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Can we fix it? How Taupo Beef and Lamb is fighting climate change with friendlier farming

To imagine New Zealand without farming would be a hard task. Historically, it has been one of our largest industries, and today agriculture makes up 50 percent of all of our exports. In a big way our cultural identity was formed around it, what with all that number eight wire. But, at the same time, biological emissions from the country’s agriculture account for almost half of New Zealand’s gross emissions – higher than any other developed country.

While a meatless future could be on the horizon with the development of bio-engineered meats and advances in plant-protein, it’s not quite here yet. So in order to address climate change at home, we have to address how we use the land, and farmers Mike and Sharon Barton of Taupo Beef and Lamb are doing just that.

The couple started farming on the shores of Lake Taupo in 2004, knowing the tensions around water quality and farming when they arrived. After much scientific testing, between 2000 and 2010 it became clear that to limit the amount of nitrogen entering the lake, livestock would need to be capped. The Barton farm has remained capped at its 2004 number, meaning the ability to grow their production has been constrained in perpetuity.

“Our only option to stay ahead of rising costs was to grow the value of the meat we were producing as opposed to the quantum,” Mike Barton says.

What resulted was Taupo Beef and Lamb, a brand ensuring quality, environmentally-sustainable produce, for an increased price. The Bartons don’t use growth hormones or antibiotics on their livestock and the animals are grass-fed, which has a lower carbon footprint than grain-feeding. The couple are also six years into a ten-year trial exploring the benefits of lecerne as a fodder crop with aims of reducing nitrate leaching into the ground water and, as a longer living crop, it would mean less cultivation, in turn reducing tractor hours and soil carbon loss. Mike says so far it’s looking very hopeful.

An environmental tick was created by the Waikato Regional Council and given to farms compliant with the environmental rules. The mark validates the Bartons’ claims and allows local farms to work under the brand, gain a premium from their meat and hopefully stay in business.

Although the brand has been well received by consumers and has won numerous awards for sustainable farming, the paradox remains between rising demand and the environmental need to lower production. Reducing the environmental impact of food production is a costly endeavour, he says.

“To expect food producers to meet all those costs is unrealistic at best, and will put many out of business at worst.”

He says food producers are already facing declining real returns, and putting prices up to reflect true environmental cost has proven “a political pariah worldwide to date”.

“Unless food consumers are part of the solution via internalising some of the environmental costs into the price they pay for their food, we will struggle to deal with this issue … Modern politicians follow opinion polls rather than govern bravely so they will only act when consumers act.”

In lowering emissions globally people will have to change food consumption habits in order to change methods of production. Supporting businesses such as Taupo Beef and Lamb that focus on operating sustainably is a way to do that, Barton says.

Technological advancements such as vaccines to lower methane emission, as well as improving low-performing farms, breeding lower emission livestock and using new feeds are all opportunities that lie ahead. But right now: “Aotearoa needs to invest much more science funding into the nexus of food production and climate change or we will not be able to innovate.”

So does he think those necessary changes are likely?

“For my new grandson’s sake, I hope so!”

The ‘Can We Fix It?’ series, which looks at how we’re using innovation and ingenuity to try and solve some of our thorniest problems, is brought to you by KiwibankKiwibank is passionate about the future of New Zealand, and about making Kiwis better off. They’re 100% Kiwi-owned, which means their profits stay right here in New Zealand.

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