New Zealand’s biggest earners are tourism and agriculture- in particular, livestock agriculture. Nobody needs reminding that tourism hasn’t been all that popular – or easy- for the past 12 months. But agriculture has never been more important.
COVID has highlighted the precariousness of our global economy. Our supply chains are disrupted, and global food security suddenly seems like quite a good idea. But that doesn’t mean that Kiwi farmers are suddenly everybody’s best mate.
As I’ve written before, our farmers are the country’s punchbag. It’s easy to understand how demoralising it must be for farmers getting up early seven days of the week, regardless of the weather, doing what they believe to be good work in feeding people, only to find themselves the subject of daily abuse.
Some of it is valid – albeit poorly communicated. We have been guilty of not protecting our waterways in some situations. We have been guilty of removing shade and shelter on some farms; or creating monocultures with minimal biodiversity. But in defence of farmers, most of this was done out of ignorance not intent. Environmental sustainability is a journey that is both dynamic and evolving- and we know much more now that we did even 10 years ago.
Equally of course, many farmers have planted heaps of trees; or re- invigorated lost wetlands; or created dynamic and complex local ecosystems on their properties. And most farmers are hugely proud of and supportive of their rural communities- they want to do their best to protect them and keep them sustainable.
But of course ruminants do emit greenhouse gases. And GHGs do warm the planet. Whether you consider biological methane to be important becomes almost a philosophical question. Yes it warms the planet; yes it does so at a much greater rate than CO2 (around 28 times); but it has a much shorter half-life (around a tenth of CO2). For contrast, nitrous oxide has a similar half-life to CO2 and 300 times the warming effect.
Critically for methane, its life cycle is circular, in that as long as we aren’t increasing the population of ruminants, we aren’t increasing CH4 in the atmosphere. It’s true of course that we have been increasing ruminants- and atmospheric methane has doubled in the past 300 years. But in the same time period, carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide also almost doubled. But only about half of methane emissions are from ruminants- the rest is from fossil fuel extraction and wetlands. In fact, CH4 emissions plateaued in the late 90s/early 2000’s: until people discovered fracking.
In other words, with stable numbers of ruminants, the impact of their methane emissions is also stable. Whereas the impact of CO2 and N20 continues to rise. Pretty much the only way to get ruminants to emit less methane is to feed them less- which is not a great strategy in New Zealand where feeding animals less has been an orthodoxy we’ve been challenging for decades.
So on the one hand, farmers have done what was asked of them and continued to feed the planet; yet on the other hand they keep on being told what they do is wrong. COVID has given them a brief respite, but it certainly can’t be said that they’re swimming in appreciation over here in New Zealand, despite most of them trying their best. In fact, there’s never been so much attention – or so many acronyms- given to making them farm differently.
Intensive Winter Grazing (IWG) has been looked at, and in 2019 we were given the Task Force, which then led in 2020 to the IWG Action Group. This group identified 7 ‘Short Term Outcomes for Animal Welfare’, which farmers are expected to address in the next couple of years.
In amongst this we’ve also had the government’s National Essential Freshwater (NEF) programme, and down where we are, Environment Southand’s own interpretation of this; and also the establishment of the Southland Intensive Winter Grazing National Essential Standard for Freshwater Advisory Group (SIWGNESFWAG in case you wondered), who also drafted a report to help farmers. Finally the Climate Change Commission (CCC) published their report and recommendations.
Unlike most of the people who draft rules and offer advice, farmers’ work is usually their life. It’s intertwined with the communities they live in and the land they live on – and they’re inseparable. They can’t just move to a new job, or retrain. Their job encapsulates their sense of self; it’s also their home, and they play out their daily lives at work, and the two are equally threaded through their local rural communities.
COVID gave us all a new appreciation for the fragility of the food chain and the importance of farmers’ role, but it hasn’t yet given the commentators and critics the insight of how to help farmers improve what they do without knocking them all down first. And while we applaud the return of trans- Tasman flights while ignoring their emissions, we decry the GHGs that farmers produce while keeping everyone fed.
For New Zealand there were two key lessons from COVID. The first was the fact that every journalist, media or sports celebrity is actually an epidemiologist, The second is that although tourism has been important- both socially and financially- farming is equally important. There are moves here to radically change the way tourism operates post- Covid, and to support the industry as they make these changes.
The same support and warmth needs to wrap around farmers as they are forced to make equally significant changes to their industry. Both can be sustainable and beneficial to New Zealand Inc, but both need Kiwis to shed their negativity and cynicism and replace them with empathy and support.