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Should we still eat meat and dairy?

With consensus building between the Government and dairy, beef and sheep farmers on carbon emissions, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has lobbed a grenade into the debate, advocating a worldwide movement towards a plant-based diet.

At Parliament’s environment select committee something unexpected is happening. Even the high-emissions submitters seemingly can’t embrace the Zero Carbon legislation fast enough. Indeed, there’s talk of not just meeting but exceeding lower greenhouse-gas targets. There are schemes to optimise nutrient-to-resource ratios, sequester carbon, decimate emissions and a vow of tens of millions in new green-tech investment from one fertiliser co-operative alone.

When dairy, sheep and beef farmers and fertiliser companies are as fluent in enviro-speak at the select committee as the likes of Greenpeace and Forest and Bird, it can sound as though the Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Bill is a new green dawn, with just a few pesky details to settle. At the very least, the Prime Minister’s self-avowed relentless positivity appears to be catching.

Little did last week’s submitters know that the very next day would come a massive blow to their campaign to keep on the right side of public opinion. Mainstream scientific opinion was about to draw within striking distance of ordaining we should all go vegan.

Read more: What you need to know about doing vegan diets right

A leaked copy of the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) advised eating drastically less animal protein and dairy. It didn’t say “go vegan” in so many words – and critics have accused it of pulling its punches to avoid spooking business – but the panel’s conclusion, if understated, was hardly ambiguous. Climate-change mitigation will require a massive reduction of land being used for stock, a corresponding transfer to cropping, and still more returned to carbon-sequestering flora such as trees and grassland. People could assist by limiting their consumption of meat and dairy and moving towards a mainly plant-based diet.

This was the IPCC’s first report to contain an everyman call to arms. Where most individuals’ green habits can seem paltry in the face of the melting ice caps, disappearing rainforests and the Chinese steel industry, the equation that just by eating a lot less meat and dairy individuals can actively help mitigate climate change has a powerful “news you can use” component.

Just to spell it out more plainly, the EAT-Lancet Commission, an influential international medical project, has totted up the land-use change the IPCC has been advocating and translated it to a dietary road map for the average person. This included red meat just once a month and 250g of dairy food a day.

Other analysts have extrapolated trade-offs, with lesser but still meaningful climate benefits to be had from more people turning pescatarian, vegetarian and other permutations. All up, move over fat grams, calories and Weight Watchers points: the new “IPCC diet” means counting the carbon-offset points on our plates.

Call to arms: IPCC chairman Hoesung Lee (centre) at a press conference. Photo/Getty Images

Agriculture in the front line

This message places the farm sector on notice to make ever bigger compromises and sacrifices to halt global warming. We’ll need farmers more than ever, but the irreducible-seeming bottom line is that many will have to convert their farms or even exit the sector.

Fairly but in vain will our farmers point out that their emissions have been falling since the 1990s and that they’re not the king carbon emitters. The IPCC’s preferred sequencing of what signatory countries do is now putting agriculture, rather than heavy industry, in the front line of the climate’s defence – and in the place where the toughest trade-offs should be made.

The report says more than 70% of the Earth’s ice-free land is already shaped by human activity, yet we’re only using one quarter to one third of our land’s potential net primary production for food, feed, fibre, timber and energy.

Continued destruction of forests and intensive farming, with its methane emissions, will hasten climate change, while making sufficient food production overall more difficult. Farmed livestock generate about 14% of man-made greenhouse gas emissions – rising to 23% if their feed crop production is counted – which doesn’t sound much, until its disproportionate land use is factored in. It takes twice as much land to raise livestock as it does to grow crops. Also, a third of all the crops  grown globally are to feed a farmed animal.

According to a study of 119 countries published in the journal Science last year, meat provides only 18% of calories and 37% of protein eaten worldwide, but commandeers 83% of farmland and contributes 56-58% of food’s greenhouse emissions.

Photo/Getty Images

Armed with such statistics, a new doctor-founded lobby group, Evidence-Based Eating New Zealand, has recently been set up to lobby for the transition to a plant-based diet and challenge the scientific analyses and justifications promoted by the meat and dairy industries. This month it disputed Fonterra’s defence of cows’ milk against plant-derived substitutes on the basis of far superior comparable nutrient density, saying other environmental factors and health effects make milk less desirable.

New Zealand’s profile is globally highly unusual, in that its biological emissions from agriculture make up nearly half of all our emissions – that’s including livestock methane, nitrogen fertilisers and the nitrous oxide generated by stock’s liquid and solid emissions breaking down in the soil.

In economic terms, the elephant is the room. Our only comparable earner to meat and dairy is tourism with, unfortunately for us, air travel being another front-line culprit for climate change. The farm sector’s hopes of surviving the Emissions Trading Scheme system and the IPCC’s road map in competitive shape are pinned on our existing status as a world-leading sustainable food producer. Even the Guardian, a newspaper notoriously hard-line about climate change, recently instructed its readers to buy New Zealand lamb, ahead of British, because even counting food miles, it remains the world’s most sustainably produced.

Agri-business and farm sector representatives have being laying out their rationale to the Zero Carbon Bill hearings at Parliament, including a call by Federated Farmers for some form of credit for farmers who do better than the eventually agreed methane-emissions targets.

“But we don’t want a return to subsidies,” says Federated Farmers spokesperson Andrew Hoggard. That’s hardly surprising – painful and destructive as it was for farmers when the Lange Government axed subsidies in the 1980s, it’s generally agreed to be the change most responsible for the international competitiveness of the sector today. Almost all other countries’ farm sectors continue to be subsidised. New Zealand’s sheep and, more lately, dairy farmers have found ways to be as or more profitable with smaller stock numbers than most subsidised competitors. Export earnings today are about as much from the existing 24 million national sheep flock as when it was 70 million.

Andrew Hoggard. Photo/Supplied

Charge of the farm brigade

The sector’s chief argument with the Government is over the pace and range of future methane-reduction targets. It wants more transition time while new technology comes into play. Submitters are telling the select committee that vital investment could be jeopardised if targets are too tough too soon, especially given what’s widely recognised as the banking sector’s over-exposure to farm debt.

Crucially, agri-businesses with overseas investors, including fertiliser companies, say their backers will not fund research or new technology here if local earnings capacity dries up or looks uncertain.

The latest IPCC report has redoubled the dismay farmers feel at being expected to be first in and hardest charging of the climate-mitigation cavalry. As Hoggard told Parliament, “It seems easier to tell people to eat less animal-based protein than it is to cut back on trips to Bali.” Federated Farmers says the Zero Carbon Bill has taken the IPCC’s general guidelines too literally when it was never intended as a “cut and paste” for every country. Hoggard says, if guided by science, New Zealand agriculture needs to reduce methane by about 0.3% a year to get to zero net emissions by 2050. That would require much less drastic cuts than the 10%, rising to 47%, that is being proposed.

The farm sector is in a position reminiscent of the classic TV game-show conundrum, “The money or the bag?” Should it accept the Zero Carbon Bill’s emissions targets as set provisionally by politicians, or lobby for the yet-to-be-established independent Climate Change Commission to set them instead, in the hope that it will be more lenient? As it’s as yet unknown who will be on the commission, and how much weight it will give to agricultural and business considerations, the choice of where to put lobbying efforts is a gamble.

The commission will have the primary say over the targets’ range into the future, but some in the sector are worried that settling for the bill’s existing targets as a starting point will get its adaptation to climate change off to a hobbled, stumbling start.

Farmers are basing their call for an emissions-target delay on the emergence of new carbon-reducing technologies. From robo-vac-style machines that rove pastures neutralising cattle dung, to the eagerly awaited gene-edited rye grass being trialled in the US, help is on the way. The farm sector is telling Parliament it can lead the world in applying these improvements, and it has an ally in Lincoln University’s Lincoln Agritech. It has many research irons in the fire for sustainability and productivity. Chief executive Peter Barrowclough says farmers are “not sticking their heads in the sand”, and are capable of being green exemplars in their adaptation to climate-change strictures.

Although New Zealand is responsible for only a tiny percentage of the world’s carbon emissions – somewhere between 0.1 and 0.4% – Barrowclough says we can definitely take a lead role in helping the rest of the planet clean up its agricultural act. “I don’t disagree with vegans and vegetarians saying we need an urgent call for action, but I don’t think people will give up meat that easily. It is part of a balanced diet and we have a long history with it, but we do need to be sure that meat is produced in the most sustainable way.”

Among Lincoln Agritech’s projects are  new groundwater sensors, which measure concentrations of nitrates; standoff pads or voluntary “herd homes” that allow effluent to be collected, stored and separated, then spread evenly over paddocks; new cereal catch crops to mop up soil nitrates; and sensors for better targeting of nitrogen fertiliser. Barrowclough says farmers are already using a variety of new techniques to lower emissions, including restoring wetlands, using new fertiliser and effluent monitoring systems, moving to once-a-day milking and trialling low-emission feeds.

Peter Barrowclough. Photo/Supplied

Revisiting genetic engineering

Low-emission feed has become something of a holy grail, but the giant obstacle is New Zealand’s strict controls on gene-modifying technology and genetically engineered (GE) crops. The Royal Society Te Apārangi, which convened a panel of biological scientists and law and economics professors to review the status of GE, has just received a provisional yes from Environment Minister David Parker on its plea that the Government review the 20-year-old legislation governing hazardous organisms. Even Climate Change Minister and Greens co-leader James Shaw, whose party is militantly opposed to GE, has said New Zealand needs to revisit the issue.

However, neither minister has expressly discussed this insomuch as it might apply to agriculture. The Government’s fear is that loosening the rules for GE and allied technology here would damage our “clean, green” brand and premium export marketing advantage. The flourishing organics sector says any loosening would kill its businesses. In the politicians’ other ear are scientists such as former prime ministerial chief science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman, who says GE technology is going to be an important weapon against climate change, and he doubts New Zealand will be able to duck it. He also believes public opinion is softening against GE.

Meanwhile, high hopes are held for Dutch company DSM’s chemical methane inhibitor, expected on the market within a few years. It’s suited to intensive farms where animals are fed indoors, but DSM is also developing an equivalent for pasture-fed stock.

In addition, there’s also the option of rape forage feeding, which field trials have shown can cut sheep emissions by up to 35%. Selective-breeding for low emissions is also well under way, but it’s a long game. In the meantime, excitement surrounds development of a rumen vaccine that could change the gut bacteria in ruminants to reduce methane.

Balance Agri-Nutrients and Hiringa Energy are working at the former’s Kapuni ammonia-urea plant on producing green hydrogen with renewable energy. Up to four large wind turbines are to supply electricity and power electrolysers at the plant to produce high-purity hydrogen, either for feed stock use or as zero-emission transport fuel.

Todd Muller. Photo/Supplied

Barrowclough says not all farmers will initially be able to afford the relevant new technologies, and the cost will have to be factored into production. But as the National Party’s agriculture spokesperson, Todd Muller, says, “The history of our farm sector is one constant arc of innovation and adaptation. The IPCC report is really about how the world can sustainably feed itself when the population is expected to grow from 7.7 billion to 10 billion [by 2055]. Our producing less food, as some would suggest, is not going to help.”

Muller says New Zealand has so many ways forward it’s spoilt for choice. “It’s pretty hard to think of anything we can’t grow here.” He says few other countries have what we have: plentiful water, sun, good soils and the vital fourth pillar of no subsidies to distort what use we make of the other three.

What our future food production needs is bigger and better water storage, he says. “We’re so lucky. We’ve got so much water, but it’s not always where we need it. We need to make some big calls and big investment decisions.”

Dams are controversial in terms of environmental displacement, Muller admits, but he says they would be a powerful enabler of sustainable food production by optimising our natural advantages.

He cites Transpower’s estimate that electricity production will need to double if the country is to meet its sustainable energy targets. Water management is critical to that. The agriculture sector is open to further diversification away from livestock, including to more horticulture, but that, too, takes water and will need adaptation to make it more sustainable, Muller says.

One plant-based product, using rain-fed rather than irrigated land, is Otis Oat Milk, a dairy alternative made from Southland and Otago oats. In Dunedin cafes, baristas are already serving their lattes and flat whites using this locally produced “milk”. “Oat milk is not anti-dairy,” says founder Tim Ryan. “Kiwi farmers are doing a great job of producing fantastic globally exported produce, but we want to give choice to consumers and encourage more diversification in New Zealand’s agriculture sector. New Zealand could be a world leader in plant-based agriculture.”

James Shaw. Photo/Hagen Hopkins/Listener

Trillions of trees

As New Zealand Beef and Lamb spokesman Jeremy Baker points out, much of New Zealand’s meat is produced on land that wouldn’t be suitable for any other food production.

For some farmers, swapping cash crops for some stock could be the most achievable adaptation. Worldwide, there are plenty of lessons for what New Zealand’s future food-growing templates should avoid. Overly intensive monocropping has devastated ecosystems, imperilled vital pollinating insect populations through pesticide use and provided miserable wages and lives for workers.

But although there’s near-universal agreement that mixed land use is essential, there’s a big, green spanner in the works: radiata pine. The Government has lately conceded that its twin afforestation policies, the One Billion Trees Programme and the heavy reliance on forest sinks in the Zero Carbon Bill, risk generating perverse incentives for land use. Already productive farmland is being converted to forest, and the appeal of carbon farming to overseas investors is expected to be an increasingly forceful driver of agricultural land pricing.

Shaw, Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor and Forestry Minister Shane Jones have agreed to review the policy settings – another reason the Zero Carbon Bill’s report back to Parliament is so keenly awaited.

But New Zealand is hardly alone in questioning where and how to grow all the forestry needed to mitigate climate change. Science has published a university study that postulated the need to plant 1.2 trillion trees over about 900 million hectares globally. As the Atlantic magazine’s climate-change analyst, Robinson Meyer, pointed out, that just happens to be about the size of the continental United States, and would heavily comprise land that is already being used for much-needed food production.

Plants are clearly capable of saving the planet, but the balance between how many we grow to eat against how many we grow to sequester emissions is going to keep scientists and politicians heavily preoccupied.

Illustration/Getty Images

Bye-bye business

An extra hurry-up factor is what climate scientists call carbon leakage: where an emitter is unable to do business profitably in a particular jurisdiction because of local climate policies, so moves the business to another country. That means well-intended local policies do not benefit the climate but only that country’s emissions.

Although New Zealand’s food production is not directly or immediately in danger of this happening, it remains a possibility. If we drastically cut meat and dairy production, other countries will fill the gap – with their almost inevitably less sustainably produced exports.

In fact, fertiliser companies told Parliament they would have to consider leaving the New Zealand market if local rules made business too tough. The Government has faced the same “leakage” issue in its curtailment of the oil and gas sector, with future needs likely to be met by imports, so potentially bearing the same net emission profile as if we’d continued activities here.

Muller instances Britain reducing manufacturing of aluminium and steel – thus lowering its emissions – only to have to import Chinese products.

The farm sector can also tell a better story than others in the economy when it comes to food wastage. Most of New Zealand’s food is wasted not by food producers but by consumers, and that’s the focus of Waste Industry Management New Zealand (WasteMINZ), the professional body representing the waste management, resource recovery and contaminated land businesses and agencies. Its audit found that about half of our national new landfill consignment in 2014-15 was avoidable food waste – that which could have been eaten or composted. That uneaten tucker cost $872 million, and was worth, in carbon accounting terms, 325,975 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. That’s roughly 130,000 more trees needed or more than 100,000 fewer petrol cars.

Wastage statistics for the retail and hospitality sectors are falling, with professional and charity agencies increasingly diverting unsold/uneaten food to food banks and the like.

As for moving to a more plant-based diet, most New Zealanders could start with their own fridges and cupboards. Six out of the 10 foods we waste the most are fruits or vegetables.

Protein alternatives

It’s easy to boost protein intake with a few simple swaps and additions. An average-sized woman aged 19 to 70 needs about 46g a day of protein, whereas an average man needs 64g.

For an adult, two slices of wholegrain toast with baked beans and a pottle of yogurt contain about half of our protein needs. By contrast, a beef or lamb steak and a glass of milk would provide 80% of requirements.

A well-balanced vegetarian diet that completely excludes meat can provide the protein needs for growing children. For example, two slices of wholemeal bread (6.4g of protein), a glass of milk (8.5g) and half a cup of yogurt (5-6g) provide the daily protein needs of a child aged four to eight.

The best idea is to include protein- and fibre-rich legumes, such as beans, peas and lentils, when cutting back on meat and fish. Legumes are a highly nutritious source of protein, folate, potassium, iron, magnesium and fibre. They’re also low in fat and contain no cholesterol, making them a healthy meat substitute.

– Jennifer Bowden


Photo/Lindsey Rome

All the tools in the box

Environmental journalist Amanda Little, author of The Fate of Food, is on the phone from Nashville, Tennessee, describing her 64 meatless days before encountering a plate of carne asada tacos. “I completely buckled and devoured the entire thing in about 30 seconds,” she says. “So, I came to this story not as a food activist, a gardener or vegetarian or animal-rights activist. I believe in all those things, but I felt if I have all this knowledge about this topic and am still not able to become a virtuous eater, how are we going to do this? What does 100% sustainable look like for those consumers who can’t afford to live on organic food or a plant-based diet?”

For four years she crossed the globe looking for farming systems that apply new technologies in order to preserve livelihoods and provide food without further damaging the planet. She explores everything from vertical indoor farms in China and animal-free meats grown in laboratory dishes in the US to smallholder farms in Kenya growing maize from Monsanto in order to be liberated from the drudgery of low-yield growing practices. “For me, that was an enormous perspective shift. They weren’t saying, ‘Yay, GMO’. But they were saying, ‘We need to consider every available tool.’

“I came out of this realising sophisticated technologies can be used to protect nature and elevate these principles of sustainability, rather than curtail or destroy them. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing – technological farming against organic farming, industrial farming against small farming. If we could get the whole world to go vegan, that would be great. But talking from conservative Nashville, Tennessee – my neighbours would sooner endure the apocalypse than give up barbecue and fried chicken.”

THE FATE OF FOOD: What We’ll Eat in a Bigger, Hotter, Smarter World, by Amanda Little (Bloomsbury, $33).

This article was first published in the August 24, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.