone land and farm the productive bits. Job done. Federated Farmers should be working out how to operationalise this proposal immediately. The prospect of mitigating one of our biggest environmental challenges and keeping the cash amongst land owners should be incredibly alluring.

Of course not everyone is so happy, and they see this as letting farmers off the hook. This proposal was met with scorn by Greenpeace who claimed that Commissioner Upton was influenced by Big Ag, which is ridiculous. It’s the sort of histrionic crap that gives greenies a bad name.

I think environmentalists need to pick their battles. When it comes to land use we’ve always known that the real challenge is fresh water.

Fresh Water is the Real Challenge

We should seize this opportunity to put agricultural emissions to bed and focus on fresh water. Incredibly, we’ve been debating for some time whether our rivers should be swimmable or simply wadeable. The talkfest continues under this current Government. Whatever regulation they bring in, it will take years to turn our water quality around.

Now the crisis is impacting on our drinking water. The discussion about groundwater on RNZ this week was bleak; thanks to agricultural intensification New Zealanders can no longer trust that their drinking water is safe.

Sure, we can treat the water to take care of E Coli, although even that will be prohibitively expensive in some small sites. An even bigger concern is the growing levels of nitrate in groundwater, especially in Canterbury. Nitrate levels are dangerously close to World Health Organisation limits in many areas. There is also emerging evidence that those limits are probably too high thanks to the link between nitrates and bowel cancer.

Luckily many farmers are now showing that they can be just as profitable by easing off the intensity of farming and returning to being grass farmers. Their milk and meat output may fall but so do their costs so profit doesn’t suffer. In many places it may be possible to improve our environment dramatically without collapsing the farming sector. This change would also prepare us for the rise of synthetic meat and milk. 

The Rise of Synthetics

As a young economist I will never forget the berating I got at the hands of preeminent economic historian Brian Easton. “Stop talking bullshit about the UK entering the EU being the start of New Zealand’s economic woes,” he said to me over a drink. “It all started 8 years before that – all because of nylon.”

Of course nylon had been around for a while but in the 60s the uses diversified, including carpets. In 1966 the price of wool dropped by a colossal 40%. Since then there have been many years where it is simply uneconomic to shear sheep, with the exception of the more lucrative merino. Successive governments tried to prop up our ailing sheep industry, almost sending the country bankrupt.

In this context the growth of synthetic meat and milk looks eerily familiar. While our politicians berate our national carrier Air New Zealand for serving the Impossible Burger, the technology marches on. Synthetics are a premium product currently for the environmentally or animal welfare conscious consumer. However the technology is rapidly improving and becoming cheaper to produce.

Sure, people will still want “real” meat and milk but that will become a premium product, with synthetics serving the mass market just as nylon does. The only way forward for our farmers is to move away from volume and focus on value. Part of that value will have to include providing “pasture fed meat and milk”. As we discussed above this will also help us live up to our clean green reputation.

This opportunity could be a win win all round and should be the focus of our agricultural sector and government regulators.

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    • Mark Roxburgh
      commented 2019-04-14 22:39:25 +1200
      This is nonsense. Meat and dairy production are major contributors to climate change directly and through fossil fuel use.
      Why would we worry about synthetic protein when we can grow organic natural plant based proteins on the same farmland at a high premium while absorbing co2 at the same time.