Farmers: for all our sakes, get your climate act together

by | Nov 25, 2022 | Opinion

Given that agricultural emissions make up the largest proportion of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas emissions. And given that agriculture was featured formally at COP for the first time. And given that we trade as a nation on our natural, grass-fed, responsible farming image, you might think New Zealand’s primary sector would take a stand at COP27. Maybe a brave one. Or just a one.

We didn’t. There was no formal presence from New Zealand’s largest industry. Fonterra, the country’s largest emitter, didn’t even attend.

The absence says more than all the bellowing we hear from farm lobby groups about climate. In the same week as COP27, Fed Farmers boldly claimed that it had public support for a do-nothing approach.

“A new poll shows it’s not just farmers who question government moves to make New Zealand the first country in the world to tax livestock methane emissions. The latest Curia survey of 500 New Zealanders, which has a margin of error of +/- 4%, found 57% did not support taxing animal methane before other countries. Only 26% said they did (17% were ‘unsure’).”

The poll was disingenuous on two fronts. The ‘tax on livestock’  is not a tax – it’s a levy that is kept by the industry to fund further research. Indeed, it’s a levy proposed by the very industry itself . The levy and the associated incentives contained in He Waka Eke Noa suggest farmers who reduce their emissions could be financially rewarded so handsomely that Treasury warned the government the scheme could pose a material risk to the government’s accounts. But sure, farmers, bite that hand.

The survey also cleverly ties methane management to a threat of reduced food production. That’s good mind-control stuff. At a time of food shortage and a cost-of-living crisis, who’d vote for less food? Never mind that the vast majority of that dairy is not destined for New Zealand’s supermarkets. Or that dairy production has ramped up so far and so fast in the last decade that we have literally reached peak cow. Even then, some farm experts say that emissions reductions will have no material effect on herd size and may even help improve productivity. But sacre tactics work. The farming lobby uses the emotions surrounding food as a weapon, effectively saying  ‘touch our emissions and you’ll starve, fools.’


A levy on emissions might mean this curve stops going skywards, a bit. Or not.



The absence at COP27 points to a deep problem in the agribusiness sector. Newsroom this week published a stunning chart showing that fewer than half of farmers think they should reduce their emissions.

If true, it suggests that arguing about the nuances of He Waka Eke Noa is not where the action really is. It suggests we may even be right back at 2003, with tractors on Parliament’s steps and a National Party leader stupid enough to drive it. It suggests that agriculture could drag New Zealand into the kind of climate inaction and shame Australia experienced for the last decade, thanks to the coal industry.

That would matter for two reasons. Yes, it matters for the climate – every kilogram of GHG, especially CO2, makes a difference now. We are now tracking to exceed 1.5 degrees of pre-industrial temperatures, so every tonne of CO2e has a material effect.

But we’re emissions minnows compared to the USA, Europe or China. Mitigating New Zealand’s emissions matters more for our trade. What will really hurt is the loss of credibility for an industry – and a nation – that trades on purity. The clean-green image is already a laughing stock to those who know, like scientists and the BBC. Thankfully they’re not buying our produce. But our customers are increasingly demanding climate action. The procurement managers at Tesco told a conference last month that it will require credible, science-based emissions targets from all its suppliers. They’re not alone. Very soon, expect to see tariffs applied to climate-unfriendly industries and low-carbon trading blocks emerge as nations coalesce around climate action.

The longer farm lobbyists delay, obfuscate and oppose credible climate action, the faster New Zealand slips into obscurity. For better or worse, this country is built off the back of sheep and cows. For all our sakes, farmers, get your climate act together.



About the Author

Vincent Heeringa

Hi, I'm Vincent! I'm a co-founder of The Feed, a writer, marketer and PR expert specialising in food, tech and sustainability. In a previous life I was publisher of Idealog, Stoppress, NZ Marketing and Good magazines and helped establish the Science Media Centre. I'm also the host of a podcast ‘This Climate Business’. When I'm not burning the midnight oil, I'm hitting the town or planting trees with my wife Sarah. Ping me to talk about all things food. @vheeringa

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