Newsroom - O'Connor says NZ could be close to 'peak cow'

New Zealand might be close to “peak cow”, the new Agriculture Minister says.

Damien O’Connor tells Newsroom dairying in this country has a “very positive future”, but “we may have got close to the maximum number of cows”.

Cutting livestock herds is “one of the things that has to be considered”. But he quickly adds: “I don’t accept that that’s an automatic need to meet our climate change obligations, but it’s one of the things that has been on the table, and it has to be considered along with a lot of the other things.

“I don’t believe that planting trees in every nook and cranny will deliver the solution, either. Somewhere in the middle there’s a sense of a way forward.”

In a counter-balance to comments which some might say are anti-dairying, O’Connor said one of his aims as minister is to have agriculture “accepted by the wider public as being sustainable and valuable to New Zealand”.

“At the moment, the sad reality is that too many people approach the dairy industry with a very negative attitude. And that’s not good for us, as a nation or as an industry.”

O’Connor re-affirms Labour’s pre-election promises to form a primary sector council and appoint a chief agricultural adviser.

DairyNZ couldn’t be reached for comment. But in June, chief executive Tim Mackle said “our farmers are ready to work on lowering emissions” while noting “tackling the reduction of on-farm emissions is not going to be easy”.

O’Connor’s National Party opposite, Nathan Guy, told Newsroom he was surprised had been “hooked in” by the peak cow analogy. It’s “not all about the number of cows”, Guy says, but about looking at the problem catchment by catchment. Regional councils are “extremely mindful” of what nutrient load each catchment could cope with.

“Regional councils are in the best placed situation to make those decisions, not politicians sitting in Wellington.”

Pre-election, the National Party said it would pump money into developing new farming technologies and practices that lift productivity and further reduce farming’s environmental footprint.

(Before the election, freshwater ecologist Mike Joy told Newshub that intensive dairying had the biggest impact on waterways and there’s no sense in cleaning up rivers before stopping pollution.)

O'Connor's comments about herd sizes, came a day after the so-called Speech from the Throne, and underline the new Government’s environmental agenda. In the speech, read by Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy, the Government said it would introduce legally binding emissions reductions targets and bring agriculture into a “pricing mechanism for climate pollution. Lobbyists in the farming, mining and irrigation industries expressed concern.

Earlier this year, a report by a London consultancy said New Zealand would need to cut livestock numbers and plant more trees to meet the goals of the Paris climate accord. New Zealand has committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 11 percent below 1990 levels by 2030.

In a report published in April last year, the Royal Society of New Zealand said a modelling study suggested gains from increased animal productivity and on-farm efficiency, combined with new technologies (which are still being explored), will not be enough for New Zealand’s agricultural emissions to fall below 1990 levels, if the growth in livestock continues on the current path.

The report said if gross agricultural emissions are to dip below 1990 levels, New Zealand could consider “shifting away from current growth trajectories for meat and dairy production to alternative, climate-smart land-use scenarios”.In Wednesday's Speech from the Throne, the Government said it would support jobs being created in industries that are “carbon-free or carbon sinks, like forestry”.

The new Government’s policies are a mix of improving the environment and reducing carbon emissions, on the one side, and a commitment to fostering regional development and helping farmers lift export returns on the other.

O’Connor says environmental and economic goals are not opposed.

“People who think that it’s one or the other are looking backward, and it’s time to look forward. Our future as food producers depends on our reputation in all areas of social, environmental and economic sustainability.”

O’Connor’s singing from the same songsheet as the Council of Trade Unions economist Bill Rosenberg. Rosenberg penned a report in August last year which excoriated what he called New Zealand’s “low value economy”. It said the country’s main exports – dairy, meat, forestry, horticulture, tourism – “all pay near minimum wages with notoriously poor working conditions and increased reliance on low-skilled immigration”. The report suggests investing money into higher-value exports.

O’Connor, the West Coast-Tasman MP, is also throwing his weight behind other ministers’ promises to tighten rules over farm sales to foreigners.

“We will put the brakes on that, big time,” he says, noting the intention to change the tests used by the Overseas Investment Office. It isn’t in the 100-day plan, but O’Connor says the Government will move on that “reasonably quickly”.

“It’s really important that we don’t see our land values escalate to unsustainable levels, and there’s a view that that’s already happened, because people who are cashed up can come in and buy farms at completely uneconomic prices, outbid New Zealanders and inflate all surrounding land values at the same time.”

O’Connor says being the “friend of the farmer” isn’t necessarily his Government’s objective.

“Doing the best for the farmer [is the objective] and sometimes that means making hard decisions. Labour has a history of doing that and, in hindsight, been proven to be right. Being the friend of the farmer is not always the best way forward when we’ve got to make some hard long-term and strategic decisions.”

(That draws a terse response from Guy, who says such comments will leave farmers and growers apprehensive about what the new Government means for their businesses, “particularly to do with costs, more regulations, a slowdown in the trade agenda and indicating strongly they’re not going to back any new irrigation water storage projects”.)

DairyNZ's chief executive Tim Mackle said the company was "committed to successfully farming within environmental limits and we do not support growth or intensification where this will exceed agreed limits".

"Put simple, the dairy sector, and our 12,000 farmers, are committed to taking responsibility for the care of our people, animals and our environment."

Between 1990 and 2013, New Zealand’s dairy herd nearly doubled to 6.48 million cows. That rise was a big factor in a 14 percent increase in the country’s total on-farm emissions over the same period. But it would have been higher without efficiency gains – over the same period, total milk production almost tripled.

Action on climate change, a big promise by Jacinda Ardern’s Government, must include tackling direct agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, which make up almost half of New Zealand’s gross emissions. Without doing so, the country is less likely to meet goals under the Paris climate accord and the Government’s promise for the country to be carbon neutral by 2050. About 97 percent of agricultural emissions come from the production of ruminant livestock – mainly dairy, sheep, beef and deer.