Dr Jacqueline Rowarth: Farmers receive mixed messages

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Opinion: Around the world, restricting food production to reduce environmental impact will result in less food availability and higher food prices – so what do governments really want from farmers?

Farmers are getting very mixed messages.

Globally, food security challenges have intensified due to war, floods, fires and drought.

In the worst-case scenario, McKinsey projects a food deficit representing the equivalent of one year’s nutritional intake for up to 250 million people, or 3% of the world’s population.

We have already heard reports from the United Nations that four consecutive absences of rain in the Horn of Africa signify a drought of historic impact.

In Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, 22 million people are said to be struggling to find enough to eat. The numbers are expected to rise and cattle are already dying.

Despite this, some developed countries are encouraged, through subsidies or taxes, to reduce their food production.

The plight of Welsh dairy farmers has been discussed in the media.

A 27% reduction in cow numbers to reduce nitrogen loading in so-called nitrate vulnerable zones means that economic viability is at risk.

(The fact that a key Environment Agency staffer working on policy shared pro-vegan posts on social media and spoke at an Animal Rebellion march might explain some of the recommendations – and is raised by groups of farmers.)

In the Netherlands, there are similar concerns about policies and their impact on food.

The government’s emphasis on reducing nitrogen emissions indicates that a drastic reduction in livestock will be required.

More than 11,000 farms will close and another 17,600 farmers will have to drastically reduce the number of cattle. These are government estimates, not industry warnings.

The Dutch cabinet has allocated 25 billion euros (around NZ$41 million) to reduce emissions by 2030.

Only cynics would point out that the Netherlands has a large concentration of energy and emissions intensive industries and remains highly dependent (90%) on fossil fuels.

To encourage the reduction of industrial emissions, a carbon tax will be introduced in 2021, but to enable domestic industry to remain globally competitive, the government aims to balance the cost of the tax with financial support ( also called grants).

In New Zealand, income from primary production accounts for more than 80% of the export economy, but although the world needs food and prices have risen in supermarkets, farmers and producers do not seem to not take advantage of it.

To remain solvent, they need liquidity. Due to drought and floods, they are working longer hours to compensate for labor shortages. Farmers and producers bear the stress mentally and physically.

They’re told time off the farm is important, but it doesn’t milk cows, move cattle and sheep, harvest fruits and vegetables, repair fences, measure growth. pastures and does not complete paperwork for NAIT, StatsNZ, the regional council or their processors.

Scientifically, there is more confusion.

Plantain has been proposed as a solution to reduce nitrogen losses to the environment, but the latest research conducted in the Waikato by Professor Louis Schipper suggests that overall GHG emissions are greater from a plantain lawn than from a lawn. a lawn of ryegrass and white clover.

Wetlands have been proposed to restore biodiversity and capture sediments and nutrients, but they are associated with increased pathogens and methane.

Another message is to reduce food purchased to reduce GHGs. Where irrigation (also viewed negatively by some conservationists) is available to cover the lack of rainfall, animals can continue to graze and maintain body condition score (BCS).

Farms that purchase feed to balance grass quality and quantity can also adjust inputs to maintain animal BCS.

Listen to Jamie Mackay interview Dr Jacqueline Rowarth on The Country below:

In contrast, where irrigation and supplements are not available, farmers work with what nature allows in grass growth, and sometimes that means reducing feed intake and fattening “later”.

Breaking down and increasing body mass requires more energy than just maintaining it, which increases GHGs.

This also applies to slowly maturing animals.

Reduced growth leads to increased GHGs because to bring beef cattle up to slaughter weights, the energy needed to maintain them increases in proportion to the energy they need to grow.

Animals that take 30 or even 36 months to reach the same weight at slaughter as animals reaching the weight in 18-24 months perform significantly less well.

This is the problem of long grazing (a feature of regenerative agriculture).

Although a small increase in soil carbon is possible (depending on the starting point), it will not offset the increase in GHGs associated with slower growing animals.

All of this leaves New Zealand and global farmers confused. What can be done to feed people while reducing environmental impact?

Logic says that New Zealand farmers should continue to produce the food – which we already know has less impact than other countries can handle – while keeping an eye on technological developments and laying the question – what could be the unintended consequence?

For the world, restricting food production to reduce the impact on the environment will result in less food availability and higher food prices.

We know this will happen, so it can’t be considered unintentional.

The question must be asked, what do governments really want for the future and what consequences are acceptable?

Famine cannot be one.

– Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Adjunct Professor at the University of Lincoln, has a PhD in Soil Science (nutrient cycling) and is Director of Ravensdown, DairyNZ and Deer Industry NZ. The above analysis and conclusions are his own. [email protected]

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