IN THE NEWS: The average Kiwi eats 20kg less meat amid concerns over sustainability of agriculture

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IN THE NEWS: On FEB 4, 2018

'Farmers just aren't respected' – that's the Kiwi message to Europeans who are eating less meat. We kick off a three-week series with an investigation into how environmental sustainability concerns are putting the heat on meat.

Rebekah Robinson remembers walking up the driveway to her grandfather's Wellsford farm aged 8, to be confronted with an unsettling sight. 

In a large cauldron an entire sheep carcass sat boiling, head and all, to be made into dog food. "It was a moment of clarity about what animals are to humans." 

Giving up meat was easy when she was at her mother's, whom she described as a "hippy vegetarian". But when staying with her dad's family of farmers, she would be expected to eat meat. 

Mexican stand-offs ensued at the dinner table. "Eventually dad gave up the battle." 

Robinson remembers when there was only one takeaway joint in Auckland where you could get a vege burger and vegan milkshake. "Being a vegan in the 90s in New Zealand was so hard, there was virtually nowhere you could eat in public. You were a social pariah."

In recent years things have changed. There are a lot of options now – and Robinson says she has seen a shift in the reasons why people reduce their meat consumption. 

Although health, cost and animal welfare are high on the list, more and more people are thinking about the environmental impact. 

Concern for the environment hit home for Robinson when she had a child in her 30s. She believes the western diet isn't sustainable. "We're selling our future for our kids to live the way we want." 

As environmental concerns grow, so do the number of Kiwis choosing to adopt a meat-free lifestyle. A 2016 ANZ Roy Morgan poll showed one in 10 Kiwis follow a vegetarian diet – a 27 per cent increase in just five years. The sharpest growth is among 14 to 34-year-olds, North Islanders and men.

The number of vegetarians drops among 35-49 year-olds and there are fewer South Islanders willing to give up meat (7.8 per cent). 

In terms of sustainability, a low-meat diet is leagues ahead of a meat-rich diet.

A 2014 United Kingdom study published in Peter Scarborough's journal Climatic Change, asked more than 55,000 participants how often they ate meat and compared the greenhouse gas emissions of their diets. It found that a meat-eater's diet caused about 52 per cent more greenhouse gas emissions than that of vegetarian and up to 102 per cent more than a vegan. 

Beef cattle in New Zealand contribute to greenhouse emissions mainly through the production of methane and by expelling phosphorous and nitrogen into soil through their urine, which can end up in waterways. 

If environmental consciousness turns more people against meat, what could that mean for an agricultural nation?

Sustainable Business Network chief executive Rachel Brown thinks a radical shift needs to take place. That could mean meat becomes a high end, expensive product rather than an every day food source. 

To get to the point where less meat is produced and sold at a higher price, farming practices will need to become what Brown calls "restorative farming" – an approach to food production that focuses on protecting the environment. 

"Restorative farming is trying to help solve the whole system. When we focus on the farmers, they need to reduce the number of stock they have, if they do this they also need people to pay more for their meat." 

Brown knows it's not an easy task asking farmers to reduce the number of cattle they have. 

"There will be genuine fears of how they will pay their mortgages if they need to get rid of cattle." 

THE CHALLENGE OF MEAT 

In the not so distant past, New Zealand's identity was firmly entrenched as a farming nation. The fact that our sheep population was larger than the number of humans here was a source of pride for Kiwis – and ridicule from our closest neighbours. 

But somewhere along the way something shifted; New Zealanders no longer wanted to be seen as the backward country cousin to cosmopolitan Australia.

The move away from pride as a farming nation and a growing awareness of environmental concerns has created a dilemma for New Zealanders who have a tradition of meat and three vegetables for dinner. 

There are signs our love affair with meat is waning.  Data from the most recent OECD and Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations Agricultural Outlook shows in the 10 years to 2016, New Zealand's chicken and pork consumption per capita has grown, but the average New Zealander's annual red meat consumption dropped 25 kilograms.

Lamb and mutton consumption dropped an astounding 18 kilograms between 2006 to 2016, the data shows. The average amount of beef consumed each year dropped by 7kg within the decade. 

In 2006 New Zealanders guzzled 32kg of chicken, 16kg of pork, 17kg of beef and veal and 19kg of lamb and mutton. In 2016, it shows Kiwis tucked into about 40kg of chicken each, 18kg of pork, 10kg of beef and veal, and just 1kg of lamb and mutton. 

AN INDUSTRY UNDER PRESSURE

There's no escaping the reality of the environmental impact of agriculture. Collectively dairy, beef and sheep generate more than 97 per cent of all agricultural greenhouse gas emissions in New Zealand and almost half of the total green house emissions for the country.

Since 2002 the number of total dairy cattle has risen. As a result, the emissions created by dairy has doubled since 1990.

The number of sheep has fallen more than 30 per cent and the number of beef cattle has stayed the same. It's a fact the industry is acutely aware of.

New Zealand Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre international deputy director Andy Reisinger says emissions are inevitable, but New Zealand does relatively well.

Compared to lamb raised in the UK, he says, New Zealand lamb has a smaller carbon footprint.  "We have a much more hospitable climate which makes us more energy efficient, whereas in the UK there are less grazing areas and a lot more energy is required to raise lambs." 

Climate change scientists' main focus is working out how to biologically alter livestock, such as cows.

Reisinger says limited options make solving the issue challenging. Most of the research was focused on reducing the biological greenhouse gas emissions, mainly the methane which comes out of the rumen in the animal. 

"We've got good enough evidence to suppress those microbes that cause the methane without affecting the digestion of the animal."

NEW HORIZON FOR FARMING  

On the outskirts of the city, west of Auckland, past the orchards with old Deli names, Richard and Dianne Kidd run their sheep and beef farm. They've been farming the property in semi-rural Helensville for 40 years. 

On a recent information gathering trip to Europe, they asked German farmers if they felt respected by the public. Of course, they said, don't you? 

"And we said no, not at all. That's one of the biggest changes we've seen over the years. Farmers just aren't respected for what they do any more." 

Richard Kidd shakes his head at the suggestion that farmers are ruining the environment.

He and his wife were the region supreme winners at the Ballance Farm Environment Awards in 2016. Since winning the prize, they are often asked why more farmers are not be like them.

"I think many New Zealanders would be surprised at the number of very good farmers there are throughout the country.  They are very environmentally aware."

The Kidds have invested a lot into changes on their farm to counteract its environmental impact.

They fenced off 15 hectares of native bush so stock couldn't access it. Wetland margins have been planted with native trees. They've fenced off and planted in gullies with active erosion. It's not a quick fix though, regeneration of land takes time and investment. 

Brown points out that early adaptors of restorative farming methods like the Kidds will be key to getting other farmers following suit. 

"When farmers see these guys being successful they'll see they can do it. One of the biggest hold backs is a lack of skills and a new way of thinking." 

The industry is responding to the environmental issue they're presented with.

Beef & Lamb Z is pouring resources into research.  Its environment policy manager Corina Jordan says one of their priorities is enhancing environmental protection. 

"We're looking at how we prevent depleting the natural aspects: where the environment has been degraded, there will be restoration." 

Their work has started to pay off with their greenhouse gas emissions currently sitting 19 per cent lower than the 1990 levels. 

But environmental group Greenpeace believes farmers are being let down by leaders who aren't giving farmers the right advice they need to transition to a lower impact model.  

Greenpeace agricultural campaigner Genevieve Toop supports the idea of reducing livestock numbers.  "A reduction in gross emissions won't be solved unless there are fewer cows." 

SELLING OUR STORY 

Part of the pressure for a move towards restorative farming needs to come from the consumer, lobbyists on both sides agree. 

There are already signs of a greater awareness of the impact of food production on the environment with consumers starting to turn their noses up to mass produced food. Instead they want to know where their food came from – right back to which paddock in New Zealand their steak or lamb chops were raised.

For many in the agriculture industry, New Zealand is in the perfect position to capitalise on the demand for sustainably produced grass fed red meat. 

It is something the Kidds have been able to adapt to with their Kaipara Lamb product.

Dianne Kidd points out many local consumers want to know where their food comes from. "We tell the story of our farm and how we keep the water pristine clean, the stock in the shade and the shelter in the paddock. That resonates with people." 

Standing on their lawn looking over the rolling pastures surrounding their farm, the Kidds hope rural and urban communities can build a better relationship.

Dianne reflects the country is still paying the price for previous farming practices and that the two groups need to work in partnership. 

"We use the word partnership because New Zealand is a food producer and, let's face it, food is absolutely fundamental to life." 

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