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Key points for NZ agriculture from The UNEP 2013 Emissions Gap Report.  Win-win for farmers and the climate

By Charles Merfield

The 2013 Emissions Gap Report highlights what is required by the global community to achieve the 2° C global temperature rise target.  It was created by 44 scientific groups in 17 countries and coordinated by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to inform the Climate Change Conference in Warsaw last November. 

The 2013 report has a particular focus on agriculture, as it contributes between 15 and 30% of climate change, depending if just direct effects (e.g. nitrous oxide soil emission, using diesel) or indirect effects (e.g. the entire production system of synthetic nitrogen fertiliser) are included or not, and agriculture is still not included in most climate change negotiations.  

The report pessimistically points out, that the world is not currently on a trajectory to meet the 2°C target (which the widely publicised ‘lack of process’ at the Warsaw meeting, did not help) however, the report is still optimistic that it can be achieved.  It identifies three key agricultural technologies that can make significant improvements to agriculture’s climate impact, and that also can help increase farming profitability.  These are:

  • Agroforestry
  • No / min tillage
  • Better water and nutrient management in rice production.

Leaving rice production aside, there being nearly zero rice production in NZ (yes there are a handful of growers), agroforestry and reduced tillage are clearly applicable to NZ.

The potential of agroforestry was highlighted in the last issue (2013 V2 October) ‘Farming the Third Dimension’ . The UNEP report highlights the increased update of CO2 from the atmosphere and its longer term sequestration as soil organic matter (carbon) and in biomass.  As much of this carbon storage will be in deeper soil levels (where the tree roots are) it is not going to be of much, if any, immediate benefit to farmers and growers, compared to increased organic matter in the plough layer, as this provides a wide number of benefits (e.g. lower tillage costs, improved plant and pasture growth, better drainage, improved water holding capacity etc.).  However, as highlighted in the last issue, agroforestry offers a wide range of other benefits, including increased profit, and the big one in terms of current major problem for NZ agriculture reducing nitrogen leaching direct to groundwater.  With the growing scientific understanding and public realisation of the water pollution caused by agriculture, especially dairy farming, I increasingly think that agroforestry / silvopastoral systems could be a major part of the solution, that could also increase farm profits, animal welfare etc.

While the amount of tillage in NZ is small compared with the area of pasture, it is still a significant component of NZ agriculture.  While there is a growing understanding that the increased carbon capture and storage benefits of no-till have been overstated, or just don't exist, when the full soil profile (e.g. one meter depth) is taken into account, as the UNEP report points out, reduced tillage simply requires less fuel at the point of use and there is growing evidence of reduced green house gas emissions from soil, e.g. nitrous oxide.  Organisations such as FAR  and LandWISE  have been promoting no, min, and reduced tillage for some time, often linked with related technologies, such as precision agriculture and controlled traffic farming (CTF).  Again, much of this is win-win for both the environment and farmers.  

So, while the current climate change situation is not looking good, the silver lining for farmers and growers in NZ is that the kinds of technologies and approaches that can make a significant dent in global warming can also improve profitability.

The report can be downloaded from http://unfccc.int/meetings/warsaw_nov_2013/meeting/7649.php