NZ Farmer - Reducing carbon and planning for laboratory meat - farming in the future

Speakers at a conference on climate change and business have described significant challenges as the country aims for a zero carbon future.

Farmers could be trading in cows for chickens, trees and plant proteins like chickpeas, as New Zealand moves towards a carbon zero future.

Add to this the threat to traditional stock farming by the rise of "clean" meat protein, grown by factory scale laboratory production, and some serious innovation is needed.

That was the message from scientists and economists at the Environmental Defence Society Climate Change and Business conference last week if New Zealand is to meet its obligations under the Paris Climate Agreement to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050, to keep warming to below two degrees by the end of this century.

"Limiting to two degrees will be hard and will require a sharp decrease in emissions quickly," engagement manager at Vivid Economics Alex Kazaglis told conference delegates via a link from the UK.

With global populations expected to hit 9.7 billion by 2050, competition for spare land for food and bio energy will increase, he said.

The amount of land to produce each calorie is particularly high for meat protein.

"If 25 per cent of the western diet changed to plant protein, land requirement would go down 15 per cent," he said.

Ruminant animals - cattle, cows, sheep and goats - also produce 10 times more carbon equivalent gas per kilo of meat as pork and chicken, and 60 times more than plant protein, like peas.

Destocking, pasture plants that use less fertilizer, feeds that reduce methane emissions when digested, better waste management, low carbon fuels, methane vaccines and inhibitors, and building carbon in the soil - all will be needed, he said.

While New Zealand is a high emitter, agriculture generates less than 10 per cent of its GDP, he said. This puts us in a much better position than other high emitters like the oil producing countries in the Gulf states.

"Vehemently" in agreement with the need to change, chief executive of Pāmu Farms of New Zealand (Landcorp) Steven Carden, still sees problems changing a farming knowledge base that is finely tuned to intensive farming.

"We need to change and re-train but want to know how we do this," he said.

Climate change is already having a huge impact already on agriculture, Fonterra director social responsibility, Carolyn Mortland said. 

Dairy produces 25 per cent of the country's green house gas emissions, and Fonterra is New Zealand's second largest user of coal, so clearly the sector has a role to play, she told delegates.

Fonterra plans to have the processing side at carbon zero by 2050 she said, but will be relying on innovation including better soil carbon storage to reduce other emissions.

Not at the conference but interested in the discussion, Northland Federated Farmers president, and beef and sheep farmer John Blackwell, agreed carbon capture in soil needs to be looked at more seriously but was more skeptical of some suggestions.

Stock rating efficiency had improved a lot in recent years and there weren't the same high farm inputs in beef and sheep farming as for dairying, he said.

While some dairy land could be cropped, dry stock land was often hilly and not suitable for horticulture.

Crop production also sees a lot of carbon escape into the atmosphere and, while farm forestry is an option, harvesting is hard on the land particularly in winter, he said.