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Climate change affects Farmers more than most.

February 6, 2021

Farmers in Waikato and across the country are to be commended for their courage in facing up to what they rightly say are the daunting changes ahead them following a report by the Climate Change Commission.

The 800-page report is wide-sweeping, thorough, challenging, hugely ambitious and more than a little frightening for those locked into our extensive agricultural industry and those in wide-spread supporting industries.  

In a first draft of the report, dealing with carbon budgets, released last week, the commission has suggested that dairy, sheep and beef cattle numbers must be reduced by 15 per cent by the end of the decade. That is a very short time frame for such a major change and some probably won’t make it.

Fortunately, we seemed to have passed through the phase of blind opposition to the concept of climate change. For about thirty years a number sceptics challenged almost every scientist who presented, evidence of climate change or predicted what climate change would do. There is nothing wrong with challenging science with logical questions but too often in the past climate change predictions were met with antagonistic accusations, conspiracy theories and illogical pseudoscience. That time has gone and now the reality of the situation has been accepted by the majority of people they are preparing for the tough times ahead.

These tough times will include the most dramatic changes in farming systems since we put the last of the working horses out to pasture and began using electricity to replace steam engines. There will be fewer and smaller dairy and beef cattle herds, improved breeding technology for cattle and sheep. There will also no doubt be a requirement for a much-reduced reliance on artificial fertilisers.

That in turn will require new fodder species and pasture management and a move away from the massive intensification of some farming systems of recent decades. Some of the huge investment in dairying in recent times will probably be unrecoverable but costs of doing nothing or retaining the status quo don’t bare thinking about.  

There will also probably be renewed emphasis and interest in plant-based foods in a move away from our reliance on meat. However large scale cropping also requires huge investment in irrigation, massive diesel- powered machines and fertilisers not to mention new processing plants. Changing a nation’s diet will be as difficult as changing farming practices.   

The flow on effect will also bring significant changes to many rural communities. Many smaller towns have already been in steady decline in recent decades but this time larger towns, based on freezing works and dairy factories will also face an uncertain future.

There have been assurances that farming can be as profitable with fewer animals and improved farming systems and technology but not everyone on the land is convinced. These are very easy adaptions to write about and decide about politically but they will be demanding and stressful for farmers and those who support them to implement. Some will give up and walk away from farming and they will be the lucky ones. Others will risk losing everything in valiant attempts to comply with the new requirements.  

Sadly, there are still numbers of people who dismiss the need for any action to mitigate climate change with claims that the climate has always changed and always will. Some also claim that we don’t know how much, if any, the influence of human activity is having on the world’s climate and we need to know that before we take any action. The world’s climate has indeed always been under the process of change but rarely as fast as it has been changing since the start of the industrial revolution of the mid 1700s a mere 250 years ago, which brought massive increases in deforestation and the combustion of fossil fuels.

The last time the earth’s climate changed this fast was about 66 million years ago. This was caused by the impact of a huge asteroid that crashed into the earth filling the atmosphere with dust which blacked out the sun for a couple of hundred years, causing darkness and freezing temperatures. This was the age of dinosaurs and they, along with about eighty percent of all life forms became extinct.

We also don’t need to know precisely how much influence human activity, particularly the combustion of fossil fuels and deforestation are contributing to climate change. We know that they are and that is enough. We also know we can do something to reverse those influences and that is the real challenge we face.

Given the initial lack of coordination, cooperation and unity of purpose with which world leaders met the very visible and undeniable threat of covid-19, and the appallingly tragic consequences which followed, it is hard to be optimistic we will do any better with climate change.   

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