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James Cameron explains dairy cattle grazing decision for his Wairarapa farm

Film director James Cameron is defending his decision to graze hundreds of dairy cattle on his farm, despite being an outspoken critic of animal agriculture.

James Cameron

Cameron and his wife, environmentalist Suzy Amis Cameron, own about 1500 hectares of land in South Wairarapa, which they are transforming into an organic vegetable farm.

They are big proponents of plant-based diets and have been outspoken about the need to move away from animal products to improve the environment.

That's prompted some criticism from Wairarapa locals who say they are not walking the talk when it comes to being "animal-free", given there are hundreds of cows on the Camerons' farm.

Cameron has however defended the cattle grazing, saying while the animals would be phased off the farm, that work had been delayed by Covid-19.

"Our plan to expand the veggie operation and get the animals off basically sort of got derailed by the pandemic, because we needed a lot more labour for the veggie operation than we do to run the stock, and our access to labour from the Solomon Islands or Philippines and things like that basically just went away.

"So we've been in a holding pattern for a year but that initiative starts soon."

They said more cattle had not been brought onto the farm since the start of the pandemic and most had been grazed in the same areas of the farm since they bought it in 2012.

Cameron said there had been a change towards regenerative agriculture on their farm about 18 months ago.

Regenerative agriculture aims to improve the environment by rebuilding soil organic matter and restoring degraded soil biodiversity - resulting in both carbon draw down and improving the water cycle.

"We can get the animals off any any time we want to, but, but we can't tell other farmers to do that unless there's a pathway. So our job is to be the precursor and figure out the pathway. So we hired this new young hotshot farm manager who is very well schooled in regenerative ag, we said 'all right, convince us, show us how this works'.

"I was pretty sceptical that we needed it at all. And I've been convinced that it is a viable pathway that's transitional," Cameron said.

In 2019, the Camerons spoke at a Just Transitions energy summit in Taranaki run by the New Zealand government, where they touted the benefits of moving away from animal products.

"You can't really talk about reducing emissions in New Zealand without talking about the future of ag[riculture] and food," Cameron said.

"The elephant in the room - or the cow in the room - here is obviously animal agriculture."

Speaking to Checkpoint today, the Camerons estimated they had 500 to 600 cows on their farm - which they hoped would be phased out over the next year or two as soil health improved and vegetable growing operations scaled up.

They said their position on cows had not changed.

"No, we stick to our guns on that they have to go eventually. But the key to it is eventually and these goals are being set over time so they make sense to the New Zealand economy, right, so we're trying to be kind of team players here with the rest of the ag community."

Both James and Suzy Cameron have returned from America to New Zealand since lockdown last March - James in June and Suzy in August with their children and dogs.

rnz.co.nz