Opinion: Proponents of regenerative and organic farming say it will restore nature and help save the planet, but when it comes to climate change, everyone has to pitch in - not just farmers.
The Leaders' Summit on Climate provoked some interesting responses, mostly of the "point a finger at somebody else" variety.
In New Zealand the response from Greenpeace was actually quite helpful in clarifying the group's agenda: change to regenerative organic farming methods and "turn the farming sector around from being Aotearoa's biggest polluter into one of our best solutions for tackling climate change and restoring nature".
Taken solely from the New Zealand perspective, the concept of "restoring nature" has appeal. The reality, however, is that following the Greenpeace suggestion would make no difference to climate change at all.
Climate change is the result of the action of every person on the planet – 7.9 billion people and their forebears trying to create what they thought would be a better life for their progeny.
Climate change is the unintended consequence of use of fossil fuel, which improved living conditions which resulted in decreased child mortality and discoveries about how to feed more people … using fossil fuel.
Research has reduced the unintended consequences of the use of agrichemicals, and New Zealand is at the forefront of efficiency – lower GHG and nitrogen loss per unit of product than other countries can achieve.
This efficiency metric is often overlooked by people advocating a return to the past and the concept of "natural".
Per unit of product, organic production systems are usually associated with more environmental impact than conventional systems.
Researchers from the University of Minnesota, with natural resource management and ecology back grounds (Dr Michael Clark, now employed by Oxford University, and Distinguished Professor David Tilman) published results of a meta-analysis of life cycle assessments in 2017.
Their work included 742 agricultural systems and over 90 unique foods. The analyses showed that, per unit of food, organic systems require more land, cause more eutrophication (nutrients lost to waterways), use less energy, but emit similar greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) as conventional systems.
They also reported that grass-fed beef requires more land and emits similar GHG emissions as grain-feed beef because growth is slower.
In New Zealand the difference is small, and when the beef is part of the dairy industry, the GHG are low.
Perhaps of most importance is that the land used for animal protein production (meat and milk) in New Zealand is generally not suitable for crops for various reasons, including market access.
When prices change, so do the economics of production. The kiwifruit and avocado expansion, and the growing of quinoa and hemp in some areas, makes the point. So does selling land to overseas investors for forestry.
New Zealand farmers have been and are doing (excluding forestry as humans can't yet eat wood) exactly what the FAO-UN Director-General Qu Dongyu urged in March.
Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:
In response to the Food Security report indicating that more than three billion people cannot afford even the cheapest healthy diet, the Director-General issued an impassioned plea for the primacy of science in guiding responses to global challenges.
"Agriculture could be transformed, and poverty ended. It is down to science and innovation, alongside enabling policies and capacity building. Innovation means technological leaps in crop productivity and yields."
Clark and Tilman agree.
Their analyses show that increasing agricultural input efficiency (the amount of food produced per input of fertiliser or feed) would have environmental benefits for both crop and livestock systems and would offer larger environmental benefits than would switches from conventional agricultural systems to alternatives (such as organic or grass fed).
It would also offer benefits to the consumer. If food availability decreases, prices will increase, and more people will be malnourished.
Repeated research has shown that yields in organic systems are lower than those from conventional production systems. How much lower depends on depends on system and site characteristics, and skill.
New Zealand research for Our Land and Water on credence attributes reported in 2019 that a premium of approximately 38 per cent (consumers reported being willing to pay 36 per cent) offset the reduction in yield for organic systems, resulting in economic neutrality in comparison with conventional counterparts.
But most people can't or don't want to pay 38 per cent more for food.
New Zealand's role in leadership in the Climate Challenge could be to assist other countries with improving efficiencies in food production.
Calls for bringing agriculture into any sort of carbon tax misses the point about the basic need for food security – quantity, quality and price.
What individual New Zealanders can do is consider their lifestyle.
Large cars pouring out of cities for the long weekend are part of the reason that New Zealand's fossil fuel contributions to GHG have doubled since 1990.
Another aspect is food waste. The Director-General of the FAO- UN has urged rich nations to start by eliminating food waste.
"It would demand no investment – but rather, a decisive shift in consumption patterns."
Every person can play a part; every person should play a part. Picking simple solutions to fix somebody else's activities is unlikely to be successful, and at least some of the large cars pouring out of cities probably have important reasons for doing so.
The main point is to approach the challenge together, using science to guide policies.
- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Adjunct Professor Lincoln University, is a farmer-elected director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions above are her own. firstname.lastname@example.org