Clean green meat

script for video on the ‘we make the cleanest meat in the world’ statement.


If you’ve listened to anyone in the National Party talk about agricultural emissions for more than a few seconds you’ll hear this.

Among the climate activist types, this sits weirdly against the things they know about emissions from Ag, coal, and gas burnt to dry milk, nitrates, and stuff like that.

Let’s put that to one side. For now. Because there’s a study behind this statement, and it’s had such an impact that people have stopped questioning it, or asking where it came from.

This was initiated by a government department, but with funding from the industry: NZ Beef and Lamb in particular. They also paid to get it publicised in the media, like here in the SpinOff.

The point it came up with sounds pretty good if you provide meat to international markets. It this:

That a kilo of New Zealand meat emits less carbon than its European competitors, even after it has been shipped around the world. And it’s kind of true, but not in any comforting ways.

The paper repeats two major points. The first is that transport emissions are a tiny part of the carbon cost. It comes under post-processing, so it’s part of the tiny dark blue line you see there. It’s between 2 and 6 percent, a little higher for sheep, a little lower for beef.

We hear a lot more about transport emissions for good reason - burning fossil fuel is permanent damage while burping cows is not quite.

If you divide up the carbon we emit into two buckets, the methane one has a slow leak. We’re currently filling that bucket with a firehose, so it doesn’t make a huge difference, but it could.

But there’s a spin here. People assume shipping would be higher, so the news looks great. We know it’s going to take a lot of diesel to send close to a million tonnes of product to the other side of the world, but this paper tells us that livestock emitted 45 times that amount before it even left the farm.

Still, it’s still less than Europe overall so why is that? It’s because of tree planting. What’s keeping the numbers low here is this calculation +Cseq, the tradeoff of tree planting. Under the Labour/Green coalition, we’ve been planting trees like crazy, to offset carbon.

The thing is, this widespread tree planting has had an effect on rural communities. It’s not terribly popular, for some good reasons since people are finding their spaces taken over with plantations and they’re starting to wonder what that will mean for their communities.

The Nats are pushing back on that too, in response to their voters. But they’re not coming clean about this study. You can’t have it both ways. The fact is, sheep and beef emit much the same, no matter where they are. When advances are made ag emissions, whether it’s genes or vaccines, you can expect to see them used everywhere. Our stock is pasture-fed more, but that’s not the difference, according to the study. It’s trees.

Now, trees are great at grabbing carbon out of the air and turning it into wood, but they can only take so much and will only hold it for so long. They used to be better at this when coal and oil were being made, but that was 300 million years ago. Now, they leak it back into the air.

Trying to even equate these numbers is a bit of a fudge: the permanence of oil, vs. the leaky bits around methane and trees. The writers acknowledge that. But that’s not acknowledged either.

So, you can see, this study was created to make us look good, but it does it with accounting. It’s not wrong and it’s been spun, without qualifiers, to let people make some wrong assumptions. Like when they put filters in cigarettes without talking about the evidence. That was just marketing too. But to be fair to these authors - they’re pretty clear about their disclaimers - they’re right there in the conclusion.

You can’t have it both ways. We can’t get back on track, because this track is leading underwater. The Climate Commission was created to help us find a track. They’re saying it these emissions need to come down, and you can’t plant your way out of the problem. That last point, I think everyone agrees on. Finally.

This process is hard on our farming community, make no mistake. But it’s harder than it should be, due to expansions driven by previous governments. Especially this one, who liked to pretend you could fix it with a tractor.