‘More harm than good’: New Zealand report calls for overhaul of national agricultural strategy

By Pearly Neo

- Last updated on GMT

New Zealand researchers have called for a complete overhaul of the country’s current national agricultural strategy, which is heavily skewed towards dairy and meat, to accommodate a more plant-focused approach. ©Getty Images
New Zealand researchers have called for a complete overhaul of the country’s current national agricultural strategy, which is heavily skewed towards dairy and meat, to accommodate a more plant-focused approach. ©Getty Images

Related tags New zealand plant-based Agriculture

New Zealand researchers have called for a complete overhaul of the country’s current national agricultural strategy, which is heavily skewed towards dairy and meat, to accommodate a more plant-focused approach.

The Green Protein report was launched earlier this year with backing from The Vegan Society of Aotearoa New Zealand and placed strong emphasis on the ‘non-necessity’ for the country to rely on animal agriculture, especially meat and dairy, two of its biggest industries.

“Animal farming and exports are not the only options to maintain a healthy New Zealand economy. In fact, on balance, they do more harm than good,”​ said the report authors, ProVeg International Director Jasmijn de Boo and University of Winchester’s Professor Andrew Knight.

“Diseases, such as the recent outbreak of Mycoplasma bovis, have led to the decision to cull hundreds of thousands of cattle. Scarce MPI resources are spent on dealing with such diseases, while other areas are under-resourced.”

The dairy sector is one of New Zealand’s largest economic drivers. According to the local Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI), dairy export revenue was predicted to rise 8.4% to NZ$19.6bn (US$11.79bn) for the year ending June 2020, and even with the recent COVID-19 outbreak, the industry appears to be weathering it better than most​ with exports volume remaining steady.

However, the Green Protein report claimed that despite its stellar performance throughout the years, the ‘true costs’​ of dairy have not been highlighted by companies.

“New Zealand is proud of its global dominance in the dairy market and its alleged clean, green image. However, the true costs, to animals, the environment and society are not properly reflected in the usual financial statements,”​ said the authors.

“[Studies have shown that] the costs of repairing the environmental damage from dairy farming [could] be as high as NZ$15bn (US$9.02bn) [but ignoring this could lead to] a potential loss in revenue from international consumers who would purchase 54% less dairy products if New Zealand’s environment was perceived as degraded.”

As for meat, Stats NZ ​lists sheep and goat meat and bovine meat as the country’s second and third-largest exports respectively, also making the category as a whole a very important driver of New Zealand economy. Meat Industry Association numbers valued export revenue from meat at NZ$9.1bn (US$5.47bn) in 2019.

The Green Protein report’s major beef with the meat category was about animal welfare, claiming that many animals across all sectors – poultry, pork, beef, lamb, etc. - all suffered some form of physical or emotional trauma as a result of being reared for food.

MPI has extensive regulations in place for animal welfare, such as a 59-page long code on sheep and beef cattle welfare​. Such allegations have also repeatedly been refuted by industry players.

 “As an industry, we have worked hard to ensure our red meat production systems are managed with the highest standards of animal welfare – it is in our best interests for both productivity and profitability,” ​said Beef + Lamb New Zealand Chairman Andrew Morrison in a formal statement.

MPI has also repeatedly assured consumers about its policies for the humane treatment of animals – but based on the report, these problems are still ongoing ones.

“It is clear that substantial ongoing welfare problems remain prevalent within the farming of poultry, pigs, cattle and sheep in New Zealand,”​ said the authors.

“This is contrary to good ethics, our duty of care toward these animals, the wishes of domestic and international consumers, and the interests of New Zealand’s animal production industries. One of the most effective ways to reduce animal suffering is simply to reduce the number of [animals] farmed and killed for human food consumption and export.”

Sustainability reasons

New Zealand as a country has laid out a list of climate change targets, including one under the Paris Agreement which is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30% below gross emissions (as at 2005) for the period 2021-2030 – according to the report, change to the agriculture industry is ‘inevitable’​ if these are to be met.

“In 2015, New Zealand’s gross greenhouse gas emissions were 80.2 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (Mt CO2e) [and] agriculture comprised approximately 47.9% or 38.4 Mt CO2e of this,”​ stated the report.

“[That same year, enteric fermentation (methane-emitting digestive process of ruminants such as cows and sheep) contributed 28,090.7 kt CO2e or 35% of New Zealand’s gross CO2e emissions and 73.1 per cent of agricultural emissions.”

“[Introducing] land use changes towards more horticulture production and less animal farming [could] lead to significant greenhouse gas reductions, particularly in methane, but also in CO2 emissions to some extent.”

Recommendations and challenges

In all, the report authors urged the New Zealand government to push towards a ‘greenprint’ for the country, which would mean changing the country’s national agriculture strategy significantly.

“Research funding [should be increased] for impactful projects, and redirected away from research that may only marginally lead to a reduction in GHG emissions, [such as] the suitability of various crops grown in different climates/locations including quinoa, oats, hemp, peas, fava beans and other pulses and legumes,”​ they said.

“Direct funding [should also be provided] for transitioning from animal to protein crop farms, [and] the Crown Irrigation Investment fund for dairy farm irrigation projects discontinued.

“Given the conflict of interest within the Ministry of Primary Industries (which is focused on increased production and the economy), the Government should establish a separate government body responsible for animal welfare policy and enforcement.”

Noble as these aims may seem, issues and challenges with these still exist – not least the number of jobs that would be lost and the economical impact on the country if it were to lose billions of dollars of revenue from its top food exports, which were not directly addressed in the report.

According to government site New Zealand Now, ​over 40,000 people are employed in the dairy industry as of 2019, whereas the Meat Industry Association puts the total number of jobs in the meat sector at 25,000.

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