Greenhouse gas emissions from dairy farming have reached an all-time high – but emissions from the dairy cows themselves have dropped year-on-year.
Well you might be. And to many it might not matter much, but for NZ’s most important export industry, it looms as a vital issue.
The calculation depends – apparently – on who collects the statistics. The first is from Statistics NZ, the second from the Ministry for the Environment.
Inevitably, the industry says the second is the better measure because statistics which show dairy farming emissions have increased capture too many irrelevant categories.
Radio NZ reports Stats NZ figures show dairy cattle farming emissions rose 3.18% (up 546.2 kt CO2-e to 17,719.4 kt CO2-e) between 2018 and 2019, the most recently reported year. This is the highest figure on record, dating back to at least 2007.
The Stats NZ figures count all emissions produced on dairy farms, regardless of what the emissions stem from.
Two industry groups – Dairy NZ and Federated Farmers – said they monitor statistics from the Ministry for the Environment, which show a decrease in dairy cattle emissions of 0.4% (down 73.8 kt CO2-e to 18,460.1 kt CO2-e).
Ministry for the Environment (MfE) dairy cattle figures count emissions produced only by dairy cows, but not from other sources on the same farm.
The divergence wouldn’t matter much – except that it may assume a new significance if the government demands dairy farmers cut their herd numbers to reduce methane emissions, as it deals with the Climate Change Commission’s recommendations on meeting carbon emission targets,
With climate change campaigners like Greenpeace on the case, some elements in the government may believe it is vital to demonstrate to the world it is doing its utmost to limit global warming, with stringent cuts to methane emissions.
Already many city-dwellers don’t have much sympathy for dairy farmers who – they believe – are responsible for polluting waterways as well as being the biggest industry group emitters.
Industry spokesmen such as the Feds’ national president, Andrew Hoggard, don’t cut much ice when they contend year-on-year comparisons don’t necessarily tell the whole story.
“To me, you don’t want to look at it in one year. That’s a very short time period, lots of things can change. It may have been a good year, it may have been a bad year.
“I think what you want to look at is the total trend. And to me the total trend, particularly for methane, has been since 2006 emissions haven’t increased – in fact they’ve gone down.”
Nationwide methane emissions from all sources have fallen 4.7% since 2006. But other emissions from dairy, namely nitrous oxides which are emitted from manure and synthetic fertiliser, have increased since then.
In any case, Hoggard said it was less important to focus on dairy, and more on total agriculture emissions.
“Land use between dairy and sheep and beef and horticulture and arable – farmers are in constant change. The key one to look at is total farm emissions reductions, not worry about whether it’s dairy or sheep and beef”, Radio NZ quoted Hoggard as saying.
Total agriculture emissions were slightly higher in 2019 than they were in 2006, according to the Ministry for the Environment. Since the 2000s, sheep and beef farming has declined while dairy farming has increased.
Agriculture accounted for 48% of NZ’s total carbon emissions in 2019.
The thing that matters most is that NZ farmers are among the most efficient in the world at producing milk and meat, Hoggard said.
“To me, that’s the important thing, because it’s not NZ warming, it’s global warming. It makes zero sense for us to reduce production here in NZ and just have it replaced offshore where they do it at a higher [carbon emissions] footprint.”
Dairy NZ, another industry group, does not use the Stats NZ figures, either, because it includes all emissions on dairy farms, including those from beef cattle and sheep which also live on what are predominantly dairy farms. (By way of example: if a farm has 905 dairy cows and 10% beef cows, Stats NZ would count all emissions from that farm as dairy farming emissions, while MfE would count only the dairy cows’ emissions.)
To Greenpeace it’s a black and white issue: the number of cows needs to come down, and the government must regulate.
Almost certainly, it will fire up those elements in rural regions who recently mounted their “howl of protest”.
For the government, its support down 10 per cent according to recent polls, the issue is shaping as one of the most far-reaching in this term. It might even trigger a wave of trepidation among those Labour MPs who captured all but one of the rural electorates last year.
Meanwhile back on the farm, there might be a different kind of nervousness as the season gets into its stride. Dairy prices fell in an eighth consecutive Fonterra global auction.
The global dairy trade price index declined 1% from the previous auction a fortnight ago, (though it is still sitting 24% higher than at the same time last year).
The average price for whole milk powder, which has the most impact on what farmers are paid, fell 3.8% to an average US$3598 (NZ$5127) a tonne.
Fonterra expects to reduce the amount of whole milk powder it offers on the auction platform by 20,000 tonnes from this month to July next year, saying it has “extremely strong” contract demand for the product over the next six months and expectations for flat milk supply this season will limit its ability to increase production. It reduced the amount on offer at this auction by 3100 tonnes and offered less at the previous auction.
Prices increased for all other commodities on the auction platform except lactose.
Fonterra has forecast a record opening milk price for farmers this season, underpinned by an improving global economy, and strong demand for dairy relative to supply.