Why New Zealand may have to stop at 6.48m dairy cows

With New Zealand’s new Agriculture Minister saying his country “may have got close to the maximum number of cows”, and countries like Ireland coming under increasing pressure to decouple agricultural growth from greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the question of who will feed growing global populations gets more relevant by the day, writes Stephen Cadogan.

New Zealand is the No 1 dairy exporter in the world, but the new Agriculture Minister, Damien O’Connor, says cutting livestock herds is one of the things that has to be considered, to meet their climate change obligations.

Ireland is a “food island” of 5m people that produces enough food for 25m, and which has plans to feed even more mouths.

But farmers, along with households, business, and communities, are now called on to tackle GHG emissions, if Ireland is to reap benefits of a low-carbon economy.

This call follows the Environmental Protection Agency announcing this week that estimated GHG emissions increased significantly in 2016, by 6.1% in the energy industry, 3.7% in transport, and 2.7% in agriculture.

The increasing emissions make achievement of Ireland’s long-term decarbonisation goals ever more difficult.

At the other side of the world, a new Government with an environmental agenda has been elected in New Zealand, saying it will introduce legally binding emissions reductions targets, and bring agriculture into a “pricing mechanism for climate pollution.”

Climate change experts say New Zealand has to cut livestock numbers and plant more trees, to meet the goals of the Paris climate accord.

As in Ireland, their efforts to improve animal productivity and on-farm efficiency, and new technologies, may not be enough to meet targets, if dairy, sheep, beef and deer herds continue to grow.

Their new Government says it will support jobs that are “carbon-free, or carbon sinks, like forestry”.

Between 1990 and 2013, New Zealand’s dairy herd nearly doubled, to 6.48 million cows, and total milk production almost tripled, a big factor in a 14% increase in the country’s total agricultural emissions over the same period.

Milk production almost increasing three-fold was a tremendous achievement by New Zealand’s farmers and milk processors, which took advantage of the freezing by milk quotas of production in one of their main export rivals, the EU.

Ireland’s dairy industry only got going in 2015, after the EU quota regime ended on March 31.

That enabled Irish farmers to increase dairy cow numbers by 22% in the last four years, while greenhouse gas emissions increased by 8%. “This shows that agricultural production has gained some efficiency over this period, but that we have some way to go before full decoupling,” says our Environmental Protection Agency.

Agriculture remains the single largest contributor to Ireland’s GHG emissions, at 32% of the total.

This is where Ireland’s plan to grow food production sustainably, to play our part in meeting the increasing global food demand, while having regard to Ireland’s climate obligations, will be put to the test.

We depend on sustainable farming, climate change mitigation, and renewable energy to build a climate and resource efficient agri-food production system.

Otherwise, Ireland’s dairy industry may be frozen at one fifth the size of New Zealand’s, by climate change action.

That could amount to Irish dairy farmers and milk processors handing over export markets to their counterparts in the US, where dairy cows increased from 9.12m in 2010 to 9.33m last year, and they have the only national government in the world that doesn’t want to be part of the Paris climate accords.

It looks more and more like a clever decision made by our milk processors like Glanbia, to take their skills and export them to the US, where they have built up significant stakes in a dairy industry which still looks bullet-proof.

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