Comment: Veganism is a distraction from the major climate change issues of increase in population and lifestyle, including travel, writes Dr Jacqueline Rowarth.

Farmers cannot grow whatever food they like.

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This is contrary to ongoing statements in the media, from, for instance the Vegan Society.

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Quite apart from the legal restraints to do with type of crop and chemicals that can be used, there are temperature, rainfall, soil and topographical constraints.

Pests, diseases, infrastructure, labour availability and markets also create limitations.

Overcoming any of these difficulties increases production costs to the extent that the business becomes unviable.

Yet statements indicating that production is simply a matter of choice continue to be made. Instead of animal agriculture, the suggestion has been made that farmers grow food for direct human consumption.

Vegan Society NZ has said "people wouldn't even have to give up flying, or petrol cars, if everyone gave up meat and dairy. 'New Zealand emissions are among the highest per capita in the world.' We are ideally placed to reduce them by giving up animal agriculture." Farmers could grow plants instead".

The statements are dangerously wrong.

By identifying a change in diet as the solution, based on incomplete calculations, the apparent belief that crops don't produce emissions, and a misunderstanding of human physiology, society is being led into thinking that if farmers just change what they are doing "she'll be right".

"She" - being the climate – won't.

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Carbon signatures have shown that the bulk of the increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has come from fossil fuel – coal, oil and gas.

In its report on Climate Change and Land released last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated that agriculture contributes 16-27 per cent of emissions, with large regional differences in impact of production.

Listen to Jamie Mackay's interview with Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:

The energy sector contributes over 70 per cent of emissions, with transport within energy contributing 24 per cent of emissions globally.

For the world, giving up heating and cooling, as well as walking everywhere, would make a difference, not becoming vegan.

In New Zealand, renewable energy (over 80 per cent of the total) for temperature control means that it is the transport side that needs addressing. Since 1990, transport-related emissions have increased over 90 per cent. Agriculture has increased by14 per cent.

Carbon dioxide released from fuel stays in the atmosphere having a warming effect for centuries.

Methane breaks down relatively quickly (approximately 12 years) but the products of the breakdown (water vapour and ozone) have a warming effect which continues for decades.

Greenhouse gases (GHG) in New Zealand are mostly carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxides but also include various other gases.

New Zealand certainly has high emissions of methane per capita, but GHG production is approximately 16.6 tonnes per capita whereas the USA is 20, Australia 25 and Kuwait is over 50… all for different reasons which make the comparisons meaningless.

Furthermore, New Zealand produces less than 0.2 per cent of global GHG and agriculture is just under a half of that total.

Removing livestock in New Zealand would reduce global GHG by less than 0.1 per cent, and the replacement in some areas with horticultural and arable crops would mean more emissions related to fuel.

Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied
Dr Jacqueline Rowarth. Photo / Supplied

The Government's Carbon Zero Bill is trying to make a difference. The goal is to reduce emissions domestically, covering all sectors and all GHGs. Planting forests is being encouraged because trees absorb carbon dioxide.

However, in its Climate Change and Land Use report, the IPCC stated that "land must remain productive to maintain food security as the population increases and the negative impacts of climate change on vegetation increase".

The authors suggested that there should be limits to the contribution of land to addressing climate change, for instance through the cultivation of energy crops and afforestation.

When the IPCC report was released, Debra Roberts, Co-Chair of IPCC Working Group II, stated that some dietary choices require more land and water, and cause more emissions of heat-trapping gases than others.

She went on to say "Balanced diets featuring plant-based foods, such as coarse grains, legumes, fruits and vegetables, and animal-sourced food produced sustainably in low greenhouse gas emission systems, present major opportunities for adaptation to and limiting climate change".

The IPCC report, the Greenpeace International study of 2018, the EAT Lancet report of 2019, and the recent Otago study urged balance in diet, not veganism. The reports show the opportunity for New Zealand.

Our role is production of low emissions protein from land from which crops for direct human consumption cannot be grown sustainably (including economically).

Farmers aren't being perverse in producing animal protein. They have developed systems that allow efficient production of the animal protein that humans need, and have found uses for by products (such as leather) that keep parts of the body warm without the need for synthetic materials which are based on fossil fuel.

New Zealand has done what the IPCC and many other reports have recommended.

Veganism is a distraction from the major issue of increase in population and lifestyle, including travel.

•Dr Jacqueline Rowarth CNZM CRSNZ HFNZIAHS has a PhD in Soil Science. The analysis and conclusions above are her own and should not be attributed to any of the organisations with which she is affiliated. She can be contacted on jsrowarth@gmail.com