Carbon-neutral dairy farming isn’t just sustainable, it’s more profitable too

May 28, 2020

BY Alexander Kalis

By the Spinoff

Not only could carbon-neutral dairy farming be a sustainable way to mitigate climate change, but it could also be a profitable enterprise for New Zealand’s farmers, writes Prem Maan from Southern Pastures.

The Covid-19 crisis has shown us what can be achieved in New Zealand if we work towards a common goal rather than wholly directed by self-interest.

In my view, farming in New Zealand could be driven by a similarly united ambition to become carbon neutral and then, ultimately, a net extractor of atmospheric carbon. There is a clear need to make our farms more environmentally, economically and socially sustainable. Farming that produces more each year with fewer inputs and is resilient to climate volatility is in our common interest.

It would be useful to see this goal articulated by the government. Instead of punitive regulations, a bold approach would be to educate farmers and reward them for improving soil carbon sequestration, preserving valuable nutrients on-farm and reducing methane emissions to make animals more productive – all with the ultimate pay-off that premium markets will pay more for traceable products that have this kind of story standing behind them.

This could form the basis of a uniquely New Zealand solution where farmers are key troops in the war against climate change. Not through relying on the chessboard manoeuvres of traded offsets and market schemes, and not through production reductions, but through the actual capture and storage of carbon from the atmosphere into the soil sinks of our farms. This should be practicable and, equally, profitable.

The EU is planning to pay farmers to capture carbon on their farms – storing it in pastures, trees, hedgerows, and perhaps most critically, in soil. There is logic to this as soil has the ability to hold immense amounts of atmospheric carbon.Carbon-rich topsoil is very productive and the world needs far more of it.

New Zealand could take a similar path and incentivise pastoral farmers to make climate change mitigation central to their farming practices. The techniques are available and largely uncomplicated: rotational grazing, riparian and other planting, the use of earthworms and dung beetles, biochar, inverse tillage, low tillage, and rotational, deep-rooted, cover and catch crops. These and other farm management tactics can all come together to enable really significant soil carbon sequestration. Other countries call it regenerative agriculture. For us, it should be the normal New Zealand farming system.

At Southern Pastures, we’re practising and researching these methods on our own farms. We’re firmly focused on identifying the final pieces of the jigsaw that could see this country leading the way in producing carbon-neutral dairy. We’re a large dairy operator underwritten by long-term pension funds and our sustainability and climate change mitigation ambitions for our farms do not jeopardise this investment. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – our long-term view enables us to reimagine the industry both on and off the farm. Our founding environmental, social, governance policies resonate with our customers, as do our obligations to the UN as a signatory to the UN’s Principles for Responsible Investment.

I’m convinced that sustainably farmed, carbon-neutral products can earn a premium for the country as a whole. My confidence is also based on what I’m seeing in our own research projects and farm practices and on the international evidence that is accumulating at pace.

We must aim for dairy that’s less extractive but also more enriching for our communities as well as the country’s coffers.