Comment: Amidst growing concern that ruminants, particularly dairy cattle, are damaging our environment, Dr Jacqueline Rowarth investigates the idea that New Zealand would be better off without cows.

Ruminants, such as cows, sheep and deer, aren't part of New Zealand's native fauna.
Environmentalists have pointed out that they were brought here by settlers, they have increased in number, and they are damaging the environment through impacts on soil, water and atmosphere.

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Suggestions that New Zealand would be better off without them have become increasingly common.


Dairy cows have been targeted in particular. Whether something is "better" is subjective. The answer depends on what factors are being considered and what comparisons are being made.

Photo / File
Photo / File

The Facts

• StatsNZ reported this year that at the end of June 2019 New Zealand agriculture involved 6.4 million dairy cows, 3.9 million beef cattle, 26.7 million sheep, and 0.8 million deer.

• Dairy farms occupy 1.74 million ha; beef, sheep and deer farms occupy 9.02 million hectares (New Zealand covers 26.8 million hectares).

• MPI reported in December this year that dairy was worth $18.1 billion to the New Zealand export economy, meat $9.6 billion and wool $0.55 billion.

• Beef+Lamb estimates that two thirds of the beef kill starts life on a dairy farm.

• Horticulture and arable cropping together occupy approximately 258,000 ha and were worth $6.3 billion to the economy.

The Concern


The focus on New Zealand's greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions profile has identified ruminants as responsible for almost half of the approximately 0.17 per cent of global emissions that New Zealand contributes to the global total.

Dairy cows are responsible for less than a quarter of New Zealand's overall emissions, sheep are responsible for 12.7 per cent, beef 8.1 per cent and "other" agricultural activities are 4.7 per cent. Since 1990, agricultural emissions have increased by 13.5 per cent.

Energy contributes over 40 per cent of emissions and has increased 38.2 per cent since 1990. Road transport is in energy and is 18 per cent of the emissions. This component has increased 93.4 per cent since 1990.

The Comparisons

Emissions profiles in most developed countries are approximately 80 per cent energy and transport, 11 per cent agriculture and 9 per cent other. They have been able to cut emissions by cleaning up industry and encouraging public transport. Agriculture is not in their emission trading schemes and subsidies to farmers to ensure national food security have not decreased.

Life Cycle Analysis has shown repeatedly that New Zealand can produce animal protein for fewer GHG emissions than other countries can manage.

It has also been pointed out that the Paris Climate Change Agreement urged cutting GHG … but without compromising food security. That is why most countries are subsidising rather than penalising their food producers.

It is also apparent that the nitrogen footprint of New Zealand animal protein is lower than other countries can achieve. The integration of beef with dairy in New Zealand, for instance, means that the nitrogen footprint per kg of product is only about 14 per cent that of the USA.

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

The Considerations

For many people the concern is not the world, but New Zealand, the native flora and fauna, and ability to enjoy it.

Economics play a part in this.

Without the export economy, to which land-based food production contributes over $34 billion dollars, spending in New Zealand would look very different.

Money circulates.

In the rural sector, each dollar from dairy has been estimated by banks to circulate 8 times; for beef and sheep the estimate is 6-7 times.

If dairy cows were removed from the economy, a considerable source of income tax would be removed and a liability in land maintenance created.

Suggestions that kiwifruit, wine and apples, which are relatively GHG friendly, could replace dairy overlook the challenge of industry expansion, labour and markets.

Kiwifruit cover only 15,000 ha, wine grapes 36,400 and apples 9,800 ha… Dairy is 1.7 million hectares and not always in good climates for horticulture.

Returning dairy land to sheep and beef wouldn't necessarily solve the GHG or N problem as most GHG are associated with what is eaten (reflecting forage grown), and the amount of N excreted per unit of food consumed is greater for sheep and beef than dairy (though it tends to be in smaller volumes).

Returning the land to the conservation estate is unlikely to be a solution, either. In order to look after Molesworth station in Marlborough sustainably, Landcorp (trading as Pāmu) manages it for Department of Conservation (DoC). DoC has insufficient funds to manage the 30 per cent of land it already has in the conservation estate.


Most New Zealand farmers are doing everything they can to ensure that they are at best practice for production of animal protein. Most visitors from overseas are impressed by the state of the environment but would like better infrastructure. Many New Zealanders agree. Achieving the infrastructure without the dairy contribution to exports, directly, or indirectly through beef, is extremely unlikely.

So would New Zealanders be better without cows? The answer is always – it depends on your perspective, what calculations are being done, and whether the cost of the compromise or change can be accepted.

Simple solutions for difficult problem can have unintended consequences. These can be worse than the original problem.

- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth CNZM CRSNZ HFNZIAHS has a PhD in Soil Science and has held various academic and government positions across the environment, agriculture and business spectrum. She is a farmer-elected member of the Board of Directors for DairyNZ and Ravensdown.