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?.