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What Do we Want Farming to Look Like in 2050?
There is an increasing recognition that we have pushed farming beyond environmental limits. The Government has announced that agriculture will come into the Emissions Trading Scheme in 2025, with reviews of regulations for water quality and biodiversity also underway. We want trees planted, but what kinds and where? What do we expect farmers to do, especially if they are buried under mountains of debt? This is a conversation we need to have as a country.
Some others have contributed to this conversation including Rod Oram, the Environmental Defence Society, David Hall from AUT and Dame Anne Salmond. This blog sets out my thoughts. I will first address a few red herrings, and then look at the pressures from different environmental problems and how we might reasonably expect farmers to respond.
Red Herring One: Vegan Utopia
Some vegans want animal farming to be shut down completely. I don’t think this will happen – for a variety of reasons.
While most people in the developed world should eat less meat for environmental and health reasons, they will be eating it for some time yet. If anything, the world’s middle class is growing. New Zealand farmers are relatively cheap and environmentally friendly producers, even taking account of transport costs and emissions. So it makes sense for us to continue animal farming for the foreseeable future.
Sure, synthetic meat and milk will make inroads into the market, particularly at the low-cost end. But the market for premium pasture-fed meat and milk is likely to be around until 2050.
Finally, I haven’t yet seen a form of regenerative agriculture that works without animals.
Red Herring Two: Peasant Farming Utopia
Others want to move away from large-scale farming back to small family farms, or even get us all out there tilling the land. It’s a nice idea for city slickers to daydream about, but the realities are quite different. Farming is bloody hard work and I doubt most hipsters would survive a week in the fields. Good luck with that one.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions
Claims that agriculture causes half of our emissions are overstated. There is a lot of confusion about the impacts of animal agriculture, which is largely due to how we discuss methane. Because methane is a short-lived gas, we don’t need to get emissions to zero. They need to be reduced, but there is debate about by how much.
So what do we want farmers to do about greenhouse gas emissions?
We definitely want them to innovate to reduce emissions and become more efficient producers. The trend of increasing volume therefore needs to end and the focus needs to shift to value and profit.
We want to prevent any significant increases to our national herd and have the existing herd managed as efficiently as possible. We don’t necessarily want to reduce the herd for climate reasons, as that meat and milk could well end up being produced overseas by less cost-effective producers.
Lastly regenerative agriculture could be the big winner here – if we improve the science around farming’s ability to sequester carbon in our soil. The potential for land to be used in a way that creates value for both humans and the environment is massive.
We certainly want to see our erosion-prone land planted with permanent forests as soon as possible. Native trees should be the end game, but exotics might be a temporary help because they soak up carbon more quickly. If farmers want to keep using this land for grazing, it should still be planted, for example with deciduous trees (silviculture).
However, the prospect of converting large tracts of productive land to forestry to offset our fossil-fuel emissions is concerning. Fossil-fuel emissions stay in the atmosphere indefinitely; forests only soak them up for a limited time, while productive land stays locked up forever.
As the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment points out, we could use trees to offset agricultural emissions. However we should aim to get fossil-fuel emissions to zero as soon as we can and not use trees to buy ourselves time.
This is the issue that should really be driving land-use change. The Government needs to set tougher bottom lines to ensure that our rivers and lakes are swimmable and ground water is drinkable. And that would mean some serious changes in land use. Again, we need to right historical wrongs by planting up erosion-prone land but also enable farmers to make some money off that land.
Recent water-quality problems are mostly down to intensive farming – usually dairy. In most parts of the country, we could rectify this by simply easing back a bit. Stocking rates and input costs can be lowered, leaving farms just as profitable as before but with a much better environmental footprint. We have to get all farms to this point ASAP.
But in some parts of the country, such as Canterbury, parts of Otago, and Southland, this won’t be enough. The soil is just too porous for intensive dairy farming. Even intensive beef and sheep operations might be difficult to sustain. This points to the need to diversify land use and try other high-value crops, e.g. seeds, stonefruit, wine, or nuts.
The question is: how would the heavily indebted Canterbury farmers who bet everything on converting to dairy fund a transition? That is where prices on nitrogen and water come in. These might enable farmers to make some money from switching land uses and selling their allocations to other farmers.
If intensive agriculture is to continue, it needs appropriate mitigation. At the moment, that would mean keeping cows in sheds to capture their methane, urine, and poo. That seems unlikely to be economically sustainable for most farmers in New Zealand at current commodity prices.
What do we expect farmers to do to help save our native species?
Existing stands of native bush, rivers, and wetlands need to be fenced off from cattle. And no further wetlands should be destroyed.
Farmers should be encouraged to restore wetlands and plant erosion-prone land. The long-term plan must be to transition this to native forest, although again exotics might tide us over. There should also be rewards for farmers who control pests in any stands of native bush.
Turning Expectations into Regulations
The conversation about what we expect farmers to do is extremely broad. It encompasses other conversations about what farmers should be paid for, and what they should be penalised for not doing.
Once we have clarity on these questions, it will be much easier to sit down with farmers and work out appropriate regulations to make it all happen. Otherwise, we risk losing the wood for the trees.
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