What an exceptional spring we’ve had – grass growth has been phenomenal. Down on the farm there are lots of well-rounded livestock. Hard to imagine anything amiss, except perhaps for the tell-tale signs of sweaty brows so early in the season.
By all accounts COP 26 was a bit of a cop-out, where incredibly, agriculture wasn’t even on the agenda. From the outside, it would seem that not much was achieved, and certainly not enough.
The predominant industrial model of food production is hugely damaging to both people and planet, and yet farming with grass-fed livestock has the potential to be one of the biggest nature-based solutions to climate change. If we are to address this most pressing challenge of our times, we must engage in the debate in a much more nuanced way, rather than in simplistic media soundbites. It’s not about “animals versus plants” and getting everyone to switch to plant-based diets. Reducing meat consumption per se isn’t going to help. Some cows are good; some not so good – it depends on context. It’s about re-localising our food systems and getting away from the globalised, corporatised, models that hold sway and benefit only big players – to the detriment of consumer, farmer, local economy, and planet alike.
We need to differentiate between food production systems that are harmful and those that are beneficial. Many plant production systems are equally if not more damaging than livestock systems, and usually don’t have the key benefits of being able to sequester carbon and foster biodiversity. Meanwhile, good livestock systems can utilise naturally lower productivity landscapes in low intensity systems, where crops can’t be grown.
In New Zealand we are well placed to take advantage of our relatively good grass growing conditions to produce world class pasture-fed meat under highly bio-diverse systems, and to use this to offset our carbon footprint and reduce overall emissions. We just need to wrap our heads around and continue to contest the fact that this must be done while first and foremost taking care of our soils. The ground is not a “platform”, it’s a living system. High density, high input systems are part of the problem. Low intensity, low input systems are part of the solution. Using inputs that are local and sustainably grown is part of the solution. Using inputs from overseas that involve deforestation or mining, and thereby degradation of their environment and local livelihoods, is part of the problem.
We must also redesign our livestock systems congruent with our local conditions. Although our New Zealand winters are generally fantastic grass-growing seasons, they can also be periodically much too wet, at which times we must take measures to prevent damage and protect this primary resource and carbon mitigation tool.
Soils are actually our biggest terrestrial carbon store, not trees, and their storage potential can be massively increased under appropriate management. Under regenerative systems, topsoil can be easily grown and function restored. This would resolve many more of our national issues such as topsoil loss, soil erosion, algal blooms, sedimentation of rivers and estuaries, flooding and droughts, along with bowel cancer and many other chronic human health issues.
We don’t need to wait for the legitimacy of big international huis, we just need to show the same kind of wisdom and leadership in our farming that we are capable of and have shown in other aspects of human endeavour.