Rural sector motivated to work towards low-carbon future

Consultation on the Government’s Zero Carbon Bill, which sets up a new legal and institutional framework for climate policy, has just ended.

Every sector in New Zealand will be affected by this proposed legislation – sheep and beef farmers are no exception.

And there is no doubt the proposals have sparked robust debate and discussion among many farmers during the consultation process. That should come as no surprise. The plans promise to bring about some of the most significant change for New Zealand farmers in a generation.

Sheep and beef farmers are well aware of the challenges climate change brings. They feel the impacts of climate change first-hand with severe weather events such as droughts and floods becoming more frequent.

That’s one of the reasons why Beef and Lamb New Zealand has developed a new environment strategy, which includes a key goal – farmers continuing to reduce carbon emissions and moving towards a carbon neutral sheep and beef sector by 2050.

Not only do we genuinely believe that this is realistic and achievable, but our farmers have already come a long way towards reaching this goal.

Sheep and beef farmers have reduced their absolute carbon emissions by 30 per cent on 1990 levels. This is the result of significant productivity improvements, which have allowed a reduction in breeding stock numbers.

Farmers have reduced sheep numbers by 50 per cent since 1990, while almost producing the same amount of sheepmeat – and at the same time doubled export revenue.

This shows that it is possible to reduce emissions while increasing output.

Tree planting also offers an opportunity to advance towards carbon neutrality.

Sheep and beef farmers are motivated to work in an equal partnership with the government to plant trees where it makes sense to do so – environmentally and economically – resulting in diversified land use and income streams for the sector.

Research by Canterbury University and AUT indicates there is 1.4 million hectares of native forestry on sheep and beef farms. Further work is being undertaken to understand the sequestration potential of this and other planting.

We’re also committed to developing long-term mitigation options through the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium and study on-farm greenhouse-gas management practices.

The consortium is investing in a programme of methane-reducing technologies and practices. It is specifically focusing on low-methane producing animals, low-methane feeds, a methane vaccine and methane inhibitors.

Right now, sheep and beef farmers are enjoying some of the strongest export returns in years.

But they also know the future prosperity of our sector is not tied to just production, but focused on value and telling our story better.

And we do have a unique story to tell.

Why is this important? Much of the global research exploring the environmental impact of farming is based on grain-fed industrialised red meat production.

Grain-fed production has a different environmental footprint because of the water required to grow the grain.

That’s certainly not the way we farm in New Zealand.

Unlike the majority of our global competitors, our lamb, mutton and beef products are natural, grass-fed and hormone-free. Put simply, our farming system is one of the most efficient in the world.

That is not to say that our sector does not have further work to do.

Beef and Lamb has a strategy with a full range of initiatives to measure and reduce emissions and maximise off-sets and we’re committed to working constructively with the government as the Zero Carbon Bill moves through the parliamentary process.

We welcome the government’s commitment to exploring a “split gas” approach.

New Zealand is at the forefront of global research on the ways to mitigate emissions from sheep and cattle. This science is evolving, but it is already clear that methane, while causing significant warming in the short-term, breaks down more quickly than carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide.

Climate impact goals require a focus on reducing long-lived gases to net zero, and stabilising short-lived gases at current or lower levels.

Recent research has confirmed that because methane breaks down over a relatively short period of time, absolute reductions in methane emissions, such as those achieved by the sheep and beef sector, will make a significant contribution towards achieving the net zero carbon goal.

Beef and Lamb supports a fairer approach to counting carbon sinks. Many sheep and beef farms already have considerable native or other forestry blocks on their properties, and we see scope for further planting of trees in the appropriate places.

A lot of the native and other forestry on sheep and beef farms is sequestering carbon, but it is not recognised under the existing regulatory frameworks. Our view is that the current level of forestry will go a long way to offsetting methane emissions from sheep and beef farming.

Native forest that existed on a farm pre-1990 is a good example – it may continue to sequester carbon for centuries, but it is not recognised under ETS rules as an offset to other economic activity undertaken on farms.

Similarly, plantings that don’t meet thresholds around size, canopy cover and tree height are not counted.

Through the use of modern technology, these rules can be made more precise in terms of area of coverage and the height that trees can be expected to reach in different climatic and geographic regions of New Zealand.

The issue of soil carbon, and pasture sequestration, and their potential to be included as a mitigation or carbon sink is often raised by farmers.

At present, the science around both soil carbon is sparse and complex, and we welcome further research in this area.

We accept there is a lot of work ahead of us, but sheep and beef farmers have a reputation for adaptability, resilience and innovation. We’re ready and willing to play our part in moving towards a zero carbon future.

Sam McIvor is the chief executive, Beef and Lamb New Zealand

Source: Stuff News

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