Monday, 24 December 2012

Concerns and capabilities lead to action

The AgDialogue process Motu recently ran was designed to create a dialogue amongst agriculture sectoral groups, government, academics and individual farmers around dealing with New Zealand’s agricultural GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions. One of the outcomes of this discussion was the creation of a matrix to describe how we can get action on wicked problems such as lowering agricultural GHG emissions: who can act and what can they do.

In this short video, Suzi Kerr explains the thinking behind the matrix.

Below is the matrix. Rather than being a large computer programme set up to create an alternate reality, the AgDialogue matrix is really a simple way of visualising what Suzi explains in the video.

Basically, an action intended to help reduce our agricultural GHGs can fit into one or more of the boxes in the matrix. The ETS (Emissions Trading Scheme) for example, would fit into the top right box, as a national level regulation designed to incentivise emission reductions. The Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Center would fit in the top-middle box.

However, as Suzi points out in the video, we need adequate concern and capabilities as well as regulations to reward good and penalise poor behaviour. By using the AgDialogue matrix, we can identify who could undertake actions, and what these actions could aim to achieve. When we have populated it with a set of existing actions, if there are any gaps, we can come up with creative ways of filling in these gaps – as we did through AgDialogue.

A piece of research, done by Taciano Milfont at Victoria University of Wellington backs up the thinking behind the matrix. Importantly, his research was carried out in New Zealand – something that is very valuable as we often have to rely on research coming from larger countries, and apply their findings here.

Using data from a one year study, Taciano concludes: “Knowing more about global warming and climate change increases overall concern about the risks of these issues, and this increased concern leads to greater perceived efficacy and responsibility to help solving them.”

Taciano’s research paper can be found online for free here.
A special thanks to former Motu Research Analyst Zach Dorner for drafting this post.

Thursday, 6 December 2012

Community involvement in environmental education and governance

Environmental education is crucial for engaging people from all walks of life to make informed decisions about issues such as biodiversity loss, climate destabilisation and resource depletion. Ardoin, Clark and Kelsey's recent paper "An exploration of future trends in environmental education research" has explored the possible future directions that environmental education may take. The authors' study was undertaken with an awareness of the increasing impact of global trends such as the technology revolution, the urban age, and the globalisation of environmental issues.

A number of interesting findings flow from the authors' research. One suggestion made is that that environmental education and research may broadening in focus from the individual to community level. The idea that education and research can be inclusive and collaborative is well-instanced in the project around which this blog was founded - the Agricultural Emissions Dialogue process. The project brought together farmers, iwi, economists, scientists, government and other experts to discuss issues around agricultural emissions. Whilst the group conducted no formal research, the dialogues proved to be the catalyst for a number of pieces of research by Motu (see the bottom of this page) and our recently published short film and teaching materials. Two of the earlier entries on this blog have specifically considered the process of dialogue - this post by Ana Ngamoki, and this post by Geoff Simmons.

It may be the case that environmental governance, like environmental education, will increasingly broaden towards a community-focussed approach. The Land and Water Forum's recent series of reports on how freshwater management in New Zealand can be improved called for community decision-making at catchment level, within a framework created by central government. The Forum's third report emphasised the need for community buy-in to ensure regulation is effective, and the importance of giving weight to community-specific needs and values in decision making.

Another issue that Ardoin, Clark and Kelsey touch on is the highlighted opportunity for engagement that social media brings. With that in mind, this is probably a good point at which to remind readers about ways in which they can engage with this blog. Comments are most welcome, as are suggestions for topics (email us at And to subscribe to receive updates when posts are made, simply enter your email address in the "Follow By Email" field to the right.

Friday, 30 November 2012

Agricultural Emissions Teaching Materials Released

Last month, we released a brand new short film on agricultural emissions. Today, we are pleased to announce the release of a set of free teaching materials to accompany the film. These consist of an editable presentation, complete with speaking notes, and further information on some of the figures that the presentation contains.

Our intention is that a wide range of people – including teachers, lecturers, farmers or people working with farmers – will be able to use the film and presentation to lead a discussion on what we can do about agricultural emissions. Potential audiences include secondary and tertiary students, as well as consumers and farmers. In other words, anyone who eats!

The materials can be downloaded by following the links below. In addition, we have just released the film in physical copy. If you would like to be posted a free DVD which includes the film and materials, please send your name and address to

We will be happy to support those who wish to use the film and materials by answering specific questions. We'll collate the questions and answers into an FAQ document which will be available soon on the blog and also on the Motu website. If you have any questions at all, please email them through.

The New Zealand Farming Story presentation (.pdf version)
The New Zealand Farming Story presentation (editable Powerpoint)
The New Zealand Farming Story speaking notes
Notes on figures for emissions from meat consumption in presentation

Thursday, 29 November 2012

"Origin Green" - certifying the sustainability of Irish primary products

Rural News recently ran this article about a quality assurance scheme initiated by Bord Bai (the Irish Food Board). Called "Origin Green", the scheme guarantees the sustainability of certified foods to consumers. As the article explains, Beef and Lamb New Zealand Chair Mike Petersen thinks that there is scope for New Zealand to do something similar.

The Irish scheme is very similar to an idea developed within New Zealand by the Agricultural Emissions Dialogue and a version of it is already being developed by one of the members, Mike Barton, through his Taupo Beef programme. Mike discusses Taupo Beef in our short film.

More information on Origin Green is available here.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Farming within environmental limits

Here is a copy of a brief article by Dr Dan Marsh, which was recently published in the new magazine Primary. It discusses the "Natural Capital" approach to setting limits of runoff from farms (for water quality reasons) as adopted by Horizon regional council.

The idea of farming within environmental limits has attracted a lot of attention in recent months. Some of the debate has been around the allocation and setting of nitrogen leaching limits; limits on the amount of nitrogen that can be allowed to leach from a farm or catchment into rivers or lakes. The recent environment court decision on the Horizon's Proposed One Plan (POP) has put the spotlight on the Natural Capital Approach (NCA) which allocates nitrogen leaching rights at a flat rate per hectare that varies with land use class (LUC).

Motu has done a bit of work looking at an alternative approach of nutrient trading - trading the nutrient emissions that pollute waterways within their catchments under a total cap. This ensures waterways can be protected, while the allowable amount of nutrient run off can happen where it can be most efficiently utilised. Dan Marsh touches on this approach in his article too.

Some of Motu's 2009 work on nutrient trading around Rotorua is summed up nicely in this paper.

Nutrient trading for water quality of course has some interesting parallels with emissions trading for greenhouse gases. A similar Motu working paper on allocating units for the New Zealand ETS (Emissions Trading Scheme - covering greenhouse gases) can be found here, with Suzi Kerr's latest thinking on the contentious issue of allocation and fairness in the ETS is covered in this recent presentation by her.

It's all very interesting and contentious stuff - lots of material to look into! Luckily Dan Marsh's article gives a good summary of some of the issues which we are having to confront as we look seriously at farming within environmental limits.

Thanks to Dan Marsh for providing us with the article for this blog.

Friday, 19 October 2012

The New Zealand Farming Story: Tackling Agricultural Emissions

Today we are very excited to release our new short film on New Zealand’s agricultural emissions. Although the topic may sound dry (though hopefully not too dry if you visit this blog!) our filmmaker Jess Feast has done an excellent job of making an engaging film on an extremely important topic for the future of our country, our planet, our people and our stomachs. (She also made our films about improving the water quality in Lake Rotorua).

The film covers a wide range of topics, and many of the ideas in it come directly from what we learnt through the AgDialogue process. Importantly, we cover how we might be able to achieve some real reductions in New Zealand’s agricultural GHGs (greenhouse gases). You will get to meet some of the participants and experts from AgDialogue, including two of our star farmers, Mike and Megan.

The film speaks for itself, so you are better off watching it than reading about it. But before you do that, I’d just like to acknowledge all the hard work that went into making the film. To all those in the AgDialogue who gave their time and those who have done related research in the past few years, this film is dedicated to you and the hard work you have done.  Also thank you to our filmmaker Jess and the Ministry for Primary Industries for its support. The work will pay off in creating a more sustainable and prosperous future for us and future generations.

Oh, and if you like the film, please share it far and wide. New Zealand is uniquely placed to be able to make a big difference to levels of agricultural GHGs (greenhouse gases) around the world. And everyone in this country can make a difference.

UPDATE: Teaching materials to accompany the film have now also been released. These can be found here.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Looking forward: what NZ rural land might look like in the coming decades under a carbon price

This blog post is by Motu Research Analyst Zack Dorner.

A couple of years ago, my sister brought her partner to visit New Zealand for the first time. We picked them up in Auckland, and drove down the North Island back to Wellington. He asked “Why are there so many golf courses here?”

Of course, they weren’t golf courses, but the lush, green grassy farmland that New Zealand is so well known for, and that he was not used to.

Motu has just released a new working paper, modelling what our rural land might look like in the coming decades, including with a price on agricultural GHGs (greenhouse gases). Luckily, for our “golf courses”, even with the agricultural sector facing a price on its GHGs, New Zealand probably won’t look much different to the way it does now.

The really cool thing about the model used is that it is based on real world observations of how rural land use in New Zealand has changed in recent decades in response to commodity prices. It is slow to adjust – farmers don’t want to switch immediately to the new best thing for their land (see final graph below), which is understandable. Changing your whole farm can’t be easy or cheap to do, and who’s to say market conditions won’t change again.

Of course, the results in the working paper are just from a model. They do not predict the future, but give us an idea about the types of changes to land use and their magnitude under certain scenarios. There are on-farm mitigation options that farmers may be able to do to reduce their GHGs before changing land use, but to keep things simple, the model does not include these.

The working paper models three scenarios out to 2030: no carbon price, a carbon price ($25) just for forestry, and a greenhouse gas price for forestry and agricultural emissions.

The model shows several interesting things.

First, as I have said, land use change is quite slow. Even with a $25 carbon price on forestry and agriculture, there is actually relatively minimal changes in land use. This provides evidence that our agricultural sector may be able to respond efficiently to a price on carbon without huge disruption to rural life in New Zealand.

However, although changes to land use are gradual and small, they actually make a big difference to our emissions. The extra trees are especially helpful in this regard. From the paper directly:

Under our ETS [emissions trading scheme] scenarios there is substantial reforestation. The extra removals associated with this new planting mean that the additional sequestration in 2024 is from 17.6 to 20 percent of national inventory agricultural emissions in 2008.

That’s a huge amount of emissions, and would help New Zealand immensely in our quest to lower our emissions.

In terms of cows and sheep, we actually see more dairy cows, and fewer sheep and beef farms. This is because dairy farms are so much more profitable, and the balance is tipped even more in their favour once a price is applied to farming emissions. This is already happening to a much larger extent, and only the already marginal sheep and beef farms are converted to dairy or forestry under an efficient response to a carbon price. The overall change is only minor in the scheme of things, and even when you exclude agricultural emissions from a carbon price, this still happens (see the first graph below).

So these results suggest that there are large benefits to having a $25 carbon price in New Zealand for forestry and our country’s emissions profile. As for agricultural emissions, if dairy and sheep and beef farmers face a price on their emissions, the sky won’t fall in, but the adjustments that are already taking place will just continue to a greater extent. By creating an efficient, economy-wide price signal which includes agriculture, we should achieve more mitigation overall (see the second graph below). If on farm mitigation is encouraged optimally, and technologies continue to improve, we might well see less of the minor reduction in farming in the model and instead end up with more efficient farms on our rural land.

Bringing agricultural emissions into the ETS or some other pricing mechanism must occur once farmers are ready and on board. Through research like this, and having a dialogue with all interested parties, we can hopefully move forward together, and work towards future-proofing our golf courses, and our farms.

And now, for those of you who get a kick out of graphs (like me), here are some relevant ones:

This graph above shows the projected change in land use share for each type of land use. The solid lines give baseline projections. Short-dash-dot lines give a $25 carbon price, but not on agriculture. Dashed lines show a carbon price with agriculture. Note the y axis is the same scale for each graph so direct comparisons can be made (page 9).

This graph shows the amount of emissions that are reduced or sequestered. The red line is with just forestry, the blue line shows including agricultural emissions as well increases the emission reductions (page 16).


This final graph below shows why sheep and beef farms have been declining over the years, and how land use change is gradual (page 4 of Kerr and Olssen 2012).

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Motu's agricultural GHG emissions research in the news

"We can't design systems assuming we're going to fail. Let's assume we're going to succeed and what the world will look like in 30-50 years given that we have succeeded."
There was an interesting article in the Timaru Herald’s Central South Island Farmer feature last week, which discussed a speech Dr Suzi Kerr gave to the New Zealand Institute of Agricultural and Horticultural science. The article is a good summary of many of Motu’s conclusions from the AgDialogue group, stressing rewarding farmers who make changes towards best practice guidelines for reducing emissions and making long-term, carefully considered policy decisions instead of rushing into dramatic changes.

The article can be found here.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Biological Farming and soil carbon – green wash or climate saviour?

This blog post is by Motu Research Analyst Zack Dorner.

Earlier this year, AgDialogue participant Rick Braddock sent us through this article, written Clayton Wallwork from the Carbon Farming Group, about Biological Farming. Rick Braddock is Operations Director of Farming New Zealand, an agricultural investment fund established to aggregate large pastoral farms under a New Zealand ownership model, as well as a trustee of the Carbon Farming Group.

Biological Farming is a farming practice that is still being developed and aims to use natural rather than synthetic fertilisers. We at Motu decided to ask some soil scientists about the potential for Biological Farming to store soil carbon, as a way of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

As noted in the Carbon Farming Group article, evidence to date around Biological Farming is largely anecdotal, and each farm has different Biological Farming techniques applied to it, based on its unique circumstances.

Troy Baisden from GNS Science told us about what may cause changes in soil carbon in traditional intensive farming system, and how this might differ under a Biological Farming system. Biological Farming systems may be less prone to losing soil carbon compared with traditional intensive systems, but Troy emphasises there is no clear evidence Biological Farming will gain soil carbon. Therefore more research is needed before it can claim to be a reliable way of helping to address climate change.

Troy explained to us that it is almost impossible to store carbon in soil without nitrogen, typically at a ratio of around ten carbon particles to one nitrogen particle. Therefore, understanding the amount of nitrogen being stored in the soil is important for understanding how much carbon is stored in the soil (see image below).

This image was pulled from this useful article in NZ Science Teacher magazine
With intensive farming, by trying to push more nitrogen through the system (by using more nitrogen fertiliser or importing more feed to produce more product), farm nitrogen budgets show that despite increasing nitrogen inputs, many farms lose more nitrogen than they gain. Counter intuitively, it seems that cycling more nitrogen faster and faster through the soil might eventually start to cause the overall level of nitrogen and carbon in the soil to drop. 

Troy says “We’ve been surprised at the level of losses that seem to be occurring, and at the observation that large N [nitrogen] losses seem to be taking carbon out of the soil as well.” Unfortunately it remains difficult to understand why these losses are occurring and work out the exact numbers without long-term experiments that run for decades. The one long term study to date provides some evidence that almost three quarters of a tonne of carbon per hectare per year are lost on traditional intensive dairy farms (Schipper et al. 2010).

In terms of Biological Farming, Troy says:

...the main argument [is] that you’re trying to work with a system that regulates itself better. So it will simply tell you “no” when you try and push it too hard. ... That’s the magic of it. ... One of the reasons why you can’t [push the system] is you’re not going to add bag nitrogen fertiliser.

By relying on natural nitrogen fixation, such as through clover in the soil, the soil is prevented from becoming saturated with nitrogen to the point where it loses more than it is gaining, and the total level of nitrogen in the soil starts to drop. The natural nitrogen fixers shut down when the system is being run too hard, though of course this will also place a limit on the total output of the farm. Though this might mean a Biological Farming system isn’t losing soil carbon, it’s unclear whether Biological Farms actually gain soil carbon.

There is very limited evidence that organic farming systems (which are similar to Biological Farming systems) limit nitrogen losses much better than a conventional farming system, but we still don’t understand fully why that might be (and Troy is not aware of this evidence having been published).

So, Biological Farming could be better at managing stores of carbon if it is better at managing stores of nitrogen. But the jury is still out.

Jacqueline Rowarth, Professor of Agribusiness at Waikato University who holds a PhD in soil science, is even less positive about Biological Farming. It’s a very complicated picture, as carbon has many ways into and out of the soil within a farm system. For example, Jacqueline points out that drought could be the major cause of loss in soil carbon in the Schipper et al. (2010) study, given the study’s period and the effects of drought during that time.

There are a number of ways in which carbon will find its way onto and off of a farm. Like any plant, the grass will naturally remove carbon from the atmosphere and use it to form its structure as it grows, including its roots in the soil. On a dairy farm carbon is regularly being exported in milk tankers, having been removed from the soil and grass through grazing, and turned into part of the milk by livestock, rather than being put directly into the atmosphere (this also applies to nitrogen). Less carbon will be exported less regularly from a sheep and beef farm, through removal and slaughter of animals.

Carbon is also being added through any inputs brought into the farm, including extra feed such as palm kernel (though of course this may have climate impacts elsewhere). Fertilisers such as urea will only add nitrogen directly to the soil, and not carbon.

Another dimension within a farming system is level of grazing. The growth of grass on soil can have a bearing on the amount of carbon in the soil. More grass on the surface supports more litter in the soil, which increases soil carbon. Also, different types of grasses will support different levels of carbon being stored in the plants and soil.

With lower levels of production from Biological Farming, and little evidence to support the claims around it, Jacqueline says that proponents of Biological Farming, though well meaning, may be heading down the wrong track. Strong scientific backing is vital to informing decisions around farming systems and environmental impacts.

With all the mysteries surrounding soil carbon, we are a long way off measuring and rewarding those storing carbon in their soil (see this Parsons and Rowarth 2009 article on measuring soil carbon under Kyoto on pages 2, 5 and 6). So, if you wanted to start Biological Farming only to store carbon in your soil, then perhaps you should wait for more evidence. And you need to be careful who you decide to listen to. Though Jacqueline is sceptical, Troy Baisden thinks that there’s a reasonable chance that Biological Farming doesn’t lose soil carbon, even if we may not be sure whether it would gain soil carbon.

In terms of switching from an intensive farming system to a biological farming system then, it’s a big risk to do it just to store more carbon in your soil. To decide to become a Biological Farmer, you would have to be convinced by some the other arguments outlined in the Carbon Farming’s document, attached to this post. No doubt, as evidence starts to accumulate, the debate on Biological Farming will continue for some time.

Many thanks to Rick Braddock, Troy Baisden, Jacqueline Rowarth and Louis Schipper for their help in putting this post together.


Schipper, L.A.; Parfitt, R.L.; Ross, C.; Baisden, W.T; Claydon, J.J.; Fraser, S. (2010) Gains and losses in C and N stocks of New Zealand pasture soils depend on land use. Agriculture Ecosystems and Environment. 139: 611–617. doi:10.1016/j.agee.2010.10.005.

Further reading