Under Milk Woodford

I opened the farming page of the Waikato Times yesterday evening to see a prediction from Lincoln University agribusiness professor Keith Woodford that the government is likely to dump the methane component from the ETS. He was speaking to farmers at a Lincoln sheep and beef seminar. The articleis on Stuff’s website.

The basis for his prediction was political — in particular that the government couldn’t afford to lose the rural vote to ACT over climate change issues. However what struck me was not his political calculations but his claims about climate change.


There’s no consensus about the extent of climate change, he reportedly said, although some scientists claimed otherwise. He’s not saying there is no climate change, mark you, but pointing out that there’s a great deal of uncertainty “out there”. There’s an unfinished debate going on and anyone who says it is finished is either ignorant or untruthful.

In particular “some groups” have exaggerated fluctuating global temperatures, sea ice levels and the destruction of coral reefs. As for sea levels, they have been rising modestly for thousands of years, and earthquakes in New Zealand have tended to counterbalance that anyway.

Note the vagueness. Who are “some groups”? What is exaggerated about the rising trend in global temperatures which has been so painstakingly tracked? Are the sea ice extent graphs and measurements doctored? Is the concern of those who monitor coral reefs misplaced?  Is the measured increase in the rate of sea level rise imaginary? Is there no loss of mass from the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets?

Woodford seems to think all the specifics can be waved away with words like “exaggerated” or “uncertainty” or “unfinished debate”. And he accuses those who feel they must take the science seriously of ignorance and untruthfulness!

In terms of what we are hearing from farming circles these days Woodford’s statements are pretty standard fare. The New Zealand farming community appears to be foolishly cocooning itself in a protective shell of denial that climate change can possibly be as serious a threat as sober science says it is. Federated Farmers has been pointedly describing climate change as climate variability. They talk to one another and not surprisingly confirm their opinions by frequent repetition. But one might have hoped that the academics among them might inject some reality into the conversation. Evidently not at this university seminar from this professor.

What we do about climate change is one thing.  What we know about it is another. We may well be reluctant to take some actions, and there is certainly room for a variety of opinions as to how best to tackle the issue. The farming community may even have a case in relation to the ETS. But to bolster our preferences by claiming that the science is not settled enough to justify action is stupid and reckless. Where on earth does an academic like Woodford find the confidence to declare that there’s no consensus about the extent of climate change?  Does he have the faintest idea of the scientific literature?  Has he looked at any of the IPCC reports of what that literature reveals? Far from being marked by exaggeration the reports of climate scientists are on the whole marked by caution and caveat. That’s one of the reasons for taking seriously their generally agreed central findings.

The agribusiness professor no doubt has expertise in his own field. But he is only pretending to knowledge in climate science. He also confirms the prejudices of any farmers who likewise can’t be bothered to acquaint themselves with the reality of climate change. If farmers want to argue for exclusion from the ETS they should be doing so in full awareness of the climate crisis. Perhaps the trouble is that might undermine their case.

[Gareth adds: Keith Woodford is well-known for his role in promoting the health benefits of “A2” milk in his book Devil in the Milk: Illness, Health and Politics – A1 and A2 Milk. Perhaps less well-known is his 2006 paper Agriculture’s greenhouse emissions. How should they be calculated? in which he argued that NZ should use a 500-year timeline for calculating the global warming potential of methane in order to minimise its relevance to our emissions reduction activities. Woodford’s big idea has gained little traction, perhaps because it is impractical nonsense…]

11 thoughts on “Under Milk Woodford”

  1. On Monday we had Don Nicholson from Fed Farmers having a "whatever your policy is we want something else" moment in the Herald. He totally opposed the ETS and called instead for a massive investment in research to develop cheap alternative energy sources and "a low-level carbon charge" if we really, really have to.

    Back in 2003 the Labour Government proposed the Agricultural Emissions Research Levy to fund research into reducing methane and nitrous oxide emissions. Did the farmers support it? Hell no – they demonized it as a fart tax and stormed the steps of Parliament in protest. The picture of Bill English with a sign saying "The mad cow shouldn’t have signed” is a classic.

    Don Nicholson represents an entrenched elite demanding the privatization of profits and the socialization of costs. Seems vaguely familiar.

  2. Although farmers have a reputation for being conservative back woodsmen they all have computers and are more savy and astute than their organisers would have us believe. They know what’s going on in the world.
    If we shut The coal fired part of Huntley power station we could save so much on our emissions we could give the farmers a free ride.
    This is New Zealand and our farmers make a good contribution to the economy.
    We should concentrate on the issues that really matter and convert completely to natural energy. Coal is the killer..

  3. To ‘thesailer99’ – you are wrong on two levels. Firstly, in 2008, total electricity sector emissions in NZ were 10% of total carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. Agricultural methane and nitrous oxide 47%. Shutting the coal part of Huntly will not offset agricultural emission, irrespective of growth in emissions from either sector.
    Secondly, not including agriculture (or using generous free allocations in perpetuity) places the cost of those emissions on taxpayers. That’s a subsidy. Not only are the costs of emissions incurred by someone else, the price signal is so significantly watered down so as to lock-in continued emissions growth from farmers. That is not a good contribution to our economy.

  4. “If we shut The coal fired part of Huntley power station we could save so much on our emissions we could give the farmers a free ride.”
    You forget methane and nitrous oxide, and although Huntly is a problem – it is not the only problem! Gareth has already provided the figures for NZ’s Overall GGE. You can see quite clearly that farming makes a significant contribution to our GGE pollution.
    But like all good Capitalists, farmers want to externalize costs. Cleaning up the environment from monocultural industrial farming has not been seen as a cost in the past – because the world was seen as being big and the pollution was seen as being insignificant. Farming has been made profitable on the back of damage to the environment. Just as the world is now coming to see that the production of oil has environmental consequences, and these consequences also carry with them unseen costs; so too dairying carries with it huge unseen costs. The cost include not only GGE, but pollution of waterways, depletion of water resources, degradation of natural ecosystems, to name but the most obvious. But from the farmers point of view, if that means passing the costs on to the general taxpayer than that’s what is to be done.

  5. To begin at the beginning:

    It is Spring, moonless night in the small town, starless and bible-black, the cobblestreets silent and the hunched, courters’-and- rabbits’ wood limping invisible down to the sloeblack, slow, black, crowblack, fishingboat-bobbing sea. The houses are blind as moles (though moles see fine to-night in the snouting, velvet dingles) or blind as Captain Cat there in the muffled middle by the pump and the town clock, the shops in mourning, the Welfare Hall in widows’ weeds. And all the people of the lulled and dumbfound town are sleeping now.

    Thought you might appreciate a bit of D T., Bryan – one of my favourites.

  6. Yes indeed, Macro. I played the part of the Rev Eli Jenkins in a stage production of the play at the Globe Theatre in Dunedin around 40 years ago. I can still remember some of the dialogue – or roughly, anyway.

  7. I loved hearing the radio play with Richard Burton. Great play with words, and certainly a “play for voices”. I would have enjoyed that production Bryan I’m sure. I have all his poetry.

  8. Just the other day (July 1 actually – day 1 of the ETS) a farmer said to me that the ETS was a waste of time and money and unlikely to achieve anything and, in the same breath, mentioned his plans to plant a few hectares in trees for the carbon credits.

    “Well” I said “sounds to me like the ETS is working already”

  9. I’m not carrying a torch for the farmers but we have to be pragmatists. New Zealand is in the farming business and it earns us good exports and the world needs food.
    We have abundant sources of natural energy which we should be using now and it would make it easier to meet our obligations if we stopped using coal.
    I find it difficult to believe that 2 million tonnes of coal equates to ten million cows but I don’t know how much methane a cow emits.
    Don’t ask me about the moral issue of continuing to export coal.

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