Common purpose needed for environmental policy

GOING GREEN:  Biological and organic farms noticeably handled last year’s drought better than their conventional counterparts.
GOING GREEN: Biological and organic farms noticeably handled last year’s drought better than their conventional counterparts.

New Zealand is at an impasse when it comes to environmental policy in the agricultural sector.

When MP Shane Ardern drove his tractor up the steps of parliament in 2003 to protest against the so called "fart tax" it illustrated the problem we have. It really should have been called a burp tax, but I digress.

It was a PR and policy disaster and farmers would have been penalised for pollution from ruminant digestion without any realistic mitigation options. Hence backlash from the farming sector grew, climate debate has been polarised, and climate policies relating to agriculture have stalled for a decade. Amidst the noise we have missed opportunities for genuine discussion to find real solutions. In the meantime dairy expansion has proceeded at a fast pace and agricultural emissions have increased as herd numbers have exploded.

We are all in this boat together and without a sense of a common cause and destiny between urban greenies and farmers we cannot hope to get through our current impasse for action on climate change.

According to the science, global emissions need to peak in five years and decrease thereafter if we are to avoid runaway climate change. Emissions from agriculture are our biggest source of greenhouse gases so meaningful mitigation has to involve farming.

Farming is dependent on a stable climate. It's not an abstract theory. An unstable climate has already started to rear its ugly head with more extreme weather events the new norm. The concept of the hundred year storm which now seems to happen every two or three years should make every farmer take it seriously. Areas like Golden Bay have been pummelled by re-occurring flooding and last year's drought had huge impacts on farming nationally and will take years to fully recover from. Such events have a direct impact on farming business, farming finance, farming infrastructure, and the future prospects of farming as a viable part of our economy.

New Zealand being part of global initiatives such as the Global Research Alliance is great but we already know what some of the real world solutions are to reducing farming's impact on the climate and wider environment.

Most people are aware of systems such as organic land management and while this is growing in New Zealand it currently accounts for 1 per cent of pasture land and 10 per cent of horticultural land.

Another approach is biological farming which has been described as sitting between conventional and organic farming. It manages soil as a living system, maintaining soil nutrient balance and thereby reducing fertiliser inputs, minimising chemical inputs, and maximising soil micro-organisms. It also uses crop rotation, green manure, heavy composting, and biological pest control.

Interestingly, biological and organic farms noticeably handled last year's drought better than their conventional counterparts.

Both systems not only reduce direct impacts on the climate and fresh water systems and make farms more resilient, they also reduce external inputs meaning a reduction in stocking rates or horticultural production can occur without effecting the farm's bottom line.

This is an important point. We need farming to be profitable, it's the backbone of our economy in a world hungry for clean, green food. But it also needs to be sustainable. Farming could be part of the solution to climate and water issues and be more resilient in the process. It could do this and continue to be profitable if we get the approach right. But we can only get there if we stop talking past each other and realise we are all in this together.