A glimpse of light in confronting NZ’s environmental crisis

Is there a single answer that addresses all the freshwater and environmental problems? Yes: it’s fewer cows, writes ecologist Mike Joy in this extract from his new book Mountains to Sea: Solving New Zealand’s Freshwater Crisis

The problems faced by New Zealand’s environment, particularly freshwaters and soils are wicked, complex and intertwined. After struggling with these issues for a half a lifetime, it strikes me with great clarity that if you look at each in isolation they seem intractable; but when you grasp that there could be one single solution that addresses them all, then suddenly there is a glimpse of light at the end of the tunnel.

An image of Mike Joy by a river.

Take, for example, a subset of the many environmental issues facing New Zealand, such as bacterial and pathogen contamination of water and soil, excess nutrients in waters, excess sediment in waterways, freshwater habitat loss, groundwater contaminated with pesticides and nutrients, and the huge loss of the mauri of waterways. Any of these issues appear impossibly hard and/or expensive if evaluated in isolation for costs, or for the difficulty or value of resolution.

But if there was one action available that substantially addressed all of the issues listed above, then the decision would be simple – take that action. When multiple gains can be made for the cost of a single action, and the combined gains far outweigh the single cost of that one action, the next move is obvious. When it comes to the freshwater crisis, a single solution does exist – simply, reducing farming intensity: less cows.

Ignoring multiple benefits

A classic example of a problem seeming intractable or too expensive when taken in isolation was the analysis done in the lead-up to the government’s plan to make 90% of rivers swimmable by 2040. The investigation reported that the cost to achieve the outcome would be $217 million. Predictably, this was considered outrageously expensive. But the elements crucially missing from the analysis were the multiple benefits over and above just achieving swimmability – things like nutrient and sediment reductions, biodiversity gains, carbon sequestration and so much more, including in some areas significant savings for farmers from reducing stock losses and mortality in waterways. It is important to note, however, that further independent analysis of the 90% swimmable plan revealed it was flawed because it only covered the larger (greater than fourth-order) waterways. So, in fact, the “90% of waterways swimmable” was actually 90% of only 10% of the total length of rivers – just 9% of the total.

Another example of looking at a problem in isolation and deeming it too hard and too expensive came from agriculture-industry spokespeople after the recent release of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment’s report on methane emissions. The report concluded that to meet climate-change agreements an urgent 10% to 22% reduction in methane emissions is required (not to reduce warming, just to stop adding to it). The farming industry immediately weighed in with scaremongering, estimating the cost to be $240,000 per farm per year. Once again only costs were considered, not the multiple other gains that would come from stock reductions.

Fewer animals, greater profits

Furthermore, there are many studies of farms showing that significant stock reductions lead to none of the predicted loss of profits claimed by industry and Federated Farmers. In fact, in many cases the reverse is true, with gains predicted and/or shown in profit. Profit increases with reductions in stock may seem counter-intuitive, but come from reductions in inputs and thus expenditure. A published example from Massey University showed that on a model dairy farm, reducing cow numbers by 23% meant that synthetic nitrogen fertiliser and winter crops were no longer required, and profit increased by 14%. But the crucial figure was that the reductions in cow numbers by 23% reduced nitrate leaching by 43%. Moreover, as I have noted above, there are many other gains, including reductions in stress on farmers, their animals, their soils and much more.

There is, however, a conundrum here, because most agricultural analysts and scientists have some kind of vested interest in the status quo, or in putative technological solutions. So, when a solution to a problem is to do less of something, the chances of that solution seeing the light of day are slim. By contrast, if the solution is doing more of something (usually technological fixes, even if they are completely unproven), that is the answer most likely to be given. For example, the New Zealand agricultural industry’s response to the need to reduce methane emissions has been to avoid even discussing reducing intensity – they have instead highlighted a raft of technological fixes to allow business-as-usual to continue.

Technology will save us! (...if we manage to invent it, and if it works)

The mitigations proffered to reduce methane emissions range from genetically engineered grass to vaccines, but all are still under development and a long way from implementation or even feasibility studies. Again, crucially, even if they do prove eventually to reduce emissions, they mitigate only one facet of the problem (methane), whereas lowering stocking has multiple gains across all the issues, including the other greenhouse gases.

There are a raft of threatening issues converging, key to the future of New Zealand’s environment and of all civilisation, and they have implications for most human activity. Foremost are the climate impacts – some already locked in – and the unequivocal need to reduce GHG emissions to zero by 2050 at the latest, in an attempt to keep warming below 2˚C. Add to this the limits on many of the resources until recently taken for granted. Otherwise known as “peak everything”, these limits are fast approaching and include critical elements such as easily obtained (cheap) fossil fuels, phosphate fertiliser and antibiotics, as well as peak levels of methane and nitrous oxide emissions.

Livestock's long shadow

The number of reports calling for reductions in animal-based food has been growing since the Food and Agriculture Organization’s 2006 report Livestock’s Long Shadow highlighted the impacts of animal agriculture on the environment and human health. The most recent of these analyses the safe operating space for livestock (the space that can contain all the pollutants) and calls for 50% reductions of meat and dairy in the European Union.

As the impacts of animal agriculture are highlighted, there are burgeoning numbers of comparisons being made between the environmental impacts of food production in different countries and for different food products. The comparisons are made using environmental footprints across a range of measures, from water use to greenhouse gas emissions; as this makes production impacts more transparent, the pressure on farmers and food production to minimise the impacts of agriculture moves from regulation to consumer choice. Markets for plant-based dairy and other products like meat alternatives are multiplying exponentially as diets change among the more affluent populations globally and locally.

Converging threats

For New Zealand this plethora of threats coming from many different angles are converging, and present a daunting environmental and economic risk. The signs are clear, and there is an imperative for New Zealand to pre-empt the catastrophe and, as soon as possible, move away from high-intensity animal-based agriculture towards low-impact farming with more diversity, fewer animals, and biologically optimised farming systems, rather than the current systems optimised mainly for maximising production volume and capital gains.

The essential changes will require agricultural leadership, which has been almost non-existent, the one exception being the Landcorp/Pāmu example. Key to progressing in the right direction is keeping people with vested interests as far away as possible from decision-making positions; thinking long-term; and, finally, choosing the change that maximises multiple gains by ensuring problems are not considered in isolation.

The prescription is clear for a viable future for New Zealand and for civilisation. Moving into the storm of climate and economic issues, we must drastically change many things we do, but primarily we must have and protect a liveable planet at any cost. So, we must arrest the declines in the health of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems and the atmosphere, and become more resilient. To do this we must significantly reduce animal agriculture, and de-intensify food-production systems. Given the rapidly changing dietary requirements of humans, and the inefficiency of producing protein-eating animals rather than plants, New Zealand can lead the way. This change will give us multiple benefits – economically, for human health, animal welfare, resilience, the climate and much more.