NZ’s low carbon cows: global warming heroes?

CowA new report from Lincoln University´s Agribusiness and Economics Research Unit finds that New Zealand’s dairy industry has a smaller global warming footprint than the UK’s, even after taking into account the emissions resulting from shipping products half way round the world. From Lincoln’s press release:

The Lincoln study´s central finding is that the UK produces 35 percent more emissions per kilogram of milk solid than New Zealand and 31 percent more emissions per hectare than New Zealand – even including transportation from New Zealand to Britain and the carbon dioxide generated in that process.

The report’s lead author, professor Caroline Saunders, explains the importance of this finding:

“Our report clearly demonstrates the fallacy of using a simplistic concept like `food miles´ as a basis for restrictive trade and marketing policies. It is obvious that production systems and not transport are the major contributor to the differences in greenhouse gas emissions and energy use.

9 thoughts on “NZ’s low carbon cows: global warming heroes?”

  1. I consider the resistance to NZ food imports to the UK to be strictly political by the local growers. In reality, when you combine decades of uncontrolled population growth, overintensive farming practices, a global economy that insists it makes sense to export apples from England to South Africa so they can be polished with wax, and then returned to England by another ship, the UK long since lost the ability to feed it’s people. In fact, at any one time in the supply chain from around the world they only have about enough food to feed their population for a week. Contrast this with NZ, which produces more food than we could consume in a hundred lifetimes. I predict that when they get hungry enough, any worry about ‘food miles’ will become rather irrelevant.

  2. I couldn’t agree more Richard – latching onto an overly-simplistic measure like food miles provides a perfect outlet for protectionist fears.

    The fact that the shopping public cares about anything other than price is a good start, but I would argue that even global warming footprint is too narrow a measure. The only measure that really matters is sustainability – in terms of not only global warming, but the health of our soils and the welfare of our animals and workers.

    “I predict that when they get hungry enough, any worry about ‘food miles’ will become rather irrelevant.”

    I agree and I’m afraid the same logic will apply to burning coal or forests when push comes to shove.

  3. You both make good points, but I do think our farmers will be making a big mistake if they assume that food miles is purely protectionism by another name. There are a lot of environmentally-aware consumers in the UK, Europe (and increasingly) the US. That’s the real danger: food miles is such an “easy” concept for consumers to grasp that they might not bother to look beneath the surface for the real truth. Of course, the local producers won’t object…

  4. Is there any equivalence to ‘carbon neutral’ in that there is/isn’t a ‘methane neutral’ aspect to dairy farming? i.e. grass grows (sucking up methane??) and the cows eat it, produce methane, which is then sucked up by grass? I have heard this little theory in places (possibly the National Business Review), but I presume that a chemical process in cows’ stomachs changes the grass to methane, whereas grass ONLY sucks up C02?

  5. Methane is produced in ruminants’ stomachs by bacterial action. There’s no really easy way to reduce it: you can fiddle with the mix of feeds so that the bacteria have less to work on, or you can fiddle with the bacteria themselves. Both approaches are being tried. As far as I know, there’s no direct “on farm” way to directly neutralise the methane emitted – but it is possible (or might be possible) to manage pasture so that carbon accumulates in the soil. If this can be made to work (adding bio char is one potential way), then each farm could manage its emissions so as to be neutral overall. A farm could also plant trees…

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