Bruce Wills finds the urban criticism of rural CO2 emissions misunderstands how efficient it is to start with, and how stark the comparison is with city consumers

Bruce Wills finds the urban criticism of rural CO2 emissions misunderstands how efficient it is to start with, and how stark the comparison is with city consumers

By Bruce Wills*

That agricultural biological emissions will not enter the Emissions Trading Scheme until 2015, at the earliest, has generated a predictable set of responses.

At least one newspaper editor described it as ‘timid’.

On social media we were asked what Federated Farmers was doing to reduce CO2 ‘except in poor countries’. You could cynically reply, ‘hold your breath then’.

Opposition politicians weighed in with well-worn talking points that seem more like going through the motions.

If the world’s gaze is habitually on our every single move, as some politicians believe, how come Greenpeace protestors aren’t camping at the Canadian High Commission?

Canada’s withdrawal from Kyoto didn’t cause a ripple let alone a single Facebook protest against maple syrup.

A few years back Otago University conducted research among first time arrivals at Auckland International Airport. It showed even toxic issues didn’t shake positive views most hold of our country.

Perhaps the most revealing comment on our place in the world came from Newstalk ZB’s, Mike Hosking. Retelling a conversation with an American, Hosking was asked ‘what language do you speak in Noo Zealland?’

I don’t want this to give the impression I want farmers to flick one finger at our carbon footprint. Quite the opposite.

Farmers may not unanimously agree as to ‘why’ but Federated Farmers genuinely believes in efficient resource use.

Research into reducing emissions in our farm system means more milk, more meat and more fibre.

It myth-busts the picture often painted of us but helps that we have been walking the talk.

This is where we can make a true global difference.

In 1990, our agricultural exports were worth around $6.8 bln but today they’ve grown to nearly $32 bln. Despite this almost five-fold increase in value, agricultural emissions grew by a circumspect 9.4 percent over this time.

For this success we never get a ‘well done’ despite cutting the carbon in each item of product produced; averaging reductions of 1.3 percent each year, for the past 20 years.

By contrast, emissions from electricity jumped 59 percent and those from transport are up 60 percent.

The usual response we get is to have our share of New Zealand’s emissions profile kicked back in our face.

Another is that media myth farms are either exempted or somehow get a rebate for our ETS costs.

Farmers rightfully take issue with a belief we are not paying a cent in the ETS when it adds at least $106 million each year to dairy, horticulture, sheep, beef and deer farming.

It ranges from an extra $2,000 each year for sheep, deer and beef farms to around $3,700 for a dairy farm.

The costs on horticulture and arable farms run much, much higher.

The average household meanwhile chips in $133 each year for a policy, which seems to be more about having the policy.

Another way to look at things is that New Zealand agriculture generates 100 percent of the food we eat and 68.1 percent of our merchandise exports.

The trade off being 47 percent of the emissions New Zealand produces.

Though according to Waikato University’s Professor Jacqueline Rowarth, New Zealand produces enough food to feed 24 million people; effectively ourselves and Sri Lanka too. Shouldn’t this global view be a better yardstick to judge our footprint?

This latest announcement means the Government is drawing a line in the sand. They will not force Kiwi farmers to pay for biological emissions when there is no viable solution or a competitor doing the same to their farmers.

Right now I can promise you Kiwi farmers are working out how to become even more carbon efficient.


Bruce Wills is the President of Federated Farmers. You can contact him here »

We welcome your help to improve our coverage of this issue. Any examples or experiences to relate? Any links to other news, data or research to shed more light on this? Any insight or views on what might happen next or what should happen next? Any errors to correct?

We welcome your comments below. If you are not already registered, please register to comment.

Remember we welcome robust, respectful and insightful debate. We don't welcome abusive or defamatory comments and will de-register those repeatedly making such comments. Our current comment policy is here.


Comment Filter

Highlight new comments in the last hr(s).

"Not I", said the Little Red Hen.

To be fair compare us to the rest of the world, isnt NZ amongst the most effiecient and lowest co2?
Sure we could not make food, that would be great for co2....not to hot for 4million ppl mind.
For instance whatever you do at home will be emmitting some co2...even if its somewhere there must be a baseline...
Point Im trying to make is it for me anyway comes back to [over-]population as the principle problem. Beyond that consumerism....what that population does and wants to do. A lot of re-educating seems needed, trouble is Mao said the same thing I believe.
The over-population and consumerism problem will I think be somewhat solved in the next 2 decades, Peak oil will see to it....what worries me is we could end up back in the dark ages really quickly as a result....

And not I said the Fox.

Analysing water use might paint a very different picture.

Does depend on what water though.....non-renewable aquifiers, very bad....rain water not too bad.

It also depends on what it is used to grow. Animal protein is a pretty poor conversion.

According to Professor Jaqueline Rowarth speaking at Fieldays, we take around 12 million hectares and feed 24 million people.  That works out at .5ha. of pastoral land per person fed.  That doesn't sound so inefficient to me. Put another way, give me 5 x quarter acre pavalova paradises and I'll feed you.  What's scary is that 18% of our farmland has been chewed up by lifestyle blocks and urban sprawl:

0.5 hectares could feed a family of 5 no problem, so not that efficient. Actually a magnitude off the mark. I will read that report at some stage though. It is insane to be chewing up productive land for urban sprawl alright, lifestyle blocks will likely return to being productive again though. There is a principle in Architecture(not often followed) that you build on the worst bit of a section not the nice flat bit, you leave that for out door use. Urban areas should only be built on north facing slopes thus leaving the flat land for productive use.

My parents have 800m2, their biggest problem with growing is lack of access to irrigation.

I suppose what they do get is chlorinated as well? When I lived in Brisbane I saw the difference in lawn growth between a good shower of rain and watering with municiple supply, it is dramatic.

Where is my comment go? Bernard invokes the standard Stalinist censorship of Nazi analogies. In fact its worse than Stalin, the KGB blanked out the illegitimate words, so you know there was something in appropriate said. Bernard has the authoritarian power to disappear entire polemnics, with a flick of the fingers its as if they never existed. Its the new insidious invisible censorship.

It'll be in that wiffy effluent pond I have to drive past......   

Calling someone a greenie fasist (sic) is obviously a deletable offence.

I think Bruce Willis should stick to the acting thingy ......or maybe not,  I don't know, ......but I do know you don't gotta eat s#%t to know it tastes bad an that's good enough for me....hardly scientific but next time your offered an iced patty worth remembering.

Farmers should not  - nor should anyone -  get a 'well done' for reducing emissions per output while increasing real totals.
Total is the only valid measure.

Sorry you can't just go and imply that the total can always be measured, for example you can't measure a carbon emissions total, or a temperature total (because this would imply that you can measure an average, and you might be able to measure an increase), you just can't ok! No, comeback. No I mean it there is no come back to that fact, don't even bother, just don't.

Nic and Mist - no and no.
Totals have been measured forever. Only a denialist would bother to argue otherwise. Woods Hole have been doing that for decades.
Mist does the old blame-shift. I at least am making an effort to consume less, and it's not 'consuming energy in my house is the problem here, its releasing carbon. I grow 40 acres of never-to-be-milled trees (started in '89-90) in my carbon contribution.
My contribution in real terms to the real total.
Per unit production is no use whatever - in fact it's a denial in itself.

Which brings us back to population...

I was listening to a talk about the Selwyn Plantation Board and tress going down for dairy farming. A dairy farmer said "we think some of those people in Merivale ishould reduce their use of 4x4'" Not a bad point I thought.

Well said jh. Some of these people need to have a look in their own back yards.

Don't worry about the naysayers, Bruce, good piece, and about time the balance on rural issues starts seeing some redress.
My own take on this is here: Farms as dumping grounds? Don't think so. And what's the best way to ensure South Island is converted to a dairy farm? Vote Greens for an own goal.


Another way to look at things is that New Zealand agriculture generates 100 percent of the food we eat and 68.1 percent of our merchandise exports.
We are a sun dependent economy/culture! - is all that money spent on education necessary or is that keeping the obviously barely productive middle classes employed at farmers' expense?
Lets hope like the ancient Egyptians we have hidden talents that may emerge one day to balance the equation and meet the desparate need to diversify away from a our mono economy. Hunter gathering had it's day as does farming, but is it enough to retain our youth from the lure of employment elsewhere.     

I am sceptical about the claim that agricultural emissions have gone up only 9.4% since 1990. Does this include cattle and other inputs such as fertiliser and fuel? I agree that there is little that farmers can do about greenhouse gas emissions from cattle apart from reducing stock numbers and smarter use of fertiliser (urea is not a good choice). What really concerns me is the excess nitrogen and fecal matter ending up in our waterways.

given that total stock numbers(adjusted) have dropped by about 16% (1990-2007) I find it hard to believe agri "emissions" have increased at all??

What are the 2010 estimated emissions from agriculture?
The latest estimated emissions are for 1990-2010. In 2010 it was estimated that 33.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2e) (47.1% of total New Zealand emissions) came from agriculture. This is 2.9 Mt CO2e (9.4 %) higher than the 1990 level of 30.9 Mt CO2e.


my point do 16% less stock produce 9% more co2??
do they have a higher metabolic rate now to compensate for the cooler climate?

Kind of stock, perhaps?  Different emission levels for different animals, so with the increases in dairy and corresponding decline in other kinds of farming, or any other changes in the overall stock population that would explain the apparent paradox. 
If 10 sheep are the equivalent of 1 cow in emissions, then if you get rid of all the sheep, and acquire another 2 cows, your stock numbers have decreased from 11 to 3, but your emissions have increased.
Note:  All numbers in this post are 100% made up, but you'll see what I'm getting at.

ok   i get that... when i did a rough calculation i used total stock units (i.e 1 dairy cow is about 10 ewes)  not sure if they have 10x emissions but would assume it to be reasonably  constant.
i thought the kyoto protocol all backdated to 1990 levels and was making the point that we have a lot less animals now than then(we peaked at 70m sheep in the late 80,s and now have less than 38m) then increase in dairy hasn't in stock unit terms compensated for this.

most sheep stiil eat grass as far as i know
i would also argue we probably grew/utilised more grass on sheep/beef farms in 1990 than 2012 (on average) .....on hill country anyway.