NZ dairy industry’s biggest challenge is meeting methane gas emission targets

New Zealand dairy farmers are some of the most efficient producers of dairy milk in the world, and while the past year has been tough for many industries, the overall picture for dairy has been overwhelmingly positive.  Returns to farmers have been at record levels,. along with the economic contribution to NZ.

Dairy  export receipts are  nudging $20bn  a  year, up  from $4.58m  in 2000.

But  now  the  industry  is  facing  its biggest  challenge.

Dairy  cattle are  responsible  for  22% of  NZ’s emissions. Can  NZ  meets  its methane  emission  targets  without  slashing  the   size of the  national  dairy  herd?

The  threat of  global warming  has  become all too plain  to  New Zealanders  in recent weeks and the pressure  on   the  government to  act  is  mounting.

It  can’t   dodge  making  decisions  on  the  Climate  Change Commission  report  it  received   earlier this  year. But  its  proposals  could  have  a  severe  impact  on   the  dairy industry.

Climate Change Commission chair Rod Carr has warned  that if NZ doesn’t pull its weight reducing greenhouse gas, international customers will go elsewhere, costing the economy billions of dollars in the coming years.

“The world will hold countries to account.”

The commission says the cost of transitioning to carbon zero, and a reduction of biogenic methane, is estimated to be a 1.2% reduction in GDP by 2050. Doing nothing would cost 2.3% of GDP.

New Zealand’s dairy industry likes  to  claim it’s cleaner than overseas counterparts.

“The emissions intensity of our co-operative’s NZ dairy production is about one third of the global average,”  Fonterra says.

DairyNZ, the industry body for dairying in New Zealand, argues  that NZ is known as a world-leading sustainable, emissions-efficient producer of nutritious dairy milk.

NZ’s meat also has a lower greenhouse gas footprint than other countries.

Dairy  industry  protagonists  mount  a  variety  of arguments  against slashing cow  numbers.  They point out  NZ’s  total e missions are  only 0.16%  of the global totals,  and while  agriculture  makes up  48% of those, and the bulk is of methane (49%), this  is  a  relatively  short-lived  warmer of the  atmosphere,  unlike  carbon.

Against that, a United Nation’s report released in May contended methane is the strongest lever in the world’s toolbox to slow climate change over the next 25 years.

So  the  odds   are  the  dairy  industry  may  not  escape  the  action  the  government  will have to take  on the  Climate Change  Commission’s  recommendation that the national  dairy  herd  will  need  to  be  curbed.

In 2015, NZ set methane reduction targets. The goal is that by 2030 biogenic methane emissions should be cut by 10% on 2017 levels. By 2050 the goal is for methane emissions to be 24 to 47% lower than they were in 2017.

Meeting those  targets  could  cost each farm $13,000 a year.

But  wait, a  solution  is  on  the  horizon:  scientists are   working on a  methane  vaccine which aims  to introduce antibodies into a cow’s saliva which then pass to the animal’s rumen, and bind with the methanogens which convert hydrogen into methane.

This  could be a big game changer for animal emissions globally, says the chairman of the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium, Professor Jeremy Hill.

Hill, who is Fonterra’s chief science and technology officer, says research on a methane vaccine has cost between $4m to $5m a year for more than a decade, with Fonterra contributing up to $1m of that.

He  reckons  it’s promising, “but by no means certain we can do it yet”.

So  there  are difficult  questions   for  the  government  as  it gets  to grips   with  the  Climate Change  Commission’s  recommendations to  cut  NZ’s emissions.

Does  it  insist  on   curbing  herd  numbers  or  does it  wait  for a  scientific  solution?  Or  does it rely   on the Climate Change Commission estimate that by 2030 sheep and cattle numbers will fall by around 13.6%, while still maintaining the same level of production, through better farming practices?.

5 thoughts on “NZ dairy industry’s biggest challenge is meeting methane gas emission targets

  1. Other solutions with possibly greater potential include both Seaweed extract and a chemical called 3NOP. Scientific results presented at the NZ Agricultural Climate Change Conference showed 60% reductions in methane from lactating cows with improved feed conversion, for seaweed see https://www.nzagrc.org.nz/assets/1125-Science-update-NZAgCCC_CH4_Lakeman.pdf.
    Perhaps we should be focusing on the next steps of the science/approvals processes, not on putting farmers out of business…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The NZ Climate Commission and others conveniently (and wantonly I might add) ignore that fact that the Paris accords state that no country is required to take action in regards to emissions that will affect food supplies. If the plan is to meet the Paris Climate Change obligations the obligation on New Zealand does not include reducing food supplies. ergo, the cows and sheep live to ruminate for a few more days.

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  3. The pandemic is clearly far from over and it is likely the world will have ongoing issues for quite some time to come. The initial impact has left NZ with huge Govt debt, very large ongoing deficits, no tourism for the near term, no foreign students leaving our primary producers as a major earner of foreign exchange. Putting the climate global warming debate to one side under the circumstances deferring draconian measures directed towards farmers is the only rational cause of action. Unfortunately, the current Govt is driven purely by ideology and not rationality.

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  4. “Climate Change Commission chair Rod Carr has warned that if NZ doesn’t pull its weight reducing greenhouse gas, international customers will go elsewhere, costing the economy billions of dollars in the coming years.”
    I wonder what makes the Commissioner fail to understand that the major players in the primary sector have been responding to changing consumer preferences and needs ever since they were established, and need no Government oversight (or control) or incentive to do so. And that’s ignoring the fact that at present there is no alternative supplier with a better emissions profile for their consumers to switch to.

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