If our farming community looks at what consumers will want in five years’ time, our new direction will naturally align with the wave of new legislation aimed at cutting emissions.
We already have a unique ability to produce low-carbon dairy, and sheep and cow meat, so by looking at the challenge from a different angle — by seeing ourselves as innovative producers responding to demand — we can see the challenge as one of willingly seeking to fulfil a new kind of customer demand, rather than being forced in a new direction.
In doing this, legislative deadlines tie in with market opportunities.
Can we better reframe the conversation to enable farmers to keep their eyes on the goal - providing domestic and international markets with high quality, low carbon protein?
Discerning consumers are already starting to make decisions based on the climate change impacts of food purchases.
The popularity of plant-based diets is growing exponentially with, for example, about 2% of Americans now describing themselves as actively vegan. Swiss company Oatley predicting a two-thirds jump in annual revenue on the back of a booming global appetite for alternative milks, and fast-food outlets all over the world introducing plant-based burgers.
Much of the change can be attributed to a growing interest in low-carbon foods.
Obviously, purchasing decisions are based on other factors too, but there’s no doubt climate change is a determining factor.
That said, the world’s population continues to grow and there is still a market for our low-carbon protein. The trend towards processed, plant-based foods is tempered by reluctance to eat new foods with ingredients consumers do not recognise.
New Zealand currently exports enough dairy, as an example, for two and a half serves of dairy per day for 90 million people and is a net exporter of energy to the world for human consumption. As New Zealand already leads the world in low-carbon meat production, how do we get even further ahead of our competition?
Better efficiencies will only take us so far. We will need to embrace innovations that will enable us to make big jumps in lowering emissions from animal protein production.
Five new technologies show promise, including vaccines to inhibit methane production, two types of feed additive, breeding programmes that select genetic lines of animals that produce lower methane, and nose-covering devices containing enzymes that break down methane.
We can liken the choice faced by consumers to the choice they might face with transport fuel. With transport, we are still reliant on diesel or petrol in our cars, but we can buy a more efficient car.
In the future we can see consumers having the same kind of decision to choose petrol that has half the emissions.
In the same way, we can't change our need for protein, but we can choose to eat a carbon-positive animal.
It was Socrates who said: “The secret of change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old, but on building the new.” Add to that the fact that people who don’t like change will often embrace change if it’s their idea.
We prefer to participate if it comes from us rather than an external force pushing us.
We have to get change happening faster by changing our approach faster.
If we look at it from the angle of regulation — the stick, rather than the carrot — we will likely experience more resistance from those who perceive emissions targets as arbitrary and perceive only one sector is being penalised.
Flipping the approach on its head, emphasising the carrot of improved access to higher-paying markets is likely to produce more invested and engaged participants.
Taking a demand-driven approach to carbon reduction will naturally bring us into line with government targets far more quickly and easily.