Opinion: Data needed to counter anti-farming environmental claims

Last month, Fonterra’s chief science and technology officer penned an article about the environmental effects of plant-based drinks versus real milk.

He shared research showing that milk substitutes had double the carbon emissions of Fonterra’s milk, produced in New Zealand, when based on their nutrient content.

See also: 12 things we learned from the IPCC climate land report

Fonterra is New Zealand’s largest dairy co-op and, just like farmers in the UK, is feeling the pressure of criticism from all angles about the negative effect of agriculture on the environment.

This article was part of its attempt to fight back, with evidence of the positive environmental credentials of dairy products.

But what do we mean by “the environment”? It’s a buzzword that we hear constantly in the media and one that farmers are increasingly having to take notice of, thanks to Defra’s 25-year Environment Plan.

Yet farmers, politicians and consumers all have varying definitions, with topics including wildlife and habitats, the landscape, air and water pollution, methane and carbon emissions, global warming, soil health, plastic use, recycling and sustainability all falling under this one umbrella.

When our industry faces criticism from so many different angles, it can be difficult to respond with a coherent argument grounded in fact and science, particularly when those attacking us aren’t even clear themselves on exactly what they are attacking us for.

Fonterra does have some advantages when it comes to defending the New Zealand dairy industry.

It processes 95% of New Zealand’s milk solids, so when it talks about the carbon footprint of milk, it is basically talking about the carbon footprint of Kiwi milk, which is mainly produced via a grass-based, block-calving system.

Like Ireland, the New Zealanders are able to trade on the image of grazing cows as a more sustainable, “environmentally friendly” method of production, which gives them a point of difference in the global marketplace.

More importantly, they can back this up with research from their world-leading institutions, Massey University and Teagasc.

In the UK, there is a much greater diversity of production systems, so there really is no one-size-fits-all response and we have to work harder to demonstrate our green credentials.

With agriculture representing a much smaller proportion of our national economy, there is also less incentive for the government to fund expensive research into this area – despite its increasing calls for farmers to take more responsibility.

Meanwhile, other bodies, such as the EAT Lancet Commission and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, are filling the knowledge gap and fuelling the message that farming is bad for the environment, without giving us any credit for the positive strides we have already made.

We produce more food with less inputs than ever before, our grasslands sequester vast amounts of carbon and we are the guardians of the green and pleasant landscape that defines the British isles, yet somehow, we have ended up painted as the villains.

What we really need is leadership from the front on this issue, rather than multiple organisations trying to fight the battle alone.

The NFU and Arla have both set ambitious targets for farmers to become carbon net-zero, which gives a strong message to consumers that farmers are serious about tackling this issue.

Now we need them to back this up with support so that farmers can achieve this, and simple data that demonstrates the positive effect we are having.

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