OPINION: Nitrates from dairy farms have long been suspected of polluting waterways around New Zealand, now they could be "killing" people, according to Greenpeace.
For the average North American (eating 90kg of meat and 275kg of dairy products, according to the OECD and FAO) and European (70kg of meat and 286kg of dairy products), the Greenpeace suggestion could be seen as radical.
For the average New Zealander, it would require quite a rethink: we eat 72.2kg meat and “more than 200kg” of dairy products per capita per year.
The Greenpeace vision is explained in ‘Less is more: reducing meat and dairy for a healthier life and planet’, released in March 2018. It is based on the following statement:
“For millions of years – on a daily basis – humans have faced the same question: what to eat? This question [is common to] ancestral hunter-gatherers and working parents on their way home, wondering what to feed their family.”
The document attempts to assist people in choosing a healthier lifestyle by avoiding animal products.
While it is true that greenhouse gas production is higher per unit of ruminant meat protein than it is for dairy or non-ruminant meat protein, comparisons of planetary impact are fraught with difficulties in that water and energy use are also different.
Comparisons with plant protein are even more difficult to make, particularly as statements frequently muddle protein per unit of dry weight with that of ‘cooked’, and also overlook the topographical and climatic requirements for plant protein production.
The Greenpeace report suggests there should be a transition to a food production system “where a reasonable number of animal products are produced with the land and resources not required for food or nature needs”.
Horticulture and arable cropping now occupies about 500,000ha in NZ – less than 2% of our land area. Dairying occupies about 7%, forestry another 7%, the Department of Conservation estate has 30%, and beef and sheep farms cover about 34%. And NZ farms have mostly free-range animals on pasture where human food would be difficult to grow for reasons of soil type and topography, unsuitable climate and lack of supporting infrastructure and labour.
It would appear that we are already doing what Greenpeace is advocating, particularly as animal growth hormones are not added in our production systems. In addition, antibiotics are used sparingly: we have the third-lowest use of active ingredient per kg of animal liveweight in the developed world. The same cannot be said of the human population where use is high. A further point in NZ’s favour is high animal welfare and human employment standards.
These factors should be part of the NZ animal product marketing story.
Global population is now at least 7.61 billion people and predicted to reach over 9b, increasing the requirement for protein, whether animal or plant-based.
This potential demand creates an opportunity for NZ: the global ‘allowance’ of 16kg of meat and 33kg of dairy product should be the best that money can buy….
Premium-based products is one of the paths for the future recommended by the Beef + Lamb NZ ‘Future of Meat’ report. Some dairy companies are also focussing on a premium future.
Capturing full value for NZ will require far more of a national approach than has been achieved in the past. Recognising that we are already heading in the right direction should be broadcast to the world.
• Dr Jacqueline Rowarth has a PhD in soil science and has been analysing agri-environment interaction for several decades.