[As published in September/October BayBuzz magazine.]
Tess Redgrave finds that farmers and growers can respond to market expectations regarding emissions reductions or blame it on government regulators, but either way our farming practices will need to change … quickly.
Around the time New Zealand signed the European Union Free Trade agreement in mid-July, Executive Vice-President and Commissioner for Trade, Valdis Dombrovskis issued a sort of warning:
“… Our trade agreements give us clout on the world stage and support economic growth and sustainable development – but as of now, we want to make them an even bigger driver of positive change. We will engage and support our partners to make this happen. We will step up our enforcement, and we will resort to sanctions if key labour and climate commitments are not met.”
For Central Hawke’s Bay farmer, Mike Petersen, chair of Scales Corp (owner of Mr Apple) and a former Special Agriculture Trade Envoy for the NZ Government, a warning like the above is part of the heft behind why New Zealand urgently needs to record and lower our agricultural emissions.
“New Zealand has made a whole lot of commitments on Climate Change, such as the Paris 2015 Agreement, and farmers have to do their bit,” he says. “The commercial sector will force it as big overseas companies watch our products’ emissions profiles.
“The reality is the commercial world is moving faster than government with demands from international companies like Tesco and Nestle wanting Scope 3 emission reports, which means accounting for all emissions in the supply chain.”
[The three ‘scopes’ are a way of categorising the different kinds of emissions a company creates in its own operations and throughout its entire ‘value chain’ – i.e. its suppliers and customers. Scope 1 is direct emissions, 2 and 3 indirect.]
Petersen says Tesco, for example, the biggest buyer of New Zealand products in Britain, wants all their products to be environmentally accredited and reach net zero across their entire supply chain, Scope 1 -3, by 2050.
In a June interview in Farmer’s Weekly, Jeremy Hill, chief science and technology officer at Fonterra, said his company’s drive to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is a response not only to New Zealand’s climate goals, but to those of its global customers.
He told the E Tipu IFAMA 2023 World Conference in Christchurch that dairy farming’s methane emissions “are a difficult problem to solve … Fonterra is investigating solutions that tick four boxes – good for the cow, good for the milk, good for the farmer and good for the planet.”
More recently Fonterra announced help and incentives to get farmers to produce their milk more efficiently and reduce supply chain emissions. These included some 18 different projects underway working to solve the biogenic (animal) methane challenge, ranging from feed supplements to manure management and even trialling Kombucha, which the co-op says has shown potential to reduce methane and may provide other benefits in early life intervention trials. Another trial is with a type of seaweed called Asparagopsis, a feed supplement that has shown potential for methane reduction in cows.
“There has been resistance from farmers to lowering emissions,” says Petersen. “But farmers have to do their bit. I know this is not a popular message. The reality is doing nothing is not an option.
“We’ve got to act.”
NZ’s ag emissions
According to the Ministry for the Environment, New Zealand’s agriculture sector contributes 50% of our gross carbon emissions. About three-quarters of this is biogenic methane emitted from livestock (sheep, cows, deer), followed by nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide emissions from nitrogen fertiliser use make up about 3.9% of agricultural emissions.
Nitrous oxide and carbon dioxide emissions from agriculture are included in NZ’s net-zero carbon emissions target for 2050. However, there are separate 2030 and 2050 targets for biogenic methane emissions. The target is to reduce biogenic methane emissions by 10% by 2030, relative to 2017 levels, and 24-47% lower by 2050. The split gas target reflects the different impact of methane – which is a short-lived gas – compared to carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide, which are long-lived gases.
However, while methane remains in the atmosphere for less time, its warming effect is 28 times greater than carbon dioxide, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).
The IPCC advises that rapid, steep methane reductions, alongside bringing global carbon dioxide emissions to net zero by 2050, are needed to limit global warming to 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels. That said, global climate scientists have recently warned that climate change is moving much faster than predicted and there is growing concern, as we move to an El Nino weather pattern, that 1.5˚C could be breached a lot sooner – even within this decade.
So what do our local politicians think about agricultural emissions and how to alleviate them?
Although the Labour Party hadn’t put out any updated policy on agriculture at the time of writing, the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is continuing to work on He Waka Eke Noa | We’re all in this together.
Established in 2019, He Waka Eke Noa (HWEN) is a joint partnership between farmers, agricultural sector industry bodies and Māori – with input from Primary Industries and Environment ministries – to find a way forward for mitigating and pricing our agricultural emissions separate to the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).
HWEN’s website sets this goal: by January 2025, 100% of farms will have a written plan in place to measure and manage their emissions. And that an on-farm pricing system, including carbon sequestration, would be up and running.
But HWEN hit speed bumps earlier this year with partners like Beef+ Lamb calling for a staged implementation of an agricultural emissions framework, and general concern that agriculture would be forced back into the ETS.
Labour MP for Tukituki Anna Lorck says, “The key milestones for the pricing of agricultural emissions have always been beyond the 2023 election. “The most important thing is getting an emissions reduction system set up that lasts.
“We are working hard alongside the agriculture sector to strike the balance between building good levels of sector buy in, while also ensuring the system is robust and meets our emissions reductions goals. By continuing to work through our different positions together, we will move closer to achieving long term consensus on a plan that works.”
Lorck says under Labour if a system for pricing emissions cannot be agreed before 1 January 2025, then farming will enter the ETS.
“Free trade agreements now cover almost three quarters of New Zealand’s exports,” she adds, “up from less than half six years ago. If we don’t establish a credible plan to reduce agriculture emissions the future of our exports is at risk.”
The Labour Government has also set up the Centre for Climate Action on Agricultural Emissions within MPI, and in 2022 allocated $338.7 million to strengthen research and development to get new tools and technology to farmers to reduce on-farm emissions
It is also reforming the ETS so it recognises all forms of carbon sinks, including more vegetation on farmland and the sequestering capacity of wetlands and peatlands. When fully implemented, landowners will receive carbon credits for each tonne of CO2 absorbed by their land. They can then use those to offset other emissions or sell them to emitters.
The Labour candidate for Napier, Mark Hutchinson, says the evidence is overwhelming that the burning of fossil fuels combined with other causes of emissions (such as agricultural methane) is the significant contributing factor to climate change.
“I believe the most important thing the people of HB can do is to vote for one of the political parties like Labour who are leaning into this challenge rather than again kicking the can down the road like National and ACT. Delaying action now will lead to a place further down the track where even more aggressive action will become necessary at much greater cost.”
The National Party originally supported Labour’s He Waka Eke Noa approach but has now distanced itself from it, with Agricultural spokesperson Todd McClay calling the venture “dead…”
Instead National’s policy is to measure emissions at the farm level from 2025, but farmers would only begin paying an emissions price in 2030. National is betting entirely on technology fixes.
In its eight-page Reducing Agricultural Emissions document, National says it is committed to reaching Net Zero by 2050, and says New Zealand’s path to emission reductions in agriculture is through technology, not less production. The party wants to update biotech rules and review methane targets, and says it will remove the ban on gene technology which will help give farmers the tools they need to reduce methane emissions, such as gene-edited crops, feed and livestock.
National wants to keep agricultural emissions out of the ETS, with a separate pricing systems for biogenic methane. Revenues raised from pricing agriculture emissions would remain in the agricultural sector to support R&D and on-farm mitigation and from 2024 it would limit farm conversions to pine plantations on high-quality productive land.
Catherine Wedd, the National candidate for Tukituki says HB’s primary sector is creating thousands of jobs and growing our economy “so we must be aspirational for our food producers.
“In the past six years Labour has hammered our farmers and growers with red tape, compliance and increased costs, to the extent that it is becoming unsustainable for many. This compounded with a cyclone has meant our primary sector will shrink not grow.
“We can meet our climate change commitments by encouraging technology and innovation. Tukituki has the most carbon efficient farmers in the world, yet we continue to inflict a war on our farmers, trying to control farming practise from Wellington. National will make it easier for our farmers to farm and our growers to grow.”
Adds Katie Nimon, the National Party candidate for Napier, “We need to be pragmatic about reducing agricultural emissions to ensure we’re not sending production offshore to less environmentally-conscious countries.
“Of course, people in Hawke’s Bay are very aware of the effects of climate change on our environment and if we earn the right to be the MP for Tukituki and Napier, we’ll be strong advocates for climate-resilient infrastructure.”
The ACT party candidates for Tukituki and Napier were chosen as I was writing (ACT’s candidate for Tukituki is Rob Douglas, and for Napier, Pawel Milewski.) In lieu of contact with either, I was sent ACT’s position from head office.
“ACT will cap total New Zealand emissions in line with our top five trading partners,” I was told. “This would mean that the number of credits auctioned, and therefore the price of emitting, would be similar to our trading partners.
“Right now, farmers in countries who are our biggest trading partners are not paying a price for their methane emissions, and so neither should New Zealand farmers. We’ll remove barriers stalling the uptake of emissions reducing technologies. And we’ll ensure farmers can offset all on-farm sequestration from their emissions liability.”
Back to market reality
Both Jim Galloway, President of Hawke’s Bay Federated Farmers, and Mike Peterson say they can work with either of the two main parties to reduce our agricultural emissions.
“Their positions are actually similar,” says Peterson. “We need to act and the reporting of carbon emissions by farmers is important. They just differ on pricing and when it needs to happen.”
He thinks it is more important to get a reporting framework up and running and bedded in before pricing and predicts it may take as long as 2028 to get an emissions pricing framework right.
Jim Galloway says getting a pricing system for emissions right is “key” and “we want to engage with whomever is in government to achieve our goal, which is greenhouse gas reduction”.
Federated Farmers would like to see a review of New Zealand’s biogenic methane targets.
“The Government 2050 target of 23–47% reduction in methane will decimate our sheep and beef industries, because the only way to meet the targets is to drop stock numbers,” he says. “Also we’ll be dropping methane faster than is needed. It’s unrealistic.”
Galloway says we need a strong emissions pricing system to incentivise viable mitigation options such as vaccines, feed additives and some options for breeding. One breeding option could be gene-editing to change an animal’s methane emitting profile. “But there’s lots to think about with this because, for example, you could change the methane profile but compromise the animal’s production value at the same time.”
Federated Farmers is also concerned about “emissions leakage” to other countries that are less emissions efficient if New Zealand doesn’t get its pricing and measuring system right.
Another farmer view
But another Central Hawke’s Bay farmer, Will Foley, deputy chair of the Hawke’s Bay Regional Council has a different view.
He and his wife Abbie have three parts to their farm on the outskirts of Waipukurau. They have a traditional sheep and beef farm, an intensive lamb-finishing farm, and an 80 hectares regenerative block feeding cattle and focusing on soil health and biodiversity.
For Will, the picture’s more complex than measuring and pricing agricultural emissions.
“We need acknowledgement from political leaders and scientists that we don’t have the full picture when it comes to understanding carbon emissions,” he says.
“We need recognition of the complete carbon cycle and of what is happening in our soil. There are different soil systems. Some leak carbon, some build it up and some maintain it.
“For example, in an ideal cycle, plants absorb CO2, water and sunlight and create sugars, these feed microbes in the soil which then give back nutrients to the plant, i.e. grass. The cow comes along and eats the plants, and the sugars broken down in the gut creates methane in the cow. Methane in the atmosphere is broken down to CO2 over a short number of years and then that CO2 is reabsorbed by plants photosynthesising once again.
“It’s unfair to tax farmers on one side of this equation. We need to put more resources into understanding exactly what is going on.”
Both the Green and the Māori parties are closer to Foley’s view.
Says Tukituki Green’s candidate Nick Ratcliffe, “The farming sector may be our biggest climate polluter currently, but it also has the potential to be our biggest carbon sink. Regenerative grazing (or conservation grazing as it was when I was at Ag college) can sequester more carbon per hectare in agricultural soils, longer-term, than commercial forestry.
“Some Hawke’s Bay farmers are already seeing the benefits of regenerative grazing and silvipasture (an agro-forestry system with trees and grazing in the same space) and there is now a $2 million government-funded trial into regenerative farming practices for arable and vegetable crops, also here in the Bay.
“The big take-home from the Green’s agricultural policy,” says Nick, “is that we will ensure a ‘Just Transition’ to regenerative agricultural practices.”
According to its website, the Māori party would: “Phase out synthetic nitrogen fertiliser on farms by 2025 and bring methane emissions from agriculture into the ETS to disincentivise intensive methane-emitting agriculture.”
Further the Māori party would establish “a $300 million Mātai Ahuwhenua innovation and support fund to incentivise Māori farmers to transition to regenerative and value-add farming practises.”
Will Foley says New Zealand farmers already have good incentives for riparian planting, sequestration, wetland recovery, and planting pinus radiata for ETS credits
“We need incentives for managing our pastures. The type of pastures a farmer grows is important. More diverse pastures are trying to mimic nature, providing a better diet for the animal and soil microbes. This increases the ability to sequester more carbon into the soil.
“We’re told farming is bad for climate change and we need to drop stock numbers. If we could combine all of the above incentives with a much more holistic approach, we could solve climate change.
“Tools such as new vaccines, genetically-engineering feeds/grasses to alleviate emissions are just more intervention and moving further away from mother nature. I think they are heading in the wrong direction.”
“I believe we do have to look at some of the ways we farm – whether it is through consumer pressure or the regulators – there is change being forced upon us.”
That would seem to be the key takeaway all parties need to recognise and address – farming practices must change to satisfy sustainability concerns or market doors will close. Leading farmers and growers are adapting now; others might whinge their way to retirement.