OPINION: Its time to imagine New Zealand without production animals. Anti-farming lobbyists probably dont mean this to be the outcome of their activities, but outcomes are difficult to predict, even when the predictor is an expert in the appropriate discipline.
Lobbyists are experts at getting noticed in the media. The negative coverage of agriculture this month has been extraordinary. Anybody who has read the press, listened to the radio, watched the television or gone to a cinema would be forgiven for thinking that New Zealand is an environmental cot case.
The reality is that pre-Covid, tourists rated the environment at the top of New Zealands attractions. The Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment has the data. The reality is also that without dairy, beef and sheep, New Zealanders would not have a first-world and flourishing economy.
In her speech to the Labour Party Conference this month, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern emphasised the fact that the New Zealand economy has done more than survive through Covid-times; in fact it has grown, keeping people in jobs.
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Much of the growth has been due to primary production.
This month the ASB economists have shown that dairy, beef and lamb are setting new record prices, offsetting increased farm costs. This means more export dollars coming into the country and more money circulating within New Zealand.
Despite all the good things that the primary sector is enabling, the activist lobbying continues.
Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Adjunct Professor Lincoln University, is a farmer-elected director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown.
On November 8 we were hit by what was described as new research linking nitrate in drinking water with colorectal cancer and 800,000 people at risk. Dairy cows and nitrogen fertiliser were blamed.
The research isnt new. It was leaked by a couple of the authors in February and debunked then. Professor Frank Frizelle (Professor of Colorectal Cancer, University of Otago) and co-workers have tried to reassure people.
The International Agency of Research on Cancer and the World Health Organisation has published reports on the issue stating that dietary nitrate intake is not associated with the risk for colorectal cancer in cohort studies and overall, there is no clear association between nitrate or nitrite in drinking-water and risk of cancer of the gastrointestinal tract, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, tumours of the central nervous system, urinary tract tumours, thyroid cancer, breast cancer or pancreatic cancer.
These statements are being ignored by those with an agenda. The agenda is moving New Zealand to organic regenerative agriculture and reducing the number of production animals, particularly dairy cows.
For anybody thinking that organic regenerative agriculture really is the answer think again. Production will decrease (which means more land needed for food somewhere in the world with impacts on biodiversity and greenhouse gases) and a premium for the product is required to maintain farm income.
People are already concerned about rising food prices and what they say theyll pay for a type of food (organic, free-range, whatever) frequently doesnt come to pass. Most farmers have mortgages, just like house owners, and the banks mind about solvency.
People are already concerned about rising food prices and what they say theyll pay for a type of food (organic, free-range, whatever) frequently doesnt come to pass.
Farmers cant just reduce animal numbers and maintain the economies of scale needed to support employees, infrastructure maintenance, implementation of new technologies and bank repayments. If income is reduced, who will own the farm? Who would want to buy and run it?
The implications for New Zealand are considerable.
Without production animals, the export economy would be almost halved. Forestry might take over the land, but 30 years is a long time to wait for payday. The tax take would then be reduced because of a restricted economy. The Department of Conservation (DoC) is already inadequately funded for the native forest; how would it cope with ex-farmland as well?
The animal protein that humans need to provide essential amino acids would have to come from other countries, not necessarily with the same high standards of production in animal welfare and low environmental impact.
Agricultural scientists will keep investigating, putting research from overseas into the New Zealand context, and identifying an appropriate better future.
New Zealand production systems have undergone constant improvement over the decades as scientific understanding has refined systems for New Zealand soils, topography, climate and markets. The team of scientists, researchers, rural professionals and farmers have enabled New Zealand to produce food with lower environmental impact than other countries can achieve.
We have the data.
Per unit of food, greenhouse gases are lower than in other countries. From 1.7 million hectares (less than 7 per cent) of New Zealand, dairy farmers produce 35 per cent of the export economy. In beef and sheep production, land that isnt suitable for anything except pastoral agriculture (or forestry) maintains productive capacity and employment, whilst generating income for families and environmental protection including control of introduced weeds and animals.
Farmers, like anybody else, need to be able to pay the mortgage. Farmers, like anybody else, want to feel valued and know that their work is worthwhile. People choosing careers want it too. Thank a farmer as you eat your next meal. The alternative isnt pretty.
- Dr Jacqueline Rowarth, Adjunct Professor Lincoln University, is a farmer-elected director of DairyNZ and Ravensdown. The analysis and conclusions above are her own. firstname.lastname@example.org
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