Farming has been in the spotlight a great deal this year as our attention has increasingly been drawn to the climate change emergency. Pastoral farmers in particular are feeling beleaguered by issues ranging from their greenhouse gas emissions, freshwater quality, animal welfare and the healthy diet debate. So just how green is our farming?
One of the things we do best in New Zealand – apart from rugby and the America’s Cup – is to grow grass. We have the perfect climate for it. Farming is fundamental to our economy, so it needs to be part of our solution. The good news is that grassland systems actually have the greatest potential for mitigation by putting carbon back into the soil.
Calls for shifts to largely plant-based diets are often misleading and misguided. They can do more harm than good. Many of these diets involve highly damaging cropping systems like those employed in the production of palm oil, soy, rape, almonds and other crops that have enormous environmental and carbon footprints. And that’s even before factoring in the ‘food miles’ – that is, the cost, including the fossil fuel, used to transport an item from producer to consumer.
While no doubt diversifying our land-use options is a smart idea for resilience and spreading risk, most our land is too steep and erosion-prone to grow anything much besides grass, or else return it to bush. Pasture-fed beef and lamb are premium products with significant health benefits that could come to define the New Zealand farming philosophy.
Having said that, we need to grow grass smarter, not harder. Lately, we have become too reliant on target plant growth promoters that short-circuit the natural system. This may work in the short-term in an industry with externalised costs, that is, costs that are borne by wider society rather than by the person incurring them. But this approach has come back to bite us and we’re all feeling the pain. Feeding and nurturing the natural soil microbiology would instead provide a no-lose scenario – improving production, drought resistance, soil stabilisation, water quality, animal health, nutritional quality and so on.
But what about methane, I hear you ask? Unlike burning fossil fuels or venting methane from buried sources, methane from livestock is recycling carbon already in the system, not adding new carbon. This carbon can be offset by on-farm sequestration in the soil from grazing ruminants on a fast-growing pasture chock-full of soil microbiology. In our clean, green paddocks, we could be growing topsoil at alarming rates!
So, come on. If you want to do your bit for the climate crisis and the local economy, seek out and support your local sustainably farmed grass-fed meat producers. Their grass truly is greener.
Bev Trowbridge has been a regenerative farmer for over 30 years. She runs a breeding stud of Wiltshire sheep in Ahuroa. She has a PhD in mammalian ecology from Aberdeen University, Scotland.