In times past when everyone was a shade more religious, there was a practice known as self-flagellation. This was a form of self-mutilation intended to demonstrate piety in the hope of finding favour with God.
Given that this practice has faded into history, we might suspect God proved unreliable in his responses.
A similar level of reliability might be expected from the atmosphere in response to our nation’s latest self-inflicted wounds in the name of climate change.
While the domestic suffering is likely to be palpable once plans to shrink the agricultural sector are enacted – the international and climatic response is likely to be ambivalent at best. Or negative.
Governments around the world have no plans to inflict similar wounds, with most choosing instead a path of policy and research.
In fact, international efforts have focused on increasing global food production in response to a worsening humanitarian crisis in the wake of surging food price inflation. These responses include a $30 billion fund initiated by the World Bank in response to growing food insecurity.
The UN notes that, after decades of progress in reducing world hunger, the prevalence of undernourishment began to increase again in 2015. The world remains off-track to supply sufficient nutrients for a global population predicted to add two billion people by 2050, highlighting that even today, as many as one in three people globally lack regular access to adequate food.
While our domestic choices may well seem insignificant, in reality, our humble shores currently lead the world in dairy exports, are ranked seventh globally for beef exports and supply a whopping 37 per cent of the world’s traded sheep meat.
It is this unique profile that gives us the lopsided emissions profile that the New Zealand public has no doubt seen many times.
From this complex picture has emerged a plan to price farm emissions in an effort to drive them down, though in practice these efforts will focus on reducing farmland and farm animals, given that these emissions are related directly to the animals themselves as part of a biological cycle.
Into that void will no doubt rise a number of international producers – most trail our productivity and efficiency and few are subjected to our animal welfare standards, or our trade-exposed, subsidy-free economic positioning.
We are the most vulnerable farmers in the world, and yet we have managed to become some of the best.
In the absence of economic mitigation technologies, reducing by as much as 47 per cent the amount of food grown on New Zealand pastoral farms stands to starkly highlight the uncomfortable truth that what we have promised and what we may be able to deliver without widespread harm, are likely very different. So back to the self-inflicted wounds.
Put simply, the technologies required to slash agricultural emissions to the levels targeted in the Net Zero Carbon Act do not yet physically exist. Those that are imagined, require intensive farm systems more akin to factories than the pasture-based systems we are more familiar with.
Without these technologies, the current proposals from both industry and Government have reconciled a position that sacrifices some of our farmers, believing that the general public needs them to “do something”, whatever that is.
The irony is those likely driven off the land are also farming the most naturally.
The very farms we use to market our products internationally as “clean and green” may instead be “high and dry”, replaced with a forest sector currently finding favour with industrial emitters, foreign investors and the New Zealand Government.
Few people would define this outcome as progress and, for this reason, many are now calling for a change in approach and a clearer definition of success.
If we are going to be asked to make sacrifices – then those sacrifices must lead to material gains, tangible benefits, and a sustainable future for food producers and those relying on them.
The days of self-inflicted wounds in the name of world leadership must end.
- Kerry Worsnop is a sheep and beef farmer, environmental consultant, formerly Gisborne Fed Farmers vice-president, and Gisborne District councillor