Clean green New Zealand?
Aotearoa likes to think of itself as a green, unspoiled land. New Zealanders like to think they’re on the forefront of action against climate crisis. How much of this is accurate? We have known for a while how damaging the dairy industry can be to our environment and waterways. What does Aotearoa’s future hold?
On Green Desk, Reporter Oscar Perress talked to Dr Mike Joy about fossil fuels, his talk at Auckland University of Technology, and the biophysical limits to Aotearoa's food and environmental future.
You can find the full interview here and the written transcript below. What follows is a write up from Angus Coker Grant.
Dairy is New Zealand’s second largest industry, and it’s old news that it’s having an impact on our environment. Methane from cattle and sheep account for a third of New Zealand’s greenhouse gas output. These are natural gases from the livestock, but what sort of impact does the farming process have as a whole? Turns out fossil-fuels play a large role in industrial farming, Victoria University ecologist Dr. Mike Joy told bFM. “We create more artificial nitrogen to grow food than any natural system so we are totally dependent on fossil fuel for our food.”
Joy is blunt when it comes to humanity’s consumption of fossil fuels. “We’ve kind of extracted everything we can out of this planet to get the population that we have, to have the lifestyles that a proportion of us have.”
The world is nearing the end of its tether in sustaining the seven billion of us, but most people are oblivious to the extent of the relations between our food industry and fossil fuels. “Most New Zealanders or global citizens have any idea because all we’ve known in our lifetimes and the lifetimes of parents and grandparents is this massive amount of energy available.”
New Zealand is doing pretty well though, right? Don’t we have a significant amount of wind farms and other green energy? Not quite, Joy says. “We actually have less renewable energy as a proportion of what our total energy use is than at any time in our history.” Looking at embodied energy, the total energy used for all stages of production, New Zealand doesn’t perform so well. “82% of our energy comes from fossil fuels”
Joy adds the current progress against fossil-fuel sources is lagging behind.
“We’re increasing wind turbines and solar panels and that kind of thing but nowhere near as fast as we’re increasing our overall energy use.”
Cutting back on meat consumption is a wise idea Joy continues. “The first step to being able to support anything like the population we have without that energy coming in is that we’re going to have to reduce animals in our diets in a really, really big way.”
Aside from the looming climate crisis Joy notes the potential damage to New Zealand’s reputation. “Intensive farming is destroying the environment and if the truth ever got out about it, the reality of the environment here, then we would lose that green image and we would never get it back again.”
Again, Joy gets blunt. Cutting back on meat consumption is something we don’t have a choice in. “If we want to have a future, then we’re gonna have to eat less meat. It’s not about a want, it’s about an inevitable reality.”
Joy goes on to explain how New Zealand farms consume a large amount of palm kernel extract, or PKE. A by-product of palm oil which is rapidly decreasing rainforests, endangering the likes of orangutans. “Fossil-fuel derived fertiliser, plus palm kernel put together to make industrial farming that has huge impacts on our environment.”
Joy closes that making the right decision now, rather than later, is crucial in ensuring humanity has a bright future. “That’s the future we will either voluntarily go into, or it’s the future that we will be forced into if we don’t get onto it. And if we get forced into it, it’ll be really messy and really, really damaging. But if we manage our way into it, we’ll be able to survive and thrive.”
By Angus Coker Grant
Oscar Perress: What does the title, ‘The biophysical limits to our food and energy future’ exactly mean?
Dr. Mike Joy: I think that climate change is in the news a lot but it’s just one sort of manifestation of limits to growth and the biophysical bit of it is just that we have reached the limits of - we’ve kind of extracted everything we can out of this planet to get the population that we have, to have the lifestyles that a proportion of us have. And all of those limits are hitting us at the moment, there’s so many things that are running out - we’ve reached the peak of. And energy is a big part of it. Fossil energy. I start off talking about how dependent we are on fossil fuel, in every way, but especially our food. People are probably aware of the ‘green revolution’, this massive increase in population we’ve had over the last 100 years but especially the last 50 years. And it was some great technology but all of that technology required fossil fuels and really what it was all about was this process that we invented in the early 1900s to convert fossil fuels into nitrogen fertiliser, or using fossil fuels to take it out of the atmosphere. Now we create more artificial nitrogen to grow food than any natural system so we are totally dependent on fossil fuel for our food. Probably something in the vicinity of 70-80% of our food comes from fossil fuels. Basically eating the past. And now that past is now catching up to us because we have a huge population and we are increasingly unable to either access the fossil fuels, or because of climate change, use the fossil fuels.
Do you think the majority of New Zealanders are aware of our reliance on fossil fuels with food?
No, I don’t think we have. Most New Zealanders or global citizens have any idea because all we’ve known in our lifetimes and the lifetimes of parents and grandparents is this massive amount of energy available. So we just think it’s normal, it’s part of life.
So why do you think we accept that? Why do you think that is the way it is?
Oh we don’t. We are just not aware of it because it’s all we see around us. I mean, a good example is many New Zealanders sort of smugly think that we are fine because 80% of our energy comes from renewable sources. Y’know, hydro and geothermal. But most people do not realise that that’s about 20% of our energy use. When you include embodied energy, then 82% of our energy comes from fossil fuels. So the 80% is 80% of 18%, which is a tiny part of our total energy use. And so the things that we take for granted, the huge buildings the cars, the roads, the infrastructure that we take for granted. All of it comes from fossil fuels, or almost all of it. And the other part of that is people assume, or many people assume that we are taking - that we have more renewable energy than before. But that’s completely wrong as well. We actually have less renewable energy as a proportion of what our total energy use is than at any time in our history. And it’s just getting less and less. Every day, we use more and more fossil fuels and we’re increasing wind turbines and solar panels and that kind of thing but nowhere near as fast as we’re increasing our overall energy use.
So what would you say the future of food and energy is?
The future of food and - well the reality is that a huge amount of our energy that goes into our food production goes into feed animals and a particularly wasteful and inefficient way of producing protein. So the first step to being able to support anything like the population we have without that energy coming in is that we’re going to have to reduce animals in our diets in a really, really big way.
I was doing a bit of background reading about your past and about your work as well. And a lot of media outlets describe you as a feisty environmentalist, or some form of radicalist or fierce - do you think that’s a fair reputation? To me it seems perfectly rational behaviour and smart and responsible to the crisis we now are in. DO you think perhaps it is an issue that people who produce work like you are seen as feisty and fierce?
What they’re trying to do is put me down. Huge money is made. It’s a real threat to businesses we know, is the realisation of people: That we can’t keep growing like we are. And so there’s huge money invested into making sure people are not aware of reality. So that they’ll keep on consuming and flying around the world and doing all the other things that have a major impact on the planet. I’m just one of a handful, really, of a small number of people who are trying to stand up and point out this reality and we’re up against armies of PR and comms people. I mean just the main area that I work in with freshwater in New Zealand, there, I’m up against the agriculture industry, fertilizer industry, even in local body, local and central government where they’re charged with looking after the environment and the economy. And economy comes first. And they spend more and more money every day on spin, and comms, and telling it, y’know, painting a rosy picture of reality because they're reporting on themselves, and in the case of the industry, they make their money on selling more of the product. And so you get the situation in New Zealand where farmers can make a lot more money, and be better off, and have happier lifestyles with way less input. But they just don’t get that message. They keep getting told to produce more, to buy more of the fertiliser and industrialize their farming systems more and more to produce more volume for the likes of Fonterra. And to buy more products from the fertilizer company. So there’s a massive incentive to do more, to spend more and there’s very little money or incentive to do less. And so getting the message across that we need to do a lot less is difficult and of course we open ourselves to being attacked and shut down for getting that truth out.
Certainly. Earlier this year you co-authored an article titled “Despite it’s green image, NZ has world’s highest proportion of species at risk” and it breaks down a whole heap of facts about the New Zealand environment that I’m sure a lot of the listeners aren’t aware about. I would recommend that they check it out if they have the time. Do you think this disillusion with New Zealand’s environment that we have this clean, green, supposed pure 100% image that you are talking about people paying to protect. Do you think that relationship is quite dangerous in how we move forward with the environment?
Yeah, certainly. I mean even from just a marketing point of view. Tourism and dairy are our two of our really big earners of overseas funds. And they are at odds. Because intensive farming is destroying the environment and if the truth ever got out about it, the reality of the environment here, then we would lose that green image and we would never get it back again. But I've said it before and I'll say it again: It’s what footballers would call an own goal. It’s an own goal for the industry, for the farming industry. Because the biggest value add that they can put to their produce is the clean green image. As the rest of the world gets more and more degraded, people will pay more and more for products that they can trust coming from a clean green country. And that’s the same producers that would profit and gain from that are the same ones that are destroying that reality. It is a real dilemma and it’s really dangerous for us to be going down this pathway where we keep industrialising and doing more and more damage as we go ahead.
It’s not quite an impossible question - there are a lot of solutions, but what would you like to see as the key mainfixes moving forward in the agricultural industry and with freshwater as well. You’ve touched upon moving towards less meat. What other ways do you see as beneficial for Aotearoa to implement in order to regenerate this clean green image?
It’s not going to be a choice much longer. I’m not saying people should eat less meat for any other reason than that’s the reality. That’s where most of the damage comes from. And if we want to have a future, then we’re gonna have to eat less meat. It’s not about a want, it’s about an inevitable reality. The kind of changes that we’d need to do is stop using fossil-fuel derived fertilisers, and farm more naturally. It can be called lots of names, but buzzword at the moment is regenerative farming which is a way of making food that doesn’t have impacts on the planet. And it’s the only way that we can survive into the future is to do that kind of farming. At the moment we’re the biggest importer in the world of palm kernel. Another thing that intensifies our farming. So fossil-fuel derived fertiliser, plus palm kernel put together to make industrial farming that has huge impacts on our environment. So very, very simply get rid of those things and farm to suit the land, to suit the rainfall, to suit the fertility of the soils. And then much more profit for farmers in that process. And way less impact on the environment. That’s the future we will either voluntarily go into, or it’s the future that we will be forced into if we don’t get onto it. And if we get forced into it, it’ll be really messy and really, really damaging. But if we manage our way into it, we’ll be able to survive and thrive.
I’ve got one last question. If the listeners could remember three things about the New Zealand environment and/or about biodiversity in Aotearoa, what would you like those three things to be?
Well I think that the reality is that we’re at a crisis point when it comes to biodiversity and ecosystem health in New Zealand. And the drivers of that are industrial, intensive farming, fossil fuel based farming and what we do as humans, the reliance we have on fossil fuels. So we have to cut back the impact and the intensity of energy in our lifestyles and our food production to have any kind of hope in a future.
Photo credit: Stuff