Opinion: If we treated food as a global resource, the greenhouse gas associated could be allocated against people fed, rather than the number of people in the country producing that food, writes Dr Jacqueline Rowarth.
The 2020 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize is the United Nations' World Food Programme (WFP).
Food has been chosen over terrorism, climate change, health, biodiversity and women's rights. The choice recognises that shortage of food causes war.
In developed countries with plentiful supplies of food of various types available most of the time, people tend to forget the reality of under nourishment for approximately 9 per cent of the world's population.
Julian Cribb, author of Food or War (published in October 2019), estimates that since 1960, 40-60 per cent of armed conflicts have been linked to resource scarcity, and 80 per cent of major armed conflicts occurred in vulnerable dry ecosystems.
He points out that hungry people are not peaceful people. The Nobel Peace Prize Panel has highlighted this reality.
But in New Zealand, where food is relatively available, and the export economy relies upon primary production, the focus appears to be more about the impact of production than the importance of protein, carbohydrates and vitamins.
Recognition that New Zealand is world leading in sustainable production, particularly of animal protein, is lost in the headlines indicating that almost 50 per cent of the nation's GHG are associated with primary production.
Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:
Although the primary production GHG do contribute to the New Zealand per capita GHG ranking, the very fact that those GHG are associated with feeding so many people overseas should be taken into account.
Nutrition Scientist Dr Graeme Coles has calculated that dairy production in New Zealand meets the protein needs of 67 million people. (Add in the meat production from dairy beef and the total is over 75 million.)
The five million dairy cows in the milking herd are responsible for approximately 23 per cent of New Zealand's emissions (Ministry for Environment data for 2018, released this year) and therefore contribute approximately 0.04 per cent of global emissions, but feed 0.9 per cent of the 7.8 billion global population their protein needs, just through dairy products.
Add in meat and New Zealand is meeting the protein needs of over 1 per cent of the population for considerably less than 0.1 per cent of global GHG.
Take away New Zealand's contribution, while still trying to feed people, and the GHG would increase.
And, no, adopting a plant-based diet is not the answer.
Dr Coles has calculated that for each person fed a year, a cow emits GHG equivalent to a 900 km car journey in an average family sedan.
The same protein consumption saves 100g plant protein each day, which saves, over a year, the amount of GHG equivalent to 2 return flights from Auckland to London.
Can we do even better with the dairy herd?
"Optimisation of dairy production systems would double the people fed for no increase in GHG," says Dr Coles.
"New Zealand has the technology and capability. Optimisation also reduces nitrogen loss – it is a win for all aspects, whichever way you look at it. New Zealand is a leader in dairy and can assist other countries with efficient production."
This is key for a global future. GHG production affects every country, whether that country is producing those GHG or not.
Food is important for every country, and some countries have better resources to provide that food than others. If we treated food as a global resource, the GHG associated could be allocated against people fed, rather than the number of people in the country producing that food.
The signals to government would then change.
In New Zealand this could mean more research and technology transfer to assist dairy farmers to optimise their systems.
It could also mean increased demand for New Zealand products offshore, in the knowledge that individual protein needs can be met with least environmental impact by buying NZ.
It could also mean more recruitment of New Zealand-born school leavers and graduates to work in the industry because they want to be part of the world-leading optimisation.
The United Nations WFP is probably more concerned about hunger and food insecurity around the world than optimisation.
Food shortage affects one in 9 people, and the WFP helps 97 million people in almost 90 countries every year.
Under-nutrition has been increasing since approximately 2016 and has surged upwards since Covid. Developed countries also felt the impact but had government support and food banks.
Increasing food production in most countries will increase GHG because of area expansion and deforestation, but food triumphs over climate change when it comes to world peace.
Food and climate change are linked. Make the wrong choice in any country and conditions will deteriorate for the globe.
Penalising production in New Zealand on the basis of ideology rather than science will have negative consequences.
If we don't look after and optimise the use of our natural resources, some other country might decide to do it for us.
Julian Cribb has the evidence from history and WFP has highlighted the link.
- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth is a soil scientist who has developed and taught tertiary courses in greenhouse gases and climate change. She is also a farmer-elected director for DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions are her own. firstname.lastname@example.org