Jacqueline Rowarth says New Zealand farmers have not been subsidized since the 1980s.
dr Jacqueline Roarth is an Associate Professor at Lincoln University. She is a Farmer Elected Director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown and a Producer Appointed Member of Deer Industry New Zealand.
OPINION: Grazing organic ruminants are the most polluting agricultural product in terms of nitrogen loss and greenhouse gas production. That says the British science journalist Goerge Monbiot.
No doubt vegans will feel vindicated and organic people will feel misunderstood, while regenerative lovers will feel confident until they read what he actually wrote – because regenerative involves pasture land and doesn’t use synthetic nitrogen like organic.
The conclusion will disappoint many people who saw a ‘natural solution’, but there are no easy answers with an ever-growing world population to feed and meet their nutritional needs.
No Hunger is the second of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the first is No Poverty. Almost a third of the world’s population has no access to normal food and one in ten is starving. In 2020, 47% of countries reported increasing food prices, compared to 16% in 2019.
* How to feed the world while fighting climate change
* Is it worth switching to 100% organic food production?
* Agricultural technology makes the difference in life, not organic production
Covid-19 and now the war in Ukraine have made food security a top concern in all countries and governments have taken measures (e.g. increasing subsidies and banning food exports) to try to improve food security for to ensure their voters.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reported in August that global support for food and agriculture in pre-Covid 2018 was nearly US$630 billion (NZ$1.04 trillion). It has since risen, and the FAO has stated: “Not only is much of this support market-distorting, it fails to reach many farmers, harms the environment and does not encourage the production of nutritious food”.
New Zealand farmers have not been subsidized since the mid-1980s. This lack of (possibly distorting) support has led to a focus on what foods can be produced most efficiently in New Zealand and at a price that consumers worldwide are willing to pay.
Amid the outcry ‘but food is so expensive in New Zealand’ it is important to note that although food prices have risen recently, StatsNZ reported that the food price index rose 6.6% in the year ended 30th June , but wages and salaries increased by 8.8%. Food prices have not risen as fast as household incomes.
Since the global financial crisis of 2008, the New Zealand Reserve Bank’s inflation calculator shows food has risen by 35% compared to wages of 56%.
It is debatable whether this can continue.
Developed countries that focused on reducing emissions by cutting down on synthetic nitrogen, reducing livestock numbers, and increasing the area of organic production also curtailed food production.
A reduction in food availability leads to higher prices for the consumer.
Organically produced food tends to cost more than conventionally produced food. This is because yields are generally lower. Some people are willing to pay the higher prices because they believe the food is better for the environment and better for the consumer.
Monbiot’s column shows that belief in the environmental benefits is unfounded. Organic beef farms, which take longer to raise animals and require even more land, lose twice as much nitrogen for every pound of meat produced as conventional beef ranches. They also produce more methane during their extended lifetime.
Likewise, there are doubts about “better for you”. Researchers from Stanford University’s Center for Health examined 237 studies to determine whether organic foods are healthier than conventional foods. The 2012 conclusion was that “fruits and vegetables that met the criteria for ‘organic’ were, on average, no more nutritious than their much cheaper conventional counterparts”.
The second point raised in the column was fed from the willow. The implication was that feedlot is better because animals grow faster. But we already have the data showing not only that our beef nitrogen footprint is one-third to one-sixth that of US beef, but also that the greenhouse gases for our meat and milk are lower than for comparable countries. Because we feed our animals according to their stage and age and have a high level of animal welfare. The World Animal Protection Index gives New Zealand a C rating for livestock, the UK a D, Australia and the US an E, and China a G.
In relation to veganism and reducing animal emissions, the concept of eliminating animals from the diet may seem positive, but the reality is that in order to stay healthy, a person needs to consume supplements and more foods, with a consequent higher calorie intake and thus waste of material waste. The waste contains more nitrogen and this has implications for increased greenhouse gas emissions.
There is ongoing discussion about how the world population can be fed sustainably. Different people have different perspectives, but the scientific fact remains – more people, limited land, and organic and veganism is not the answer for the majority of the population.
What is clear is that meat and milk produced in New Zealand have less of an impact than those produced abroad. The global message should be to minimize the impact on diet by eating only what is necessary – and choosing New Zealand foods whenever possible.