Taking action on agricultural emissions: a Kiwi farmer on our shared challenge

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Droughts are a regular occurrence, but we are also seeing an increasing number of volatile weather events, disrupting both livestock and horticulture, and New Zealand is not unique in facing these changes. [Shutterstock]

As a farmer, I’m all too aware of the effects of climate change. My sheep and beef farm, on the east coast of New Zealand, has always experienced a wide variety of weather, but in recent years this has become more extreme, writes Mike Petersen.

Mike Petersen is New Zealand’s special agricultural trade envoy and an active farmer.

Droughts are a regular occurrence, but we are also seeing an increasing number of volatile weather events, disrupting both livestock and horticulture.  New Zealand is not unique in facing these changes – I know Europe has been similarly affected by abnormal weather.

We know that burning fossil fuels, whether for energy or transport, is a major contributor to climate change and needs to stop.  Likewise stopping global deforestation and increasing replanting will be critical.  We also recognise that emissions from agriculture contribute to global warming, so we, as farmers, have a role to play too.

The emissions profile for New Zealand is unique for a developed country, with agricultural emissions making up 48% of our country’s total emissions. This doesn’t mean our agriculture is inefficient – quite the opposite in fact, as studies have shown our grass-based livestock production system to be one of the most efficient in the world in terms of emissions per kilogram of meat or milk.

Agricultural emissions are also significant in a few EU countries – Ireland at 32% and France at 21% – as well as in many developing countries.  And agricultural emissions will only increase in proportionate terms as fossil fuel use is reduced globally.

The challenge is real; to ensure we provide global food security, while also reducing our impact on the planet’s climate.

New Zealand recognised this some time ago.  Farmers are taking action – improving the productivity of their livestock, using fertiliser more efficiently, improving the treatment of manure and effluent and, on my farm, using high-quality forages for improved animal efficiency.

Genetic improvement of animals and pastures has delivered impressive improvements and our agricultural processors are moving away from fossil fuels for energy.

Kiwi farmers have also been at the cutting edge of innovation by contributing to research programmes to reduce agricultural emissions – particularly methane from livestock.  Innovation is the key to sustainable food production and significant effort is going into the development of feed additives or vaccines to reduce methane emissions.

Recently the New Zealand agricultural sector has agreed to work with the government in a five-year partnership to reduce emissions. This commitment, to develop reporting and pricing of farm-level emissions by 2025, places New Zealand at the forefront of ambition in addressing climate change from agriculture.

The government has also just passed the Zero Carbon Act, which sets binding targets using five yearly carbon budgets.  This will be tough, but we know that it is the right thing to do.

Many consumers query the emissions cost of exporting food from New Zealand.  We are acutely aware that this is real in the minds of discerning consumers.  In reality, however, New Zealand is an efficient agricultural producer even with transport costs to markets included.

Shipping makes up no more than 5-6% of the total carbon footprint of New Zealand livestock products sold in Europe, Asia or North America.

Both Europe and New Zealand have efficient farming systems, and there are opportunities for us to work together to help regions of the world where low agricultural productivity remains a constraining issue. This will pay global dividends.  In New Zealand, we have a number of programmes in developing countries to improve capability and increase productivity.

This work will have a far bigger impact on global emissions than anything we in New Zealand can do alone.  New Zealand farmers are working through the World Farmers’ Organisation and its partnership with the Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases to undertake research and host capability building workshops in key countries.

The EU is active in this space too – the Commission through its significant research and development programmes, member states, and farmers’ organisations.  The Commission has also recently become a partner in the Global Research Alliance.

A strong global trading system plays a key part in delivering these priorities.  A free trade agreement between the EU and New Zealand will showcase our high environmental standards, making our sustainably produced food some of the most sought after in the global marketplace.

EU and New Zealand citizens will be able to purchase each other’s products confident in the knowledge that they come from producers who are required to meet high standards.

I am confident that there is a bright future for food and agriculture in New Zealand, the EU and around the world.  Climate change is just one of the challenges facing farming but it is one we must work hard to address.

I am also confident that farmers the world over are up for the challenge, and we can continue to provide high-quality food for a growing global population.

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