'We can have our cake and eat it' – Climate change solutions can be found, dairy sector says

The dairy sector understands it needs to contribute to combating climate change, especially as agriculture is a big contributor to New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to DairyNZ Chief Executive Tim Mackle.

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Agriculture is working to meet methane targets but many more changes will need to be made, a sector leader told Q+A’s climate change special Milk, Meat and Motorcars. Source: Q+A

“We need to run towards it and actually find solutions so we can have our cake and eat it, so we can enjoy the economic, the social benefits of being good at this in the rural communities and reduce our footprint at the same time, that should be our challenge,” Mackle said on Q+A's Milk, Meat and Motorcars special.

“The first thing is phase one: we are doing everything we can pulling on levers, genetics, feeding, farm systems - some farmers will take animals out of the system, some have already done that, they’re already on this move now. We’ll get to a limit and that challenge of getting to 10% in the Zero Carbon is going to really stretch us, beyond that, going forward we are going to need knock down technology and we’re investing in it, we have for quite some time.”

Ashburton farmer Mark Saunders agreed the environment was a vital consideration for him but he says meeting the ambitious future targets identified by the Government will be tough.

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“We’ve been that focussed and achieved great things with the nitrate story in this district, understanding where our options are in the greenhouse gas space is another leap again. So much is happening outside the farm gate but where’s the science dollar happening inside of what we do and how much time will we have to achieve good science so we do the right thing’s first are still unclear to me.”

Climate Change Commission Chair Rod Carr told Q+A the draft report makes it clear that the targets are possible but changes will be necessary.

He cited land use changes, some beef and sheep going into forestry, some dairy land going into horticulture and better breeding practices as ways to get towards the first target; the planned reduction in biogenic methane of 10% by 2030.

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Ashburton dairy farmer Mark Saunders told Whena Owen that environmental concerns are critical for him but meeting future targets on reducing emissions will be a big challenge.

But Carr says the longer-term scenarios are more complicated.

“If we are going to achieve the next target which is a 24-47% reduction by 2050, we are going to need new technologies that deal with the biogenic methane from ruminant pastoral agriculture or we will have to have smaller herds and flocks.”

Climate Change Minister James Shaw told Q+A the question of herd sizes being reduced will depend on what the sector does.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw. Source: Q+A

“There have been significant improvements in productivity over the course of the last couple of decades where the per unit emissions have come down but of course, the number of units has gone up ... one has outweighed the other," he said.

"There are farmers up and down the country who are moving towards organics, or to regenerative farming, once-a-day milking - other farm practices. Part of my frustration is that those things have, sort of, been seen as on the fringe and actually, if we were to fully commercialise those and roll those out, we could get huge gains.”

When asked about gene editing, Shaw said he’s used to scientists telling him it's safe but he sees ethical issues.

“There are certain markets where that brand is so important, so you can sort of say, ‘Well OK, it may be scientifically robust, but what does that mean in terms of the value of our exports at a time when we’re trying to move up, increase the value of our exports, rather than the volume of our exports?’"

The minister says the industry needs to think about its appetite for risk and how to manage that before adopting gene editing practices.

The Climate Change Commission delivers its final report to the Government on Monday.

You can watch the full debate on Q+A’s climate change special Milk, Meat and Motorcars here.