James Shaw tells Fran O'Sullivan environmental goals can help foster
new innovations for agribusiness.

James Shaw recounts a recent catch-up with former National Minister for the Environment and Climate Change Issues Nick Smith.

"He told me when they brought in the emissions trading scheme (ETS) he made it out of the Fed Farmers Southland AGM with a police escort 27 strong. He said it was like a Roman Shield Wall.

"Things have changed massively," he chuckles.

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Shaw — Minister for Climate Change issues and Greens co-leader — has found farmers don't "need a lot of convincing anymore" about the necessity to play their part in reducing New Zealand's greenhouse gas emissions to net zero by 2050.

"My team jokes that I spend more time with dairy farmers than anybody else. But I do spend a lot of time with DairyNZ, Beef & Lamb and Mike Peterson's farming leaders, out on farm. Admittedly they are leading-edge farms that Dairy NZ and Beef & Lamb line up for me where they've got their best practice stuff.

"But some of the stuff that is going on around farms in NZ I just think is mindblowing."

Shaw, a former PwC consultant to European multinationals on sustainability issues, knows he is on solid ground when he talks about the "really strong" business model rethinking that is happening.

"I think a lot of innovation was driven by the collapse in the farmgate price for milk a couple of years back.

"People got very smart around their input costs. A lot of that wasn't done with greenhouse gases in mind but it has had that effect.

"For the most part it is pretty good," he says citing also the trailblazing performance of Craige and Roz MacKenzie, who integrated innovative technologies such as electromagnetic soil mapping of water holding capacity across their Methven farm, variable rate irrigation and the use of GPS linked spreaders for applying fertiliser. This approach, dubbed precision agriculture, enabled the MacKenzies to produce high yielding crops using less irrigation water and fertiliser.

"At the the tail end there is still a lot of scepticism there," Shaw acknowledges. But he is optimistic that can be overcome.

Asked by the Herald whether New Zealand has reached "peak cow" via dairy intensification, Shaw counters, "I think we have reached peak pollution".

He says farmers have told him they just want clear targets or outputs. They will then organise on-farm to achieve them.

Shaw has responsibility for methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Environment Minister David Parker and Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor are focused on carbon dioxide.

He says the upshot of the efficiency drive by NZ farmers is the emissions per unit of production has decreased.

"We have done that without really focusing on emissions. It has just been a byproduct of the drive for efficiency and productivity, better technology and better genetics and so on — and better business models.

"I think if you wrap all those things together and say: now we are going to do those things with climate in mind, you can actually achieve some pretty significant gains if you make an effort across the entire industry."

The Government is putting more money into a Sustainable Farming Fund, and a renewed farm advisory service will offer integrated advice on soil, water and air issues.

Achieving the net zero emissions target is a 30-year goal.

Shaw produces another useful anecdote, this time relating to President John F Kennedy's successful mission to put a man on the moon,
"I keep quoting when Kennedy went to Congress for the Apollo appropriation, he gave this terrific speech where he convinced Congress to give a lot of money.

"He said 'We can't get there today. We need new metallurgy, new guidance systems, new propellant and propulsion systems — that's why we need to spend the money. We know what we need, but we also know we could build it to get there'.

"I also think that is what this transition is about. If you are aiming for net zero in 30 years that requires everything to come down a bit — and some a lot.

"The critical thing is your long-run gases. With agriculture that is nitrous oxide. If you focus hard on that you probably end up bringing your methane down as well."

Shaw is optimistic that new technologies will be developed in the next 30 years, for instance working out how to suck carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide out of the atmosphere, which will assist in meeting the Paris Summit agreement to limit the temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius.

"When you have clarity about the end target, that's what drives innovation. If you are wishy washy you fall back on what you have." He points out that most countries specialise in two or three industries and find themselves running up against boundaries — as New Zealand is.

"But innovation is a function of constraint. When things are easy we keep doing what we have always done — but when constraints occur that is when people start to get really clever.

"I want to give credit to DairyNZ. They have been working very hard on this. They understand the picture. They know what the constraints are and they have been hugely focused."

"Paris changed things for a lot of people domestically because there is that sense of confidence that the rest of the world is moving.

"We're not exposing our economy to things other people aren't doing or aren't going to do.

"We want to lead but we do not want to be out there by ourselves as a trade-exposed nation imposing costs on our economy that others aren't."