Low biological emissions future for NZ red meat sector

In the short-term, planting new native and plantation forest/woodlots is a way the rural sector can help with New Zealand's climate change goals. Photo: R Spencer.

New Zealand’s red meat sector needs to have a low biological emissions future. While there is no single silver bullet, making a gradual transition to diversifying land use, adding parts of the biological emissions to the NZ Emissions Trading Scheme, continuing improvements in livestock productivity, speeding up of innovation in the methane mitigation field and new forest planting could all play their part, says a new report. 

The new report Climate Change and Agriculture: understanding the biological greenhouse gases was released yesterday from New Zealand’s Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment (PCE), Dr Jan Wright. This gives a comprehensive view of New Zealand’s unique situation, how emissions from agriculture are created, which gases are problematic and what the options are for reducing them, including breeding low methane-producing animals, identifying low methane feeds, manipulating rumen microbial communities to reduce methane emissions, pathways for reducing nitrous oxide, and the use of trees to offset emissions.

It’s no simple matter, she points out, and there is no single silver bullet.

She points to the importance of making a smooth transition to producing lower emission food and, for that reason, has recommended that biological gases be included in the New Zealand Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

“But the ETS is not the only way forward  – there are other options,” says Dr Wright, adding that the Government has established a Biological Emissions Research Group to look at the matter. “It is critical that this time progress is made on reducing the methane and nitrous oxide that together form such a large part of our greenhouse gas emissions.

“The transition must begin. If we ignore the biological gases from agriculture, other sectors of the economy – and the taxpayer – will be increasingly squeezed.”

Diversifying land uses and the re-imagining food, “in ways we can scarcely begin to imagine,” are all part of the future, according to Dr Wright, who points to the number of start-up companies in Silicon Valley already developing synthetic milk and meat, growing it in laboratories from animal DNA.

“Opportunities to develop and market new or different products that meet changing global demand, and emit little in the way of greenhouse gases, will be crucial to the future profitability of our agricultural sector,” she says.

In the PCE report’s conclusion, Dr Wright talks about the need for ramping up research aimed particularly at developing a methane vaccine, which would be superior to currently better researched methane inhibitors, different ways of encouraging planting of trees both in plantations and native species and independent advice for farmers on management practices and diversification options that would really help reduce biological emissions. She believes there may be relatively quick ways to partially include biological gases into the ETS, such as nitrogen fertilisers, or bringing farms above a certain size into the scheme, as used recently in the Tāupo catchment.

“Continuing delay is not our friend. Neither are abrupt transitions,” she comments, adding that farming in New Zealand is very different to 50 years ago.

“New Zealand farmers have proved themselves to be nothing if not adaptable. Doubtless, farming in the future will be very different to what it is now and climate change will be an increasingly major influence,” she says.

Gradual transition needs to begin

“For the sake of farmers and rural communities as well as for the climate, we need to start making a gradual transition now towards new land uses – including new types of food,” comments Dr Suzi Kerr, senior fellow, Motu Economic and Public Policy Research, who agreed with all the actions suggested by Dr Wright.

“On land where sheep and cows continue to be grazed, we need to move toward low emission practices including new technologies as they become available, Our long-term goal on that land is to produce ultra low emission dairy and red meat,” she says, adding that many farmers are aware of these issues and deeply concerned about the resilience of their sectors.

“Including biological emissions in the ETS, even if it only slightly increased the cost of dairy and red meat production, would send a signal to the wider farming community and those who support them in education, research and industry that it is time to move their attention, energy and creativity toward transition.”

The focus should be on helping the rural community make a gradual transition, she said.

Government welcomes PCE report

Government ministers have welcomed the report, which they say provides a robust and objective examination of how emissions from agriculture are created, as well as options for reducing them.

Paula Bennett, Minister for Climate Change Issues.
Paula Bennett, Minister for Climate Change Issues welcomes the report.

Climate Change Minister Paula Bennett and Primary Industries Minister Nathan Guy and agree with her conclusions that mitigation of greenhouse gases from agriculture is difficult and requires a multi-pronged approach.

“Dr Wright is correct that there is no silver bullet,” says Bennett. “Agricultural emissions make up 49 per cent of New Zealand’s gross emissions. Reducing them while growing our economy is a difficult challenge, but one we must solve.”

The Commissioner has provided some useful ideas for the Biological Emissions Research Group to consider further, she adds.

Nathan Guy says that Dr Wright’s report highlights that this issue is not as simple as whether agriculture is in or out of the ETS – it requires a broader discussion than that.

“For example, planting the right trees, in the right place, at the right time can buy us time to find options to reduce biological emissions from agriculture. The Government is supporting these efforts through the Afforestation Grant Scheme, the Erosion Control Funding Programme and the Sustainable Land Management and Climate Change research programme.

“The Government is also investing $20 million a year in research into developing new mitigation options like a vaccine to reduce emissions from agriculture, which is a very promising long-term option.

“We’re grateful to Dr Wright for her thoughtful and accessible report. We’re pleased she has recognised that our farmers are already amongst the most productive and efficient in the world. Over the past 20 years, they have improved the emissions efficiency of production by approximately one per year by improving feed and nutrition, animal genetics, pasture management and animal health.

“We look forward to the Biological Emissions and Forestry Reference Groups building on the Commissioner’s work.”

Suite of mitigation options

Dr Harry Clark, NZAGRC
Dr Harry Clark, NZAGRC director: New Zealand needs a suite of mitigation options.

The report was also welcomed by the NZ Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre (NZAGRC) director Dr Harry Clark, who was involved in the review process of the report. He says it emphasises that, for effective mitigation, New Zealand needs to have a suite of mitigation options available that match our diverse farming systems rather than hope for a single, one size fits all ‘silver bullet’ solution.

The government funded NZAGRC, in partnership with industry, is coordinating and investing in research to allow these options to be developed, tested and adopted by New Zealand farmers.

Clark says the PCE report not only presents technical options but emphasises that any solution needs to be scrutinised for the actual reduction it can achieve on farm (and whether it reduces absolute emissions or, primarily, emissions per unit of product), its positive or negative side-effects, cost-effectiveness, ability to be integrated into existing systems, and whether it makes sense from a national perspective.

“Research and technical development is only the first step in a solution. The report by the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment provides a highly accessible summary of potential solutions. More importantly though, it concludes by considering the next steps: how we can collectively ensure that our science can be adopted to the benefit of the country and the climate?

“The Paris agreement sets a new framework for addressing climate change issues and this report makes a valuable contribution to the debate New Zealand must have around the role of agriculture in meeting national emissions reduction commitments agreed under this framework,” he says.

Plant more trees

In the short-term, the planting of trees – both plantation and natives – are the main way the rural sector can help achieve New Zealand’s Paris goals.

PCE Report, figure 9.1: Offsetting biological emissions using regenerated native forest
PCE Report, figure 9.1: Offsetting biological emissions using regenerated native forest

Soil carbon scientist Professor Louis Schipper of the University of Waikato lauded the PCE report, though noted it was light on the role of soils in storing and removing carbon. He pointed to table 9.1 (right), which gives an estimate of the number of hectares of newly planted native forest to offset emissions from animals.

“The key here is that this planting could buy us time to get other strategies in place,” he says.

The Forest Owners Association (FOA) also backs the call for more plantation forests. Chair of the FOA/NZ Farm Forestry Association’s Environment Committee Peter Weir says Dr Wright’s information is timely.

“Tree planting by farmers and small scale forest investors has declined in the past few years, not risen, and our log processing industry needs the extra tree planting that Dr Wright is calling for,” he says.

The PCE report estimates that 26 hectares of new plantation forest every 20 years would offset a year’s greenhouse gas emissions of an average 300 cow dairy farm.

“Again that is one important positive for more trees. The other is that planting trees, especially on rolling hill country, is better than cost neutral for a farmer. Returns on harvesting logs are, over the long term, higher than hill country farming with sheep and cattle.”

Peter Weir emphasises that forest owners are not anticipating planting on marginal land classed as highly erodible. He says the scope for woodlots is clearly on farms, bringing in another income stream.

Read ‘Climate change and Agriculture’ …

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