Bunny McDiarmid
Bunny McDiarmid
Originally published in the Christchurch Press By Bunny McDiarmid Executive Director - Greenpeace NZ

Taking action on climate change is proving a hard thing for some to stomach in New Zealand, largely because the problem for us lies predominantly with agriculture. It's the elephant in the room, except it's a cow. Just to confuse matters, the cow is sometimes referred to as a "golden goose". But what if the goose was laying itself into an early grave and dragging clean green New Zealand down with it? New Zealand has immense pride in our farming sector, but this doesn't alter the fact agriculture makes up half of all our greenhouse gas emissions, with the corporatisation and intensification of the dairy sector by far our biggest contribution to global climate change. The sector also comprises a crucial slice of our economy. Some say we therefore shouldn't regulate it - the argument being no one goes near the golden goose, let alone with a price on emissions. But climate science, our international credibility and the future of both our farming sector and economy suggest otherwise.

Without a price on agricultural emissions, there's no incentive to reduce them and invest in mitigation solutions. The world's scientists agree business as usual can't continue, so it's increasingly frustrating for groups like Federated Farmers to continue promoting a heads-in-sand approach. Agriculture is the industry most reliant on a healthy environment and most at risk if we lose the fight against climate change.

But quite apart from the climate, there are myriad problems afflicting intensive dairy farming in New Zealand that suggest change is necessary. Over time, New Zealand's dairy sector has been shifted from traditional, low input pasture farming to a more intensive, corporate model. This is having a huge impact on the environment; rapidly increasing emissions and eroding the clean green brand which New Zealand agriculture has helped build. Chemical nitrogen fertiliser use in New Zealand has increased 617% since 1990. Nitrous oxide emissions now exceed all road transport emissions. Many New Zealand farmers have watched as intensive farming practices have led to major environmental and animal health problems and lower economic performance.

Some farmers are moving towards more sustainable farming models, based on fewer inputs and better output. They're cutting down on expensive, polluting chemicals, reducing herd numbers and looking after soil so that pasture thrives and lasts - even in times of drought. Generations of New Zealand farmers have successfully used this method; in a way it's time to go back to basics. New Zealand is ideally positioned to lead the world with lower-emission pastoral farming, so what are we waiting for? Arguably a strong market driver. Leaving agriculture out of the emissions trading scheme until 2013 and having no alternative regulations in place removes an important incentive to tackle on-farm pollution. Not only that, it means taxpayers must pick up the tab for the sector's growing emissions. As long as agricultural emissions continue to climb, so too does our Kyoto bill, and that's a bill taxpayers must stump up for. Why should they have to?

It's not just on-farm agricultural emissions that are hurting the climate. We're also seeing deforestation for corporate dairy on a scale not seen before in New Zealand. Tens of thousands of hectares of forests already have been felled to make way for cows. Another half million hectares is at risk; over seven times the size of Lake Taupo and a quarter of the nation's total plantation. Dairy conversion of forestry land functions as a 'double whammy' on the climate; it destroys forests and replaces them with one of the most greenhouse gas intensive forms of land use.

The intensification of New Zealand dairy farming practices is also eroding the sector's advantage over international competitors. New Zealand has always prided itself on being ahead of the pack, with its traditionally low emission, energy efficient farming methods. But we're losing our edge. Reports indicate that even in the early part of this decade, low emission farming in Sweden and Denmark was already starting to draw equal to (and in some cases ahead of) New Zealand in terms of emissions performance - this is without 'food-miles' being taken account.

More worrying is that New Zealand's dairy farming greenhouse gas emissions performance is becoming uncomfortably close to that of the UK. This increases the risk of future market erosion, particularly in light of UK supermarkets' push to implement "carbon lifecycle" labelling on products. As intensification of the New Zealand dairy industry continues, the carbon footprint advantage our produce has historically enjoyed is being lost; unnecessarily and to the detriment of future generations of New Zealand dairy farmers.

Greenpeace is in no way anti-farming. Far from it. We want New Zealand to be farming into the future and passing on truly sustainable, healthy farms to future generations. Agriculture should be itching to get out in front of a new wave of economic opportunity that is fuelled by consumer concern over climate and our exporters should be doing everything they can to corner and monopolize that high end of the market.

There is no doubt we're at a crossroads. We have tough questions to ask and big decisions to make; the main one being whether to alter practices in order to turn challenges into opportunities.