NZ farmers can maintain their competitive edge on emissions

22 May 2023

Doubts about the future of ‘grass-fed’ farming misplaced, says head of methane joint venture.

This article was written by Wayne McNee, Executive Director of the Centre for Climate Action Joint Venture Ltd, for the New Zealand Farmers Weekly in May 2023.

In recent public comments Dr Rod Carr, chair of He Pou a Rangi Climate Change Commission, stated that in his view New Zealand may be best in its subclass – pastoral-fed agriculture for ruminant animals – but that subclass may ultimately be unattractive to customers and consumers.

He goes on to recommend that NZ moves to a hybrid form of farming, where animals spend more time in barns eating brought-in feed, rather than in the paddock eating grass. This, as he notes, would allow feeding of supplements to these barn-fed animals, which could reduce their methane emissions.

He also suggests alternative ways of making animal proteins that may be preferred over NZ grass-fed, animal-sourced food.

Dr Carr is an expert in the area of climate change, but he is not an expert in animal farming. NZ farmers have generations of experience developing their understanding of how best to farm in NZ conditions.

NZ dairy and meat processors are also experts in understanding the needs of their customers.

It is absolutely true that international customers and consumers are seeking reductions in the emissions profile of NZ dairy and meat products. However, it is also true those customers, and discerning international consumers, value NZ’s predominantly grass-fed dairy and meat products and pay a premium for those products.

Wayne McNee

To continue to ensure that NZ farmers maintain their competitive edge, the Centre for Climate Action Joint Venture Ltd was formed by leading companies in the NZ primary sector and the government. The JV’s focus is on identifying and investing in technologies that will reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions in our NZ grass-fed farming systems. Joint venture partners are ANZCO Foods, Fonterra, Rabobank, Ravensdown, Silver Fern Farms, Synlait and the Crown through the Ministry for Primary Industries.

After identifying and investing in the companies making technologies that will reduce emissions in NZ’s grass-fed farming systems, we will also help them do the research necessary to get regulatory approval in NZ and help get those tools in the hands of NZ farmers.

The JV will support the pathway and uptake of new tools and technologies, and develop partnerships and raise funds to finance the development of potential solutions to reduce agricultural emissions.

The JV’s corporate shareholders and the government have invested almost $170 million over four years, with a commitment to the JV for 10 years, to enable us to meet the challenge.

The JV board is chaired by Sir Brian Roche and has four other directors: Jessie Chan, Sir Neville Jordan, Greg Murison and Fraser Whineray.

Dr Carr encouraged greater government urgency to meet climate objectives – this is one of the reasons the JV exists to accelerate and co-ordinate the public and private sector effort. We have a higher ambition for reductions than the government’s 10% methane reduction target by 2030. Our ambition is to reduce methane and nitrous oxide emissions by 30% by 2030 and to be near zero by 2040.

Dr Carr mentioned he wants regulations streamlined to allow the accelerated adoption of new technologies, and I agree on that point.

However, I do not agree with Dr Carr that pastoral-fed ruminant animals is a subclass that may be unattractive to customers and consumers. There are technological solutions being developed specifically for grazing/pasture systems that our farmers will be able to use to reduce their on-farm emissions. Often these will be variations on the technologies used for barn-fed animals, such as slow release or bolus forms.

It is our pastoral farming system that many customers and consumers find attractive. It’s the fact that our cows, sheep and deer largely live outdoors, eating pasture, with high animal welfare standards. It’s that our animals live outside in a more natural environment, not in barns as animals often are in other markets.

This is something to celebrate and promote to our high value customers and consumers.