Is farming for the environment good for business?

Climate change and carbon emissions can be sticky subjects in agri circles. But they don’t need to be.

Our Head of Sustainability, Alison Howard, put it straight to a (virtual) room full of Dairy Women’s Network conference attendees in May:

“We don’t need to stop agriculture. We just need to do it in a smarter way.”

Here’s the highlights reel. It includes Alison’s overview of the 'status’ of climate change globally and here in New Zealand, and her answers to questions about what that means for farmers.

The global lay of the land

  • Climate change is an emergency. The science proves this to be true – but unlike the current COVID-19 pandemic, it doesn’t feel like it.
  • We’re on track for a three-to-four-degree warmer world. It doesn’t sound alarming. But if that happens, the planet will only be able to support one billion people. We’re currently sitting at almost eight billion.
  • We’re already one degree warmer and seeing more unpredictable weather events. Neither of these is great for farming.
  • Limiting our temperature change to 1.5 degrees is a must have. Not a nice to have.

Closer to home

  • New Zealand has committed to the Paris Climate Agreement that we'll cut our 2005 levels of carbon emissions by 30% by 2030. But the government’s current policies, and our current business and personal practices, won’t get us there.
  • Agriculture accounts for around half of the country’s total emissions. Now, that’s not saying we need to stop agriculture. We just need to do it in a smarter way.
  • There are changes in practices available to farmers now. The AgMatters website from the NZ Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre highlights that within ten years, higher tech solutions will allow us to reduce emissions further. Think selective breeding, methane inhibitors and vaccines to reduce greenhouse gases.
  • Emissions per kilogram of milk solids have decreased over the last 20 years, so there’s no reason why we can’t carry on that way.

Q&A with Alison

So where should farmers start?

“A good place to start is anywhere. A lot of people – and I'm guilty of this – let perfect be the enemy of good. You don’t have to have figured out all the answers. There are things farmers know would make a difference. Managing fertiliser volumes, managing stocking rates, doing riparian planting. There aren’t surprises there. So start with anything. Reach out for help. Fonterra have an army of advisors who are there to help with farm environmental plans. You don’t have to do it alone.”

Is carbon reduction and ‘farming for the environment’ good for business?

"The short answer is yes – there are plenty of examples New Zealand wide of farming businesses taking a different approach and having that be profitable. But it’s not quite the question we should be asking. When it comes to health and safety you don’t ask how much more you're willing to pay to make sure that nobody dies. Instead, you ask “what’s a safe way to get this work done?” - and then, “How can we deliver that in the most cost-effective way?”

That’s how we need to start looking at the environment, sustainability and low-carbon farming. We need to say to ourselves “Here’s what we have to achieve to farm in the future - so what’s the most cost-effective, innovative way of achieving that?”

In the short term, businesses can make a lot of money while totally destroying the environment. Nobody argues with that. But in the long term, that is not going to make you money. Oil and gas companies are running headlong into financial ruin. Because our society won’t survive a warmer world. There'll be no customers for their product.

Same goes with agriculture. If we don’t get climate change under control globally it will be very hard to do any farming. So it’s a risk mitigation thing. The more environmentally friendly your farm is, the more resilient it is. The more you pay attention to this stuff, and integrate it into how you run your farm, the more resilient you are in the longer term, and that means your farm is a success. It's not that it makes you more money necessarily, it’s more that it ensures the future resilience of your farm.”

Emission levels have reduced significantly during COVID-19 lockdown – emphasising the contribution that cars and factories have towards climate change. Why, then, does the agricultural industry need to keep working on reducing emissions?

"Because it’s going to take everyone. Agricultural emissions are half of New Zealand’s emissions. So you could remove transport altogether which would give us a 20% reduction, and that’s great. But you also then can’t get farming goods to customers! It’s about transforming every piece of that pie. And that means people in their households buying differently. It means people buying electric cars instead of petrol cars. It means people approaching all of their workplaces differently – including farmers. There’s no one sector of the economy that doesn’t have a role to play or doesn’t need to contribute.”

Should we be more focused on technology to help us lower emissions, or is it important to keep a balance between allowing technology to guide us and letting mother nature function without human intervention?

“It’s probably going to take a bit of both. Some of the tech solutions that are being created at the moment, like how to create cattle that burp less methane, are really useful. If we can do that it would make a positive contribution.

I also know that people who care about farm environmental performance have been talking to farmers about diversity on the farm. Making sure you’ve got different types of farming that are appropriate to the different sorts of land that you have, and incorporating more biodiversity to create resilience and deliver a whole range of better environmental outcomes. And that is really about harnessing what the natural world has available.”

 

You can probably tell we’re pretty damn serious about doing all we can to look after this place.

If you’re keen to join a power company that shares your values, give our Agribusiness team a call on 0800 496 444.