In March 2020, Jasmijn de Boo and Andrew Knight published The Green Protein Report: Meeting New Zealand’s Climate Change Targets by 2030 Through Reduced Reliance on Animal Agriculture.
Purpose of the report:
Capitalising on recent trends and acting on concerns for animals and the environment, this report aims to set out the case for a different agricultural vision for New Zealand that is less economically reliant on farming animals for food generally, and on dairy, sheep and meat chicken farming in particular. It provides an overview of the scale of existing environmental, health and animal welfare problems, and provides suggestions to facilitate a transition from animal-based farming to crop growing and horticultural expansion.
Intro from me
Many of you will know the feeling of overwhelm which can hover above you like an overcast day when trying to digest a 93-page report on environmental impacts. It’s like reading a school report card for one of your kids which you already know is going to be disappointing. It makes for torturous reading.
How did we let it get this bad?
Why doesn’t anyone seem to care about what we are doing to this planet?
That feeling welling up inside you right now is exasperation. It saps our energy to act and carves out room for despair in our otherwise optimistic souls.
Don’t let exasperation win the day. There is too much work to be done.
The authors themselves say it best on page 69 of The Green Protein Report:
“The answer to achieving our climate targets is right in front of us; we should consume fewer animal products, and ideally only plant-based foods, as well as tackling fossil fuels.”Jasmijn de Boo and Andrew Knight
If you ever needed more motivation to consume fewer animal products, take the time to read this report. The evidence is overwhelmingly compelling and succinctly pulled together by the authors with just enough visual representation to keep you reading all the way to the end.
If, however, you’re like me and you just want the bullet point version. These are the highlights that stuck out to me…
The scope of the issue / where we are now…
Between 1990 and 2015, emissions from the agriculture sector increased by 16.0%. This is primarily due to an 88.5% increase in the national dairy herd size since 1990, and an approximately five-fold increase in the application of nitrogen-containing fertiliser.
New Zealand is among the top ten meat-eating nations in the OECD, with Australia and the USA ranking third and first, respectively. In 2002, New Zealanders consumed, on average, 142 kg of meat per person per year. By 2009, this had decreased to 106 kg. This is still 26 times the average meat consumption in Bangladesh, which consumes the least meat per capita.
Obesity rates have tripled in New Zealand in the last three decades
In a report commissioned by SAFE in 2016, Horizon found 3.3% of New Zealanders were eating a strict vegetarian or vegan diet (1.3% vegan, 2% vegetarian). Many Kiwis are already reducing their consumption, with 28% of respondents say are eating less meat than 12 months ago. Over half, 59%, of respondents who currently eat meat or fish would consider a diet where they excluded those foods.
The mind-blowing numbers behind our addiction to eating animals
Dairy farming is New Zealand’s predominant agricultural activity, followed by beef and sheep farming and horticulture. The total number of farmed (land) animals killed for food in New Zealand was around 170 million in 2019. Millions of fish and other seafood are also farmed and caught each year.
Very large numbers of chickens particularly, turkeys and ducks are farmed in New Zealand. In 2018, around 125 million ‘broiler’ (meat) chickens were killed, with numbers increasing around 16% annually for most of the previous decade. Around 3.8 million laying hens produced 1.1 billion eggs, and around 2.1 million turkeys and ducks were also slaughtered.
Globally, around 70 billion land animals are farmed and killed for food (Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations [FAO], figures for 2014),76 in addition to an estimated one to three trillion aquatic animals.77 Global demand for livestock products is estimated to increase by 70% by 2050 to feed a growing population and world meat production is projected to double by 2050.
Egg production drops after one to two years of intensive production. Most New Zealand hens are killed after a single cycle of laying, well short of their natural lifespan of seven to fifteen years. The flock is replaced by new chicks. However, half of all chicks born are male and cannot lay eggs. These chicks are usually killed by maceration on their first day of life, again, without painkillers or anaesthetics.
MORE THAN 20% OF THE DAIRY HERD IS KILLED EACH YEAR. AFTER ABOUT FIVE YEARS OF PREGNANCY AND LACTATION, COWS’ MILK PRODUCTION NORMALLY DECLINES AND THEY ARE SLAUGHTERED, HAVING LIVED ONLY A QUARTER OF THEIR NORMAL LIFESPAN.
Cows, like humans, are pregnant for nine months, and they too bond strongly with their babies. A strong maternal bond is formed after only five minutes of contact, following calf birth. Calves would naturally suckle five to eight times a day for the first few weeks, and stay with their mothers for up to two years. However, dairy calves are generally taken from cows within 12 hours of birth, and cows may show signs of extreme distress, searching for their lost calves for days. Both cow and calf may exhibit altered behaviour and prolonged bellowing. Numerous studies have shown that early weaning causes stress to cows, and mood depression in calves appears similar to that caused by pain following hot-iron dehorning.
Inefficiencies in the system…
THE WORLD ALREADY PROVIDES ENOUGH FOOD FOR ALL AND COULD FEED AT LEAST THREE BILLION ADDITIONAL PEOPLE IF THE GRAINS FED TO ANIMALS WERE USED TO NOURISH PEOPLE DIRECTLY
Even considering the energy value of meat produced, in 2009, the United Nations Environmental Programme estimated that the loss of calories resulting from feeding cereals to animals instead of directly to humans represented the annual calorie needs of more than 3.5 billion people.
THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT OF ANIMAL AND CROP PRODUCTION FOR HUMAN FOOD CONSUMPTION
Agriculture covers around 37% of the world’s land surface (13.4 billion ha). In New Zealand, 45% of our land surface is used for agriculture and horticulture. Twenty-six per cent of the planet’s ice-free land is used for livestock grazing and the remaining 11% (1.5 billion hectares) is used in crop production (arable and land under permanent crops). Approximately 33% of croplands are used for livestock feed production. The 1.5 billion-hectare area of crop production represents slightly over a third (36%) of the land estimated to be, to some degree, suitable for crop production. The fact that there remain some 2.7 billion hectares with crop production potential suggests that there is still scope for further expansion of horticultural land.
Agriculture impact on the environment
Based on Dairy NZ figures, the 12,000 dairy herds in New Zealand are estimated to consume around 4.8b cubic metres of water per year, the equivalent of around 58.2 million people.
The production of one kilogram of beef can require over 15,000 litres of water, and 1,000 litres of water are required to produce one litre of milk. The water footprint per gram of protein for milk, eggs and chicken meat is about 1.5 times larger than for pulses.
The enormous quantities of manure and urine that the national dairy herd produces, (approximately equivalent to 90 million people, but without any sewage system) seeps into groundwater and runs into rivers and streams, many of which are now contaminated.
THE ENTERIC EMISSIONS (cow burps and cow farts) FROM NEW ZEALAND RUMINANTS ALONE (NEARLY 19 MEGATONS IN TOTAL) ARE THE EQUIVALENT OF CO2 EMISSIONS FROM NEARLY 26 MILLION RETURN FLIGHTS FROM AUCKLAND TO SAMOA.
Eg. 49 return flights per minute. Every hour. Every day.
In November 2017, Fonterra published a plan to reduce carbon emissions. It claimed to have “set a target of net-zero emissions for our global operations by 2050, with a 30 per cent reduction by 2030 from a 2015 baseline”. However, these ‘operations’ only apply to the 10% generated by the total supply chain, while 90% is generated on-farm, where the potential to reduce GHG emissions (without reducing herd sizes) is minimal.
Did you know?
In addition to contributions to GHG emissions in New Zealand, the dairy industry imports vast quantities of livestock feed, including 1.86 million tonnes of palm kernel expeller (PKE). Palm kernel is a by-product of the palm oil industry, which is the leading cause of rainforest destruction. Tropical forest clearance and peat fires cause substantial carbon emissions and significantly eliminate many forms of wildlife, including iconic orangutans.
Researchers may use different definitions for diets and apply different methodologies to calculate CO2 emissions, but the relative difference between diet types is consistent within all studies.
Taking the findings of one study (by Berners-Lee and colleagues) and applying them to New Zealand, the vegan diet was estimated to be over $730 cheaper per year than the average Kiwi diet. Meier and Christen further found that as a result of land-use changes, vegan diets show a 53% reduction in CO2 emissions compared to omnivorous diets.
Clearing land to grow crops to feed livestock, rather than nourishing people directly, leads to significantly increased land use requirements for meat-based diets, compared to plant-based diets. Depending on types of food consumed, i.e. animal or plant-based protein, and farming method, origin, soil types, seasonal availability and so on, land use per person per year may vary from around 1,800m2 to 8,600m2, based on 42 different diets analysed in New York State.
In 2012, the FAO estimated that ‘vegetarian’ diets could take up even less space, requiring just 500m2 of land, with a predominantly vegetarian diet requiring around 700m2, a Western diet 4,000m2 and a mainly meat-based diet requiring around 7,000m2 of land. Meier and Christen estimated that with the implementation of a vegan diet, up to 1,000m2 per person per year could be freed up, with a slight increase in permanent crops abroad. Stehfest and colleagues found that moving towards a plant-based diet could free up to 2,700 million hectares of pasture and 100 million hectares of cropland, resulting in a large carbon uptake from regrowing vegetation.
Meier and Christen found that a vegan diet required a third less primary energy use than a meat-based diet. At the lower estimate, for every 1 kg of high-quality animal protein produced, livestock are fed about 6 kg of plant protein.
Animal farming and agriculture are responsible for 70% of freshwater consumption on the planet.
Mekonnen and Hoekstra compared water use for the production of animal and plant-based protein foods. The average water footprint per calorie for beef was 20 times larger than for cereals and starchy roots. They concluded that it is more water-efficient to obtain calories, protein and fat through crop products than animal products.
Transitioning from meat-based towards plant-based diets is no longer just a personal choice, but must become an international priority.
Some reports even claim that “alternative proteins might have their own health concerns to overcome, such as the role of GM crops in their production”. This could be misleading, as most meat substitutes use GMO-free soy and other ingredients. Over 90% of genetically modified soy is fed to livestock, particularly beef cattle, rather than consumed by vegetarians and vegans.
The societal acceptance of tasty, generally healthy, plant-based foods is improving rapidly. However, many people struggle with behaviour change, and in particular, dietary change. One of the main explanations for this challenge is that most people believe in an invisible system, or ideology, that conditions people to eat certain animals (carnism) while treating others as companion animals. Carnism is the dominant ideology in society.
Humans have developed various arguments to justify the rearing and killing of 70 billion animals a year. We have decided that thousands of species of fish and around a dozen species of land animals (mainly chickens, ducks, rabbits, pigs and cows) are to be regarded as food. As a result, many policymakers and researchers ascertain that solutions such as a society-wide substantial reduction in meat consumption (let alone adopting vegetarian diets) would not be attainable due to limited social acceptance. Sustainability is often framed in terms of existing, socially acceptable solutions that are close to current practice, rather than evidence-based solutions.
The business-as-usual model, that tinkers around the edges for minor environmental improvements, is proffered as the only acceptable way to reconcile our current lifestyle patterns with the inevitable climate change damage for which we are responsible.
Governments are reluctant to be prescriptive, and value personal choice and responsibility over responsible policies ensuring future sustainability and public health. Examples include “less but ‘better’ meat” messages, or advice to replace beef with pork, chicken and other so-called ‘lean’ meat alternatives, which essentially do not lessen the environmental impacts adequately, nor improve health sufficiently.
Overcoming resistance to change is about nudging people in the direction of making better choices. It is about rewarding food producers, businesses and caterers for providing healthier food for everyone. It is about increasing the availability, affordability and quality of plant-based food options everywhere, and making it the norm or default, which requires leadership.
Our education systems must start questioning carnism and offer more sustainable food practices with lower environmental footprints. The answer to achieving our climate targets is right in front of us; we should consume fewer animal products, and ideally only plant-based foods, as well as tackling fossil fuels.
This report provides a rationale for changing New Zealand’s national Agriculture strategy. Now is the time to change course, and to transition from animal-based production, export and trade, to healthy and sustainable plant-based production that will nourish the world and keep environmental damage within acceptable planetary boundaries.
As the impact of animal farming on the environment, public health and animal welfare is becoming increasingly negative, to the extent that it affects climate change and future sustainability and food security, a change in economic direction is warranted.
New Zealand is among the highest methane emitters per capita in the world, which can only be sufficiently limited by reducing the reliance on animal agriculture. To meet agreed climate targets by 2030, the New Zealand government will need to change course.
It should initiate a more sustainable form of agriculture and economy, by promoting, supporting and developing a significant transition from dairy (and other forms of animal) farming to protein crop growing (and other forms of horticulture, agroforestry and other sectors).
Research into plant-based crops and products, land use, knowledge exchange and sector development, is key to the success of the new economy, as is funding to support this transition. The transition plan will need to be implemented within the next five years, or else environmental problems may spiral out of control.
Time is of the essence.
Note: Links to all sources and studies cited in this article can be found in: The Green Protein Report: Meeting New Zealand’s Climate Change Targets by 2030 Through Reduced Reliance on Animal Agriculture.