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Sunday 4 December 2016

'Technology is the answer - we're not going to shoot the cows'

Kiwi minister says beef genetics can lower emissions

Published 16/12/2015 | 02:30

The slogan 'Decarbonize' is projected on the Eiffel Tower as part of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 in Paris. Photo: REUTERS/Charles Platiau
The slogan 'Decarbonize' is projected on the Eiffel Tower as part of the World Climate Change Conference 2015 in Paris. Photo: REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Major agricultural countries including Ireland and New Zealand are developing the tools to help produce food at a lower environmental cost.

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Minister of Trade and Minister of Climate Change Issues in New Zealand, Tim Groser, told the UN climate summit that scientists had developed methods to reduce methane from livestock, with different feedstocks also helping to curb emissions.

Mr Groser was speaking at an event organised by the World Farmers' Organisation and World Organisation for Animal Health, which looked at the role of agriculture from 2020 when a new climate deal is expected to be in place.

He said when the current deal, the Kyoto Protocol, was signed in 1997, just New Zealand and a small number of countries with high agricultural emissions were affected.

"During the first iteration of the Kyoto Protocol, only one country was seriously affected, mine," he told the 'Agriculture in post-Kyoto Protocol' seminar.

"Some 50pc of our emissions come from food production. Ireland and Denmark are also seriously affected. Until recently, I feel New Zealand has been a voice in the wilderness on the issue of mitigation. I'm starting to get the sense that people realise the issue of mitigation can't be ignored for a number of reasons."

He said around 14pc of global emissions arose from food production. The two biggest challenges facing humanity were ramping up production to feed a growing population, while addressing the challenge of climate change.

He said food security would "always" be prioritised over climate change, but that the agri-food sector had to be top of both challenges.

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"It (climate) was always going to become a serious issue and as we move towards a comprehensive agreement, it can no longer be ignored," Mr Groser said.

He added that most countries had ignored their agriculture emissions to date.

Some 46 countries, including Ireland, have formed the Global Research Alliance on Agriculture Greenhouse Gases Emissions, which has a network of scientists sharing information on more efficient food production.

"Scientists have never been asked to do anything other than improve production and reduce disease. They were never asked to increase food production while reducing emissions," Mr Groser said.

He said that cattle could be selectively bred using DNA analysis to help lower emissions. Different food compounds could "radically" reduce methane, while field trials on a vaccine were due to get under way shortly which, it was hoped, would also reduce methane. The science could have wider applications too.

Recent research suggests there were no important differences in how microbes behaved in the gut of more than 20 species.

That suggested that if production methods were proved to reduce methane, the methods could be transferred to other parts of the globe which would help tackle emissions.

"We have to find technological solutions," Mr Groser added. "As I said to the Irish Prime Minister (Enda Kenny), we're not going to shoot the cows."

Meanwhile, Director General of the World Organisation for Animal Health, Dr Bernard Vallat, told the conference there was an "imbalance" in the public debate around food production.

He said that livestock could have a positive effect on the environment through soil and vegetation renewal, but warned of the impact of climate change on animal diseases.

"We must make the necessary investment in early disease detection, and enter into partnerships to deal with disease occurrences.

"We need to ensure an inter-disciplinary approach to sectors in the post-Kyoto period," he said.

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