Fighting Climate Change: From Dairying to Daring

New Zealanders are concerned about global warming. The whole world is concerned about global warming. Somehow we all have to drastically reduce our emissions as soon as possible. So what can New Zealand do?

Agriculture accounts for about 44% of New Zealand’s total emissions. Cows are the biggest problem. This causes much hand-wringing, but, we are told, there is nothing we can do about it. Except to reduce the numbers of cows. And reducing the numbers of dairy cows cannot be done?

A great many New Zealanders would like to see fewer cows gracing our countryside. Aside from emissions, there is the pollution of the waterways and excessive use of water to irrigate in areas where the climate would have been considered unsuitable for dairying not too many years ago. It has created a vicious cycle; increased dairying has pushed up land prices which in turn pushes up the number of cows on the properties as farmers struggle to make debt repayments.

New Zealand was not always overrun with dairy cows. In 1974 there were approximately 2 million cows. Even in 2000 there were only approximately 3.5 million cows. The numbers of cows in New Zealand increased by 23% between 2007 and 2012 and again by 4% over 2014 to 6.7 million cows.

At the very least we should be trying to stop the numbers of cows increasing. That would be easy. The government could and should call a moratorium on converting more land to dairy farms. Use the Resource Management Act, that’s what it’s there for.

Preventing climate change is in everyone’s interest, and people need to buy into it rather than feel it is forced upon them. Forget about the ‘fart tax’. Find a better way. No one needs to be worse off.

The next step to reduce the numbers of cows could be to negotiate with farmers to reduce their herd sizes. A not unreasonable target would be to return dairy cow numbers to year 2000 levels.

This may not be as hard as it seems. More cows may mean more money but it also means more work for farmers. Large herds are not necessarily every farmer’s choice. The costs of going into dairying are huge. Many dairy farmers have high levels of debt so large herds are needed to service their debt.

Some sort of debt reduction package in return for reducing herd sizes and agreeing on a sustainable stock per hectare rate for the property is a possibility. This would mean dairy farmers would have much the same disposable income for less work. Interest free loans to switch to other more sustainable land uses is another possibility.

However that would assume the government actually wanted to reduce the number of cows in New Zealand. Dairy exports currently bring in $15.5 billion annually and make up almost a third of New Zealand’s annual merchandise exports.

Free trade and neoliberal economics for the past three decades has meant most of New Zealand’s manufacturing has been outsourced. Not only reducing our exports but increasing our imports as we bring in products that used to be made locally. We’ve only got cows and tourists left to keep the country afloat. No wonder agriculture has been kept out of emissions reduction targets.

Our government has blinkers on. It can’t see past dairying and tourism. And trying to lure big multinational corporations to come and take us over. When it comes to reducing carbon emissions they are out of ideas. They have nothing.

John Key says he is sure technology will save us. Tough talk from a government that cut funding to our Crown research agency a few months ago, including research into greenhouse gas emissions.

But there are plenty of people with ideas who are prepared to share them for the greater good, rather than keep them secret so they can make money out of them. The possibilities are exciting if our politicians stop cosying up to the big corporates and the very rich and let the people take the lead.

More emphasis on rail, especially for transporting goods; converting existing vehicles, and our rail system, to electric; finding innovative ways to create biofuel out of waste products; making sure that all products used in New Zealand are made using nonpolluting forms of energy (rolling stock would still be built at Hillside workshops in Dunedin, if that had been factored in to tenders, instead of in atmosphere polluting coal fired plants in China). Sticking to home grown methane gas reducing feed crops for livestock instead of imported products made from palm oil. There is even evidence that perennial grasses, which can be the mainstay of farming if herd numbers are kept a realistic levels, aside from causing less methane gas emissions from cows, actually sequester carbon. That is just the start.

Let’s switch from dairying to daring. This is our chance to shine. With 70% renewable electricity already we are ahead of most countries. New Zealand could easily be the first country to achieve carbon neutrality; without resorting to buying carbon credits. And create a better future for us all in the process.

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