Are emissions probing a black hole?

OPINION: A giant black hole is emerging in the vast agricultural industry. It’s been there for a while, but mostly under the radar.

To date, it has swallowed more than $200 million in industry and government money into its vortex, but — as with black holes — nothing has come out. Much of this funding will be lost forever, and hundreds of millions of lives will be forgotten unless the agricultural industry provides tighter controls on emissions research spending.

The consensus now is that solutions to ruminant methane emissions will not be market-ready anytime soon; Certainly not in time to offset the Government’s proposed tax on farm emissions, due to be introduced in 2025. This only fueled the expansion of the black hole. The Agriculture Minister recently announced another $338.7 million to disappear over the next four years, and the National Party is behind them with big plans to attract more R&D investment.

The researchers behind these technologies have made bold claims about their potential: Bovaer has been shown to reduce emissions by 30% in Europe, and AgResearch has identified a 12% difference between low and high methane breeding lines.

Finding a technology that has potential is a relatively low bar. However, converting this potential into a market-ready emissions reduction tool that works and does not adversely affect the farm system is a different ball game.

Bovaer feed supplement works well in a stall system because the cows can eat a little at each bite. NZ’s pasture-based system does not provide this luxury. A large amount of fresh grass will wipe out any Bovaer you may have fed your cow through finished forage. Experts in the space believe that this dilemma could take decades to resolve.

Fonterra is leading the research on Bovaer and has been approached to comment on their progress. After initially agreeing to answer questions, they backed off and told me to wait for the pending announcement on the MPI website. No announcement has been made at the time of writing, but reading between the lines, Fonterra has dropped Bovaer.

The low methane sheep breeding program is run by AgResearch on behalf of NZAGRC. After 15 years of research, there is still no evidence that these sheep will perform as well in a farm system over time as they did in a 3-month controlled trial. There’s good reason to believe it won’t. Low methane sheep have smaller rumens, carry less body fat and tend to have different grazing habits, with some studies showing they are selective grazers. These features do not make the sheep like the harsh winter when the feed is scarce and of poor quality.

We are still in the conceptual stage without long-term testing to evaluate low-methane swarm performance over the life cycle. No verifiable claims can be made about these genetics reducing emissions. Any reduction in lambing percentage, growth rate or survival has a direct and negative impact on emissions.

Farmers’ money continues to flow into this program, but answers and test data remain scarce. NZAGRC’s Harry Clarke made himself unavailable for comment.

The outlook looks even bleaker for the remaining mitigation technology contenders after Bovaer and sheep genetics. The vaccine doesn’t work, the seaweed feed additive releases toxic compounds into the milk, and requires a large area of ​​New Zealand’s coastline to be turned into a seaweed farm to produce enough. No dairy farmer will be talked into spraying to replace half his farm with low-emission plantains. Most of these research programs had to be stopped before they even started.

Farmers and politicians are being fooled by researchers who see many research grants coming their way as long as they can keep the dream of methane reduction alive. The potential of these technologies is enhanced, while the impossible ones are ignored. If it can disrupt the financial flow, why investigate the shortfalls? An independent audit of all emissions reduction studies is urgently needed before this wasteful spending becomes a raging flood. There is a place for emissions reduction research, but often the best solutions are the simple ones.

For farmers who bring sheep and beef to target weights earlier, there are significant emission reductions that can be achieved through improved management and husbandry, and in the process can dramatically increase farm system efficiency. The early slaughter concept did not receive a single cent of industry funding.

I have a message for farmers, don’t lose.

Steven Cranston is a Waikato-based agricultural and environmental consultant and previously Farm Emissions Spokesperson for Groundswell.


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