Saturday, December 2, 2023

Climate change: The upside

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Climate change is making headlines across the world but it is not all negative news as Tony Benny found when he attended a seminar at the New Zealand Agricultural Show.
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Higher average temperatures, longer growing seasons and a the ability to grow a greater variety of crops because of climate change will present new opportunities for New Zealand agriculture.

“With the right technologies, the right science and the right education climate change adaptation is a massive opportunity for us,” AgReseach senior scientist Robyn Dynes, one of six expert speakers, told people at the NZ Agricultural Show in Christchurch.

Along with the forecast downsides of climate change, including more extreme weather, there are also potential advantages for farming.

The country will likely have to cope with rising sea-levels, droughts on the east coast, more frequent floods and average temperatures up as much as a degree by 2040 and three degrees by 2090. 

“We are going to have a greater fire risk and we look to the Port Hills last year and with absolute horror to what’s happening in Australia now. We’re going to have more pests and weeds too,” she said.

But with up to 35 more days a year greater than 25C and 38 fewer frost days farmers will be able to try new crops.

“We will have a longer growing season, more growing-degree days, earlier crop harvests and these are real opportunities for us in Canterbury. 

“We already produce horticulture and vegetable crops here so we know we can do these things.” 

Much of Canterbury is now under dairy farming but Dynes predicts land-use change will occur in future as it has in the past and points to Canterbury farming pioneer John Griggs at Longbeach Station as an example. 

“He responded to the steel plough, he responded to refrigeration and he changed that entire system back in the late 1800s. That was technology, that was agility in our farmers and they’ve been doing that ever since.”

Dynes acknowledged the pressure farmers are under because 50% of NZ’s emissions come from farming but said that has to be kept in perspective.

“Let’s face it, there’s not a lot of people live in NZ and we don’t have a lot of industry so let’s remember that when we think about why agriculture is such a big percentage.”

And rapid progress is being made finding ways to maintain operating profits while reducing farming’s effects on water quality and greenhouse gas emissions. Lincoln University Dairy Farm is a great example of what’s possible. 

“They targeted the efficient use of nitrogen fertiliser, reduced fertiliser inputs and reduced supplement inputs. They reduced nitrogen leaching by 25% and greenhouse gas emissions by 20% so that business future-proofed itself for where regulation is taking us in the future.

“Our climate is changing, yes. However, we farm in a highly variable environment. “We’ve already experienced variation in the seasons, it’s just they’ve been one-offs in the past but we know how we dealt with that, we know how to get there.”  

Lincoln University vice-chancellor Bruce McKenzie said as much of the world moves to flexitarian diets that, too, presents farmers with opportunities as increasing average temperatures make it possible to grow a wider range of crops. 

“Virtually all the grain legumes grow extremely well in Canterbury and we’ve done a lot of work at Lincoln University on a wide range of legumes, peas, fava beans, chick peas and with another few degrees of temperature increase we’ll be able to grow soya beans consistently and at high yields,” McKenzie said.

“I’m not saying temperature increase is good, I’m just saying it’s going to happen so we might as well use it.”

ANZ agricultural economist Susan Kilsby said the big message farmers have to take on board is the importance of showing the world the positive side of NZ agriculture. 

“How we produce, not what we produce will be the value-add in the future and by that I mean we will be paid different prices at the farmgate level based on what we’re doing on our farms,” Kilsby said.

“Traditionally what we’ve done on our farms we typically see as our own business but now we’re seeing far more eyes on how we’re doing things. 

“Are we running our farms in sustainable manner?”

Regulatory actions are driving this but, more importantly, customers want to know what they’re buying and that it is not just nutritionally good for them but that it isn’t having a negative impact somewhere else along the line.

“Understanding and connecting with our customers is really important if we want to think the way our customers think about how we are operating.”

This was brought home to Kilsby when she had a German girl staying on her small sheep and beef farm. 

“She said to me ‘I don’t know why anyone would be a vegetarian in NZ’ and I asked why she said that. She said, ‘I get it in Germany where the animals are all locked up, you wouldn’t want to consume meat there, but when these animals are happy and they get to run around, why would you want to be a vegetarian?’”

Kilsby questioned whether NZ is doing enough to sell stories like this in foreign markets. 

And she said a recent visit to a large indoor dairy operation in the United States showed another notable difference between farming here and overseas.

“One day the cows on this farm escaped and ran 2km down the road before the farmer got them back in again. He said they lay down for two days, they were exhausted. He said they learnt their lesson and never tried to get out again,” Kilsby recalled.

That NZ cows are much fitter than their US counterparts is another attribute we fail to market, she said.

“I mean 90% of the people around the world are living in polluted cities. 

“We’re not marketing the fact that the milk produced in NZ is from cows that are breathing fresh air. Milk produced in India, the biggest milk producer in the world, is of considerably lower quality that what is produced here.”

NZ agriculture not only has to recognise and market what is unique and special here but also start thinking differently in terms of maximising output relative to inputs and negative outputs so farm discussion groups need to evolve from talking about production and nothing else.

“I went to one last week and sure enough the first thing they talked about was where their cows peaked at and then they talked about some profit measures but we need to evolve to talking about how much meat and milk we’re producing relative to our greenhouse gas emissions or relative to our nitrogen and phosphate run-off.”

Once NZ farmers start thinking this way and telling the world about it, they’ll be better placed to take advantage of the opportunities that climate change could present.

“A lot of customers buy on emotions and stories and things that really connect with them are a little bit more exciting than just data and numbers. 

“The future of agriculture is really going to reward how we produce and those that produce efficiently relative to the inputs and the negative outputs.”

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