Reduction in farming intensity solves multiple problems

A major reason we struggle to find solutions to environmental problems is that we count all the costs of solving them, but neglect to count all the benefits, argues Dr Mike Joy.

Do you remember how the previous government had a plan to make 90 per cent of rivers swimmable by 2040? There are a few problems with this plan, including the fact it quietly fudges the definition of "river" to mean "a fourth order waterway", a technical term which can be loosely translated as "very large river". Using this definition meant that in fact, less than 10 per cent of our waterways are to be made swimmable.

But the largest problem was the dollar cost. When the government asked the Ministry for the Environment to estimate the cost of its plan, the figure was $217 million per year. Predictably, this was considered outrageously expensive.

In the last decade or so New Zealanders have become much more aware of the poor and declining state of their waterways and natural environment. Climate change impacts are a constant in the national and international media. Everything looks awful. A particular problem for this country is so many of our environmental problems are linked to high intensity agriculture, and we're an agricultural nation: therefore, as with the proposed river clean-up, the cost of fixing our problems can seem unfeasibly high.

But let's look harder at the costings on getting those rivers swimmable. Crucially, what was missing from the economic analysis were the multiple benefits over and above water you can swim in. If the rivers were cleaned up, farms would be losing fewer valuable nutrients and sediments. There would be biodiversity gains. The trees that would be planted as part of the fencing to keep livestock away from the rivers would draw down carbon and lower New Zealand's net greenhouse gas emissions. Less sediment would end up in rivers, meaning fish would have healthier habitats.  And in some parts of the country there would be significant savings for farmers from reducing stock losses and mortality in waterways.

A major reason we struggle to find solutions to environmental problems is we limit our analysis of the benefits of solving them. If cleaning up the rivers gives you nothing but swimmable rivers and the price is $217m per year, it's easy to say it's too high. But if it translates to keeping nutrients and soil on farms, fewer threatened species, more carbon sequestration, better human health, and fewer dead animals for farmers to replace, it starts to look more reasonable.

I see this again and again in the politics of responding to environmental crises: people talk up the costs, ignore most of the benefits, and argue we can't afford to make things better. It happened after the release of the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment's report on methane emissions. The report concluded an urgent 10 to 22 per cent reduction in methane emissions would be required to meet international climate-change agreements. The farming industry estimated the cost per farm at $240,000 per year. Again only costs were considered, not the multiple other gains that would come from stock reductions.

A reduction in farming intensity is in fact the perfect example of a single solution to multiple problems. Decrease the number of cows and you reduce the loss of nutrients to waterways (and eventually the ocean), you reduce methane, nitrous oxide and carbon emissions to the atmosphere, you reduce pathogens that get into waterways, you reduce antibiotic and hormone use, meaning less of both in soil and waterways, you reduce the heavy metal contamination of soil, and you reduce the compaction of soils.

Meanwhile the global call to reduce animal numbers, especially ruminants, is becoming louder, and our clean green image is very much at stake. New reports calling for reductions in animal-based food have burgeoned since the Food and Agriculture Organisation's 2006 report Livestock's Long Shadow highlighted the impacts of animal agriculture on the environment and human health. Recent analyses have looked at the 'safe operating space' for animals in the European Union and call for 50 per cent reductions of meat and dairy. Another study has shown only a significant reduction in animals-based food can feed the projected 2050 population of 9.5 billion.

For New Zealand this plethora of threats presents a daunting environmental and economic risk. The good news is we can afford to do something about it. Our clean green image is our value-add and we must enhance it. The solution is to move away from high-intensity animal-based agriculture towards low-impact farming. More diversity, fewer animals, and biologically optimised farming systems: it will work for us, and we need it sooner rather than later.

  • Mike Joy is an IGPS Senior Associate. This article first appeared on Stuff.