Guy Trafford looks behind the urban bumper-stickers to find a different, nuanced message that points the finger at urban consumer choices as the real climate change laggards

The real culprits: two SUV urban consumer pontificators

By Guy Trafford

Someone who I enjoy reading articles from is Rod Oram. Generally, well thought through and often provoking, they require the reader to stop and mull over the message he is conveying. His latest that I read is on Newsroom and this one certainly is provoking, certainly to those involved in agriculture.

The gist of his discussion seems to be to throw a brick at livestock systems for providing food which lead to obesity and climate change - and it's not helped by the photograph leading the article with protestors showing banners which state “Animal farming. Leading cause of climate change”. Probably not his choice but it certainly put the reader in a head space of “bloody farmers, stuffing up the environment”.

Fortunately Rod did provide a link to the Lancet and EAT which jointly publishedFood in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems”. And while it did touch on climate change and issues of sustainability, to me the general theme was more about the dietary choices people were making which has led to 2.1 billion people ‘suffering’ from obesity, and also the lack of an international system which has lead to over one billion people being underfed.

To be fair to Rod his major message is more tempered and he advises New Zealand agriculture to take a leaf out of the Volkswagen book and be proactive going forward and make changes for a more sustainable future.

Using VW wasn’t perhaps the best choice he could have used given their recent fraudulent history around emission’s, but the message is clear. Make changes or risk going out of business, and while you’re at it increase the rate of climate change.

This attitude implies that farmers have been asleep at the wheel and not responding to consumer signals. The reality is farmers respond very well to clear market signals, we wouldn’t be having the debate about too many cows, or not if they didn’t.

In my career span to date, sheep numbers have gone from 72 million at their peak down to 28 million and falling now. Cattle numbers have gone from 8.8 million in 1994 to 10.1 million in 2017. On paper that should be a reduction in greenhouse gases however, part of farmers' response is to become more efficient and better animal feeders. But the overall increase has been from 35 million tonnes of CO2e in 1990 to around 37 million in 2016. That's a 5.7% increase and I suspect if we went back to 1982 with peak numbers it would look even better for agriculture, while energy (read transport) has gone up by 8.7%.

This has occurred at a time, due to government ineptitude, when there have been no financial incentives for farmers to decrease their emissions while they have been in place for energy, be them at low levels. Bernard Hickey came out with a figure I presume is correct that for every electric car sold in New Zealand there are 64 SUVs sold. If anywhere close, a pretty damning indictment and while some may be owned by farmers, a lot are not and there are good reasons rural folk have trouble adopting electric transport.

So are farmers looking to become more sustainable? Of course they are. It may not be all that obvious with new(ish) technologies being around what you don’t do rather than what you do such as water and fertiliser monitoring, protection of waterways and the like.

When you consider that globally (and that is where the problem lies) has climbed from an estimated 650 million tonnes of fossil fuel emissions in 1900 to nearly 10,000 million tonnes by 2010, critics of agricultural need to take a pretty good look at where the problem stems from. Agriculture has become a very convenient “whipping boy” from all sorts of sectors and seems to attract good readership. But some honesty around the issue of climate change needs to be kept to.

 Let’s face it if nutrition is a problem don’t blame ag - nobody is forcing the western world to eat too much meat-and-spuds, and for the billion being deprived this is largely a political problem. And at the end of the day the elephant in the room that nobody seems willing to discuss is the growth in population. 10 billion by 2050 and some predicting 11.2 billion by 2100 is the underlying issue.

Ironically much of this is due to the increase in longevity in part caused by improved food availability.

I predict that once some clear signals around ag emissions are put in place farmers will respond to them far more coherently than what we have seen from the wider public to date.

But we do need to be aware of the unintended consequences, apparently many of the streams that flowed across the 90-mile beach and help to provide the habitat that toheroa needed to thrive have dried up due to the water demand from the pine forests along the coast line several decades ago. Obvious with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps not so when they were planted.

Farmers, more than any sector are aware of the changes in climate and are the first affected. As such in the future agriculture will continue to adopt ways and means to reduce their emissions and other externalities and perhaps some could be moving faster in this direction.

But don’t pick on farmers while still driving SUVs, drinking lattes and enjoying a steak.

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?

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Great article, Guy. Farmers and ag are responsive to market signals, although, particularly for capital-intensive systems, the adaptation to different signals can take time. But the drum-beat of urban memes is continuous and urbanites are a democratic majority. Keep up the good work: together with Keith W, you two are the only authors with much sensitivity towards the situation of our major food exporters.

Sits back, awaits the inevitable onslaught of often hilarious urban comments.

Interesting how the IPPC now list carbon black ( Particulate emissions from coal fired power and cement plants ) as having an equal warning impact to agriculture ( Measured on a gross basis ) - Much more on a net basis.

In addition kills more than 50,000 pa in the US alone.

Agriculture is simply not the problem relative to others.

Methane concerns are truly bonkers - Eliminated continuously by lightning strikes that occur around the world and measured in parts per billion.

A part per billion is the width of your fingernail ( 1 mm ) over 1,000 kilometres. Just very difficult for common sense to believe that changes at these levels can affect anything let alone the temperature of the planet.

Because the stable temp of any rotating solid body in orbit around the sun is determined solely by the temp of the sun, the distance from the sun and the albedo or reflectivity of the body - emitting particulates from coal that darken the sky will lead to incremental warming.

This is exactly as we observe in the Northern Hemisphere - more so than the Southern

Nothing whatsoever to do with CO2 or CH4 !

Not to mention that is either agriculture or hunter gatherer, but without any moa left it would be back to cannibalism like the Maori used to do.

In 2006 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization published a study titled “Livestock’s Long Shadow,” which received widespread international attention. It stated that livestock produced a staggering 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The agency drew a startling conclusion: Livestock was doing more to harm the climate than all modes of transportation combined.

This latter claim was wrong, and has since been corrected by Henning Steinfeld, the report’s senior author. The problem was that FAO analysts used a comprehensive life-cycle assessment to study the climate impact of livestock, but a different method when they analyzed transportation.

For livestock, they considered every factor associated with producing meat. This included emissions from fertilizer production, converting land from forests to pastures, growing feed, and direct emissions from animals (belching and manure) from birth to death.

However, when they looked at transportation’s carbon footprint, they ignored impacts on the climate from manufacturing vehicle materials and parts, assembling vehicles and maintaining roads, bridges and airports. Instead, they only considered the exhaust emitted by finished cars, trucks, trains and planes. As a result, the FAO’s comparison of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock to those from transportation was greatly distorted.

You'd have to suspect the fossil fuel industry has a hand in these creative accounting exercises, aided by evangelical vegans and animal rights activists. Interestingly, the EAT foundation is funded by Norwegian billionaire and animal rights activist Gunhild Stordalen, who owns a 20 million dollar private jet and regularly flies around the world.

Not to mention that, er, trees actually don't grow on grassland prairie, unlike grasses and bison which do. Or that pasture captures carbon and nitrogen (if they did not, then how exactly would bison grow when all they eat is pasture).

Or that the biomass of trees in the vast Northern Taiga is growing (some have suggested that coal burning is easier and more efficient than chopping down trees and that coal has thus helped trees make a comeback).

As you say, everyone seems to have a belief. Haven't they heard of double blind studies and seeing what you want to in the data? Is this science?

If the climate changes, but there are no humans to cause it, is it still called climate change? If a tree falls in the forest, but there is nobody to hear it, does it still cause a sound.

Obviously neither of these events are even possible unless a human is causing them.

Of course urbanites should eat less beef, drive more fuel-efficient cars etc. Many are, and cars are constantly becoming more efficient. And of course we should look at more sustainable population, rather than seeing every extra migrant enticed into NZ as a "good problem to have" and a "sign of our success" and a panacea for covering politicians' failure to address the productivity problem.

On the other hand, of course greenhouse gas emissions are only one element of pollution and the sustainability issue. Guy does well to highlight the impact of water use on the surrounding environment. That's indeed an issue in parts of New Zealand, and one where the impact of cattle is far greater than other animals:

Litres per kg of meat
Bovine meat 15, 415
Chicken meat 4,325
Vegetables 322

So yes, greenhouse gas is one important issue - but as are water use, pollution from run-off and waste etc.


15 tonne of water for 1kg of beef - yeah right. Beef in Aussie - " It was found that the water footprint varied substantially, from 3.3 to 221 L H2Oe (equivalent; [18]) per kg live weight at farm gate [16]. These results can be compared to other published results; for example, fresh milk produced in a low water stress region of Victoria, Australia (1.9 L H2Oe L−1 milk at farm gate; [15]), wheat, barley and oats grown in New South Wales, Australia (0.9 to 152 L H2Oe kg−1 grain at farm gate; [19]) and fresh tomatoes grown for the Sydney market (3 to 35 L H2Oe kg−1 at farm gate; [12])."

Interesting. Looks like varied approaches to measurement depending on feed composition etc.

"Research led by the University of NSW in 2010, funded by Meat & Livestock Australia, found that water used to produce red meat in southern Australia was 180–540 L/kg of hot standard carcase weight."

At end of day it is a waters cycle and the vast majority of fresh water goes out to sea no matter what the land use. Water quality is the key so the focus should be on land management not the vegan set telling other people what to eat.

Water quality is key, yes, although if water supply were super easy we wouldn't be having large government financing programs for irrigation nor depleted aquifers through excessive drawing.

I eat steak.

Government financing is potentially a better outcome for projects rather than a plethora of mini private projects that pop once schemes like Ruataniwha, for instance, are canned.

It seems to me that low-intensity grass based livestock farming (without irrigation and where all the pasture and animal needs are met by rainfall) uses bugger all water. Certainly my cattle are out in the paddocks doing their thing with no extra water, whereas in this heat if I missed a day or two watering the vegetables they'd all die.

Agree, looks from the data that low-intensity grass based livestock farming is not too bad at all compared to other models.

The problem is interconnected. There are too many people on the planet, 50% of who live in cities. They expect to be fed, and their wastes taken away. This requires an energy input, and we are having trouble replacing fossil fuels to do it all.

I don't think we can - the EROEI rating of fossil fuels having been so high. But it too is falling. So this becomes a feedback problem - money and energy and food and population all adding to anthropogenic forcings.

I see a time where many city-folk move to back to the land, to apply more labour to food, post-crash. Because there seems no way to dodge a crash, growth-wise. Time we discussed how that will be done..

My Great grandparents ran a farm with 8 labourers and a lot of horses. From historical figures 25% of the farm output never left the farm gate, it was consumed in making the food. So currently we feed 20million on a population of 5million, ie 3/4s is exported. Then CC impacts estimated at 25% of production.

Then we back out the "green revolution" as that is fossil fuel use of we wont have which doubled if not tripled food output.

When you take all of these into consideration and do a back of the fag packet calc for NZ it starts to get scary how few NZ ( incl a hungry world) with no fossil fuel can feed.

and the UK with 70million? absolutely no chance at all, rinse and repeat for a substantial number of the 150 odd countries and some have nukes.

So crash or (nuclear) extinction?

Nice article Guy. I have to listen to urban friends and relatives banging on about "evil" dairy farmers and climate change, while they drive around the city in 4WDs, and jet off overseas for holidays a couple of times a year. I just inwardly roll my eyes and think of motes and beams in eyes.

Yep one huge load of doggy doo doo. Even if not in an SUV they get sanctimonious when owning an EV, probably even more so.

Phil Goff and Auckland are conducting the biggest adventure in sprawl growth ever seen in New Zealand.

Goff is a remnant from a historical blip - noeliberalism. It was a reaction to an already-full planet, but nobody was reading the tea-leaves correctly. But Auckland was growing with or without him - a process which will run into limits.

Personally, he's really no worse than any other polly. I mean the Green co-leader has 6 kids and that's A OK with Green party members.

Do you think that if you keep repeating the same thing at every given chance, it'll become true?

You are actually getting as bad as The Man.

Why use 'become'? You still in denial?

But on a more interesting note, nobody has pointed out that all farmers drive big mucho vehicles - I doubt there's a Nissan Leaf among the lot. Same goes for their machinery. Pot, kettle.

Yes, pots and kettles PDK. How many sheep can you get in the back of Leaf these days? "Water quality state in the pastoral class was not statistically different from that of the urban class, and water quality state in the plantation forest class was not statistically different from that of the native forest class."

"Ten-year trends (2004–2013) indicated recent improvements in ammoniacal nitrogen, dissolved reactive phosphorus and total phosphorus in the pastoral and urban classes, possibly reflecting improved land management."

Our success as a planet of human beings is already beginning to haunt us. It's obvious we're struggling to fit everyone in, even more so when you look at the quality of life we expect in doing so. Historically these sorts of problems have been sorted out by warfare & mass slaughter. Even the 39-45 war of last century has some staggering mortality statistics, especially in the Russias. My guess is that it will probably be so again, although surviving the after-glow of a nuclear confrontation doesn't please too may people, including myself, but it's hard to see anything else happening, sadly. If we'd only learned something from our history we might have a chance. This isn't apparent. And remember also, not all cultures think like us. We are very good at telling others what to do because we see it as the right thing to do, but not everyone has our education or worldly knowledge & experience. There's maybe a billion people who think like us. The rest..... ????

Good comment. But of the billion people who think like us, I reckon there might be a million or two who 'get' the limits to growth problem. We are few and far between.

Big gap between thinking and acting I would say. Most of the current thinking requires someone else to act .

Previously I've seen Ag methane emissions as part of the problem. Lately I've looked at our ruminant emissions and I can't for the life of me see that methane produced from carbon taken from the atmosphere as part of the natural carbon cycle is in anyway comparable with carbon dug up and emitted by highly unnatural human processes. One adds more carbon to the atmosphere the other doesn't.
Add to that the idea of planting trees as a carbon sink, that's just bs. Once added to the carbon cycle it's not going away except short term. But I guess it does help some people's mental health, maybe.