Calls for New Zealand farmers to follow the example proposed for the Netherlands fail to acknowledge reality, Jacqueline Rowarth writes.

Press releases are designed to grab attention. Usually they have some truth in them, but often that truth is presented in such a way that it assumes greater significance than warranted, and sometimes important factors are omitted.

With this in mind, Greenpeace Aotearoa’s pre- Christmas release is worth examining.

“Netherlands announces €25bn plan to cut livestock numbers: NZ can do the same”.

The headline was in bold to attract attention and many of the words in the press release were similarly designed to create impact: ‘crisis’, for instance. “The climate and biodiversity crisis require us to cut cow numbers in Aotearoa…”

New Zealand’s contribution to global greenhouse gases is less than 0.2%. Agriculture is half that, and dairy cows are responsible for half of agriculture’s contribution. It is difficult to see how a cut in the national herd will effect global change and avert a crisis.

The biodiversity crisis is also a global problem. NZ’s loss of biodiversity occurred long before dairy farms occupied 1.7 million hectares (less than 7%). Further, at the beginning of last year, Sir David Attenborough commended NZ for its work in biodiversity. Government-funded work has been possible from taxes and rates, both of which involve payments from farmers. In addition, much of the restitution has been on agricultural land – the wetlands and QEII Trust native areas that put conservation to the fore for perpetuity.

The Greenpeace article continued with ‘other countries’ plans – such as this week’s Netherlands’ announcement to buy out intensive farming – are leading with demonstrations of what is possible, while NZ falls further and further behind.”

‘It is difficult to see how a cut in the national herd will effect global change and avert a crisis.’

Behind what?

And countries ‘other’ than the Netherlands? Which countries? Belgium and Germany have been identified as being in breach of European Union directives but have not yet made any decisions, and even the Netherlands is still debating what to do, despite the headlines.

News that Brazil plans to increase its national herd by 24 million cattle by 2030 makes any attempts by other countries to reduce their numbers an economic sacrifice for no global gain.

Certainly many countries in the developed and developing world subsidise their farmers and growers to ensure domestic food supply, and subsidise them to export surpluses, but that isn’t the same as subsidising them to reduce stock numbers.

The Netherlands plan is in response to ongoing breaches of the EU’s Habitat Directive. Since 2019, the Netherlands has been breaking the EU law that promises healthy nitrogen concentration for at least half of protected nature areas. The problem is that ammonia, coming from intensive animal management systems (feedlots) results in nitrogen in rainfall. The Netherlands has the highest density of livestock in the EU with 3.8 million cattle, 102 million chickens, and 12 million pigs in total.

The 13-year plan to reduce animal numbers is voluntary, at least at this stage, and includes compensating livestock farmers to relocate or leave the industry. Others will be helped to transition to less-intensive forms of animal farming, with smaller herds on a larger area of land. As the current dairy herd stocking rate is approximately twice that of NZ, it could be that the Netherlands starts to look more like here, except during winter when stock will be moved inside because of weather and concerns about soil and pasture damage.

Whether this will reduce the nitrogen balance, which has already halved since the 1990s, is a moot point. The OECD reports that the Netherlands balance (loss) is almost three times that of NZ (187kg/ha in comparison with 63kg/ ha).

But omitted from the Greenpeace press release was the fact that the top exports from the Netherlands are fossil fuels – refined petroleum, crude petroleum and petroleum gas. Fossil fuels are 23% of value whereas food stuffs are only about 11%.

Greenpeace has been urging NZ into what it describes as ‘a cleaner, regenerative food system’ for some time. Now the NGO is challenging political leaders to step up and “show the kind of leadership New Zealanders deserve”. The wording is designed to appeal to political leaders looking for a point of difference. It also suggests to New Zealanders that they might be being robbed of what they ought to have.

Greenpeace’s final injunction is that it is “time to end the use of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and invest in the regenerative agricultural revolution that is 100% possible”.

The NGO is right; it is 100% possible to farm without synthetic nitrogen. But the implications are considerable. Synthetic nitrogen fertiliser has been estimated to provide food for 50% of the global population.

Researchers in the United Kingdom examined what would happen if England and Wales became organic, prohibiting all synthetic chemicals, as activists have urged. They concluded cereal yields would fall to 60% of what was being achieved with conventional agriculture, forage peas, beans and potato supplies would stay similar (but more area would be involved to compensate for decreased yields) and vegetable supplies would also be similar.

Organic dairy would produce about 70% of what was being achieved under conventional systems, eggs would fall to approximately 73%, pig and poultry meat to 30%, and beef and sheep would probably increase as land became unsuitable for other uses. To meet the need, food would have to be bought from elsewhere.

Swedish research concluded similarly. A change to organic production systems would reduce yields by 40%, but in some cases such as potatoes, to 0% due to fungal attack. Of further interest is that the authors could find no evidence to support the contention that organic yields would pick up after the initial decrease.

This means that “100% possible” would not feed the population, let alone the projected growth.

Context is important. NZ farmers can do what has been suggested by Greenpeace but there would be consequences. Although it is not unusual to hear only one side of a story when passionate people are involved, one side is not a good basis for progress. All press releases should be examined for their grains of truth and only those grains should be swallowed.

  • Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Adjunct Professor Lincoln University, is a farmer-elected director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions above are her own. jsrowarth@gmail.com