Farmers are getting mixed messages
Curbing production to reduce footprint will only push food prices up, argues
Farmers are receiving very mixed messages. Globally, food security concerns have escalated due to war, floods, fire and drought. In a worst-case scenario, McKinsey is predicting a food deficit representing a year’s worth of nutritional intake for up to 250 million people — or 3 per cent of the global population.
Already we have heard reports from the United Nations that four consecutive failures of rain in the Horn of Africa mean a drought of historic impact.
Across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, 22 million people are reported to be struggling to find enough to eat. Numbers are expected to rise, and livestock are dying.
Despite this, some developed countries are being encouraged, through subsidies or taxes, to cut food production.
The plight of Welsh dairy farmers has been raised in the media.
A 27 per cent cut in cow numbers to reduce nitrogen load in what are termed Nitrate Vulnerable Zones means economic viability is under threat.
In the Netherlands, there are similar concerns about policies and their impact on food.
The government’s focus on reducing nitrogen emissions indicate a radical cut in livestock will be required.
More than 11,000 farms will close, and another 17,600 farmers will have to reduce livestock numbers significantly. These are government estimates, not industry warnings.
The Dutch cabinet has allocated €25 billion (about NZ$41b) to cut emissions by 2030.
Only the cynic would point out the Netherlands has a large concentration of energy and emission-intensive industries and remains heavily reliant (90 per cent) on fossil fuels.
To encourage industrial emissions reductions, a carbon levy will be introduced in 2021 but, to allow domestic industry to stay competitive globally, the government aims to balance the cost of the levy with financial support.
In New Zealand, the income from primary production is over 80 per cent of the export economy but, although the world needs food and prices have increased in the supermarket, farmers and growers don’t seem to be benefiting.
To stay solvent, they need cashflow. Through drought and flood, they are working longer hours to offset labour shortages. Farmers and growers are bearing the stress mentally and physically.
They are being told that time offfarm is important, but that doesn’t milk the cows or move the cattle and sheep, or harvest the fruit and vegetables, or fix the fences, measure pasture growth and fill in the paperwork for NAIT, StatsNZ, the regional council or their processors.
On the science front, there are more confusions.
Plantain has been offered as a solution to reduce nitrogen losses to the environment, but the latest research in Waikato led by Professor Louis Schipper suggests that overall greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are greater from a plantain sward than from a ryegrass-white clover sward.
Wetlands have been proposed to restore biodiversity and capture sediment and nutrients, but they are associated with increased pathogens and methane.
Another message is to reduce bought-in-feed to reduce GHG. Where irrigation (also regarded negatively by some environmentalists) is available to cover lack of rainfall, animals can continue grazing and maintain Body Condition Score.
Farms buying feed to balance grass quality and quantity can also adjust inputs to maintain the score of the animals.
In contrast, where irrigation and supplements aren’t available, farmers work with what nature allows in grass growth, and sometimes that means reducing feed intake, and fattening “later”.
Breaking down and building up body mass requires more energy than just maintaining it, so GHGs increase.
This also applies to slow-maturing animals.
Reduced growth leads to increased GHGs because to get beef cattle to slaughter weights, the energy required for their maintenance increases in proportion to the energy they need for growth.
Animals that take 30 or even 36 months to reach the same slaughter weight as animals reaching weight in 18-24 months are clearly less efficient.
This is the problem with long pasture grazing (a feature in regenerative agriculture). Although a small increase in soil carbon might be possible (depending on starting point) it won’t offset the increased GHG associated with slower-growing animals. All of this leaves farmers in New Zealand and globally in a muddle. What should they do to feed people while reducing environmental impact?
Logic says New Zealand farmers should continue to produce the food — which we already know is achieving lower impact than other countries can manage — while keeping an eye on technological developments and asking the question — what might be the unintended consequence?
For the world, restricting food production to reduce environmental impact will have the consequence of decreasing food availability and escalating food prices.
We know that will happen, so it couldn’t be classed as unintended.
The question must be asked, what do governments really want for the future and what consequences are acceptable?
Surely starvation cannot be one of them.
All of this leaves farmers in New Zealand and globally in a muddle. What should they do to feed people while reducing environmental impact?