With all the controversy over young people campaigning globally for climate change, Jacqueline Rowarth wonders whether, in fact, 'New Zealand kids' might have the ability to make a real difference.

Whether Greta Thunberg is the voice of her generation or a self-entitled Gen-Zer, a question asked in the New Zealand media entirely depends upon perspective. Of course.

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What is clear, however, is that she is leading the charge for the adults to fix the Climate Change problem because they've created it.

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Adults have also created a lot of other things. These don't fit the crisis theme and so aren't being brought into the discussion, but a mono-perspective often creates problems.

The United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), identified at the beginning of this century (before the climate activists were born), help with setting problems in context. Context should allow other perspectives and, perhaps, an acceptable path forward.

The Gen-Zers are focused on climate, and in the OECD SDG September report, OECD countries are judged to be 60 per cent towards the goal.

Water has a better score (87.5 per cent) and Oceans (30 per cent) and Biodiversity (58.3 per cent) have worse scores.

But the lowest score of all 17 SDGs is 27.7 per cent, achieved for Sustainable consumption and production – inefficient resource use, including packaging, fossil fuels, chemicals and food waste.

Lifestyles are the cause.

Ironically, it appears to be the very lifestyles that parents have worked so hard to give to their children that have resulted in the problems.

Parents and grandparents have put in the hours, created and improved the technologies... so that their children could have a better life than they had, could be healthy, expect to stay at school beyond 15, and then have the further education, careers and experiences that their parents and grandparents didn't have.

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SDG Health has 100 per cent rating in the latest report from the OECD and Education has 90 per cent.

These health and education achievements aren't featuring as children skip school to protest.

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

What is featuring is the growing belief that agriculture is the problem and veganism is at least part of the answer.

Again, a mono-perspective creates problems.

The Food SDG has a score of only 62.5 per cent.

Agriculture a success story

Globally the number of undernourished people has decreased by almost half in the past two decades because of increased productivity – more food per unit of input (such as labour, land, water or nutrients).

Productivity is what drives economic growth and prosperity.

Agriculture is a remarkable success story, and in New Zealand is a star, achieving multi-factor productivity growth of an average 2.8 per cent a year over the last 10 years in comparison with an average for New Zealand of 0.6 per cent.

Given the success of agriculture in delivering economic growth and hence lifestyles, it is disappointing that it is being targeted by climate change activists who don't understand the realities.

In particular, the Paris Accord made it clear that all attempts should be made to reduce greenhouse gases without compromising food production.

New Zealand the poster country?

In 'Refocusing policies through a wellbeing lens', the OECD suggests viewing the SDGs through a wellbeing lens to help governments 'make visible the hidden costs of the current food system and identify the potential to achieve synergies, such as health, improved environment, carbon storage'.

The hidden costs identified include excessive use of fertilisers, pesticides and antibiotics.

New Zealand could be the poster country for good practice.

Strike 4 Climate at Whanganui's Majestic Square. Photo / Bevan Conley
Strike 4 Climate at Whanganui's Majestic Square. Photo / Bevan Conley

The OECD nutrient balance (the difference between nutrient inputs and nutrients harvested) indicates that New Zealand's nitrogen and phosphorus balance is 60 and 7kg/ha, respectively, in comparison with the UK at 87 and 6, and the Netherlands at 199 and 3.

But Japan (which has volcanic soils like some of New Zealand's soils) is 178 and 62. New Zealand is an efficient user of nutrients.

Pesticide use is average for a developed country. Agricultural antibiotic use is the third lowest in developed countries (reflecting pasture-based rather than feedlot systems).

The hemisphere difference

New Zealand kids (self-described as such) campaigning for change, and urging the switch to veganism, don't seem to have understood that the reasons being presented by kids in the Northern Hemisphere apply up there, not down here.

The land in New Zealand under pasture and supporting ruminants to convert grass to high quality animal protein is mostly unsuitable for growing anything but grass or trees.

By using the land for animal protein and fibre, and maintaining the carbon in the soil, New Zealand is contributing 'above its weight' globally.

Add in best practice for greenhouse gases per unit of production, and New Zealand is a high performer.

When you are achieving an E for Excellence, it is very hard to do better.

The climate change kids will probably agree with that perspective. And perhaps they might then change their attention to solving the problems – to consider consumption, waste and replacements for fossil fuel.

They have the foundation of an upbringing in a developed world, and an education system that, if they choose their careers around engineering, science and primary production, could really make a difference.

The Northern Hemisphere kids have stated that they don't have the answers. Perhaps New Zealand kids could identify the path forward and show the way.

- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth CNZM CRSNZ HFNZIAHS has a PhD in Soil Science and has been analysing agri-environment interactions for several decades.