The climate-change dilemma facing dairy farmers – milk more cows or cull the herd – is politically challenging, too

From one Wellington  platform  Reserve  Bank governor Adrian  Orr is  telling  the  country   strong global demand for NZ primary products is ensuring the economy remains resilient during the Covid-19 pandemic and is helping offset tourism losses. He  says  Fonterra’s  forecast  of a  record opening milk price is “very good news” and is included in the bank’s projections.

From another platform, Climate Change Commissioner Rod Carr told hundreds of people – including farmers – at an agricultural climate change conference that for the agricultural sector there would be no way to wriggle out of slashing emissions.

Carr said agriculture made up about half of NZ’s emissions, and this needed to be reduced to meet climate obligations.International customers would go elsewhere, costing the economy billions of dollars in the coming years.

So  here’s  the  problem:

Should  dairy  farmers  be  planning to  milk  as  many  cows as  they  can  next season —  or should they be  sending animals to  the  works  to  cut emissions?

It’s a  real  dilemma for  individual  farmers, but  perhaps  a  larger  one  for   the country’s  political  leaders.

But the government  has  created the dilemma for  itself.  It  knows that  if  it sits  on  its  hands, it  arouses  the  anger  of climate change crusaders.  And  if  it  acts  to cut emissions in the manner  proposed  by Dr  Carr, it means  a sharp cut in living standards  for New Zealanders.  After  all, Fonterra  will be pumping  around  $12bn  into the rual economy next season.

Farmers are bound to have varying  perspectives  on  the  issues.  Some will  contend it  is  up  to the  government  to put  vastly  bigger investments  into  the research  to  develop  the  grasses  and animals  (through gene editing, for example)  that will  lead  to lower methane  emissions. And  they  would  be  right.

It’s  true,  as the  Reserve  Bank  governor  says, that robust  economies with  strong  primary  industries  are positioned to fare  much  better than the  rest  post- Covid.

“It’s a positive for the country. That’s one of the reasons why the NZ economy has remained as resilient. We have had strong global demand for our primary products and a strong terms of trade.”

Orr says the dairy boost is needed but notes it only partially offsets some of the massive losses of income from tourism and tourism-related sectors that have been hurt by border closures during the pandemic.

“There are significant parts of the economy or sectors that are struggling and will continue to struggle until normality,” he said.

Dr Carr believes there has been a mindset in the agricultural sector that it should be given exemptions because it is such an export powerhouse, but he insists NZ’s trading partners are increasingly making decisions based on the climate impact of products.

He said foreign regulators would take unkindly to exporters not pulling their weight, and this, combined with changing international consumers preferences, posed a much greater threat to business than local regulations.

“The world will hold countries to account,” he said.

“So the challenge for New Zealand … is what club do we want to be in?

“Because there’s no doubt there will be rogue nations but is that the company we want to keep?”

Carr said agriculture made up about half of New Zealand’s emissions, and this needed to be reduced to meet climate obligations.

He said international customers would go elsewhere, costing the economy billions of dollars in the coming years.

“NZ will transfer real wealth to the other nations who have done more, sooner.

“And, in a way, that’s an accountability regime. You will be transferring wealth in your lifetime for our failure to do as much as we can domestically.”

He says often those in NZ’s agricultural sector argue that they are the most efficient farmers in the world.

“The most efficient what?” Carr said.

“The most efficient producer of ruminant pastoral meat and milk the way [NZ does] it.

“Well that’s good, we defined a class and when we were the best in it. The Americans usually win the prize for that approach to the ‘best of’.

He contends New Zealanders per capita produce about 16 tonnes of emissions a year, compared with just four tonnes in India and China – and China is the world’s manufacturer.

On  that  farmers  might take Carr’s view with a  grain of methane. After  all China’s  output of  greenhouse   gases  far  outstrips  NZ’s. It  is  responsible  for  27%  of  global emissions,  more  than double  those of the US.  NZ  by  comparison  emits  around  0.5%.

Even if NZ was to slash emissions by half, the cut  would  hardly make  any  difference  to the  present rate  of  global warming.

And as one  farmer has  said, the changes the commission suggested – dropping methane by 10% by 2030 – did not make financial sense for many farmers, so it would not happen.

Climate  change  advocates talk about sustainability.

”But unless it’s financially sustainable, it won’t happen and we won’t have exports”.

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