Nitrogen footprint farming's Achilles' heel

02:02, Jul 25 2013

Humanity's grubby footprints are all over the planet, indiscriminately exploiting resources like there's no tomorrow.

And there may not be a tomorrow if we keep on this way.

Here at the bottom of the world in our own little paradise, we look around, see the green hills and sparkling waters and smugly proclaim that we're not like those wastrels in other countries.

That may be true, but we're not perfect. And those wastrels are keen to impose on us the high-minded views they can't get their own citizens to maintain.

For example, we've had to fight off such ill-thought concepts as food miles - the mistaken idea that because a country is far away it uses more energy than others closer to export its goods.

New Zealand is able to prove its production and transport systems are more energy-efficient than the countries it exports to.


But the idea behind food miles has not gone away. The save the planet movement has taken hold in the northern hemisphere.

Key supermarket chains in our high-value British and European markets have taken upon themselves to be the shopper's conscience.

They have worked out the energy use of each product on their shelves and applied a carbon footprint to it. A water footprint - the amount of water used to grow the food - is not far behind. Now, there's talk of a nitrogen footprint.

Until now, these footprints haven't worried us unduly. We can prove our carbon footprint is negligible and, since we are blessed with copious quantities of fresh water, we can afford to have a big water footprint. But nitrogen? We're in trouble here.

A Swedish report looking at 61 countries has New Zealand as the second-biggest per-capita emitter of nitrogen, behind Luxembourg.

The purpose of the report is to show each country's contribution to planetary deterioration and follows news that we have broken through our planetary boundaries in three areas: biodiversity loss, the nitrogen cycle and climate change.

The boundaries are defined as "a planetary tipping point, beyond which the planet and its ecosystems might enter new states, some of which are likely to be less hospitable to our current societies".

The Swedes have looked at national contributions in four areas: climate change, the nitrogen cycle, freshwater use and land use change.

Few countries keep within their climate-change limits and, as we're in the middle of the pack, we're not likely to be picked on.

On freshwater, we're well within our exorbitant limits and, with our low population, pressure to change land use is not high.

Nitrogen emission is where we come unstuck. Clearly, our increasingly intensive dairying has inflated the figures.

We're doing something about it, but it takes decades to see a result.

It may even get worse before it gets better.

A nitrogen footprint on dairy food products would not be helpful, to say the least.

Meat and fruit need not worry so much, but then for meat, a phosphate footprint would be just as awful.

As concern for the state of the planet grows, don't be surprised to see more footprints. I am sure the organic movement would like to see them for herbicides, drenches and animal medicines.

According to the Swedish figures, the British and Europeans are a lot worse than us on everything except the nitrogen cycle.

So does any of this environmental posturing by such countries affect our trading prospects?

Surveys of shoppers in Britain seem to indicate that it doesn't. Price is still the most important factor to them when buying food.

But New Zealand is positioning itself at the top of the quality food market. A key proportion of our food exports, particularly meat, fruit and some dairy products, is aimed at high earners and, for them, price is not as important as knowing that the food has been efficiently produced by people with a light touch on the environment.

We'd be mad to admit publicly that one of the grubby footprints on the planet belongs to us. Our promotions should continue to highlight our high standard of animal welfare and this country's natural beauty.

But in the offices of the people who are deciding whether to create a new footprint label - for nitrogen pollution, or whatever - we should be arguing our case.

We're working hard to clean up our waterways, harder than any other country, I'd wager.

If we don't, it will be the food miles disaster all over again. We'll be reduced to fighting a rearguard action in the media.

The Dominion Post