A New Zealand dairy farmer, yesterday. Photo: Getty Images

Why are we fighting so hard to save milk?

While the debate around methane continues to stink up the place, we are ignoring countless different ways to protect our food security in the future, writes climate activist Melanie Vautier. 

Agriculture is a huge and important topic in climate mitigation, in adaptation, in our very survival in terms of food supply. I went along to a public meeting about the future of the industry and unfortunately the whole concept was quite exceptionally uninspiring. I realised we are having the entirely wrong conversation. 

We have this painstaking national debate going on about methane – how to measure it, what target, what price, what subsidy, what’s fair, what technology can reduce it, and so on. One way or another, we should be able to “fix” the methane problem. Maybe incrementally through breeding more efficient animals and lowering herd numbers, or through feed additives that disrupt the natural methane producing process. It will be a struggle, but it’s probably doable.

But we’re forgetting about the phosphate imported from occupied territory in Morocco, the excess fertiliser making drinking water dangerously high in nitrogen, the polluted rivers, the soil compaction, the cow welfare in winter stocking, the coal used to dehydrate the milk – and all of that  when we can get all the nutrients we need from other, less environmentally strenuous foods?

Dairy cows stand in front of Mt Taranaki (photo: Getty)

Let’s look at the bigger picture: If we keep on doing what we are doing, if all our present trends continue, things are going to get gnarly. Climate change isn’t just rising sea levels and warmer weather – we’re facing massive crop failures, trade instability and unforeseen migration levels as much of the globe becomes inhabitable.

This all presents a massive threat to food systems. Already wheat yields have flatlined and are forecast to decline in Australia. Our current trajectory of a 4C warmer world would cut US corn yields in half. Less food resources brings with it civil unrest. 

Further, global food transportation chokepoints are vulnerable to climate impacts. Already these food trading hubs have been impacted by flooded or dried up canals and stranded trucks. 95% of our dairy produce is exported. A vast amount of the food we eat is imported. If things get bad, we can’t live off milk.

Farmers pride themselves on feeding the world, and this is what we will desperately need our farmers to do. We need nutrient dense food; we need a whole diverse array of crops we can live off, we need organic produce that’s not reliant on imported fossil fuel-based fertilizers. We need farmers to fill their soil with carbon, translating healthy soil to healthy food. 

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We still need our farmers to feed the world (Photo: Getty Images.)

We have multiple crises impending at once: climate change, diminishing topsoil, less nutritious food than ever before. Why are we fighting so hard to elongate a reliance on milk? Instead of the 95% subsidy given to farmers on the emissions trading scheme, and the millions going into measuring incremental improvement on methane, and the millions going into searching for tech solutions and this continued pitched battle between urban and rural people of Aotearoa, surely there’s a better way – more imaginative, more inspiring, more important than this horrendous single-minded methane debacle. 

We all are going to face challenges in the coming years, and farmers will face massive challenges in a changed climate as much as anyone. We forget that, at the end of the day, we are all on the same side. We all want to live in a stable climate. We all need to make changes in our lives and our work. Politicians need to stop point-scoring and start figuring out how to assist and offer actual support to farmers, so they can be a real solution to this whole imbroglio.  

There are alternative farming techniques which bring soil to life, put carbon back in the ground, and provide a diet we can live off. This is no time to argue about incremental methane percentages. Submissions are currently open on “ag emissions.” But what do we do when our very food security is outside the scope to submit on? 


The Spinoff’s food content is brought to you by Freedom Farms. They believe talking about food is nearly as much fun as eating it, and they’re excited to facilitate some good conversations around food provenance in Aotearoa New Zealand.

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