New Zealand’s government has an ambitious plan for its agricultural sector to be “the world’s most sustainable provider of high-value food and fiber products.” The roadmap for the sector includes targets such as adding $44 billion to food and fiber exports by 2030 while slashing sector emissions by 10 percent.
Raising cattle and other livestock creates greenhouse gas emissions and uses more water than vegetable, grain and legume production. However, cattle and sheep farmers in New Zealand are cutting emissions and growing livestock in areas otherwise unsuitable for vegetable and grain production.
“The way we farm our beef in New Zealand is different from what a lot of the world does,” said Kate Acland, farmer and chair of the farmer-owned industry organization Beef + Lamb New Zealand. “The carbon footprint of New Zealand lamb and beef is among the lowest in the world.”
Acland farms with her husband and three children on a 10,000-acre plot called Mount Somers Station on New Zealand’s southern island. They raise sheep, deer, bees, and both beef and dairy cattle in a temperate climate, between 1,600 and 2,600 feet above sea level.
“Our beef [cattle] run on hills where we can’t grow crops,” Acland said. “They are outside all year round and not under irrigation. Our water use is rain."
Because New Zealand is an island nation with limited space, farmers are often more focused on creating efficiencies rather than scaling up, and greater farming efficiencies leads to greater sustainability gains.
“Since 1990, we have reduced our carbon footprint by 30 percent, but we are still producing the same kilograms of product,” Acland explained. “We continue to chase and pursue efficiency for the health of our planet and the health of our balance sheet.”
For example, the number of lambs that each ewe gives birth to has been steadily increasing over the last 10 years. When one ewe can give birth to two or more lambs, the lamb production has a smaller carbon footprint. When farmers can finish their grass-fed livestock to heavier weights in a shorter amount of time, the carbon emissions per product also decreases.
Livestock farmers like Acland also leverage practices that help the surrounding ecosystem, such as running animals as a large group in different fields on a rotating basis, known as rotational grazing. More time between grazing allows the grasslands to recover and roots to grow deeper.
When it comes to practices that promote biodiversity, “people do it because it’s the right thing to do,” Acland said. New Zealand’s livestock farming sector has pledged to be carbon neutral by 2050, and all major farming sectors in the country have signed an industry-wide pledge to measure, report and reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
Acland spends most of her time as a sheep and cattle farmer, but her background is in wine grapes, and she maintains a vineyard in addition to Mount Somers Station. She grows her wine grapes using regenerative methods such as intercropping, the practice of growing cover crops between rows of cash crops, and composting, using the spent grape skins from the winery to mulch the vines.
“We maintain diverse grasses underneath the vineyard, such as rye grass, clover and chicory,” Acland said. “We have about 16 different species that are under the vineyards. We let them go to flower. When we mow, we mow with a side throw so it goes underneath the vines and adds to organic matter. Our soil is sandy, and our soil [organic matter] is depleted. We are trying to build it up.”
Wine grapes are New Zealand’s largest horticultural crop by area. And almost all wine in New Zealand comes from farms that participate in Sustainable Winegrowing New Zealand, an industry-wide certification program that has been in place since 1995, Acland said. The program covers all aspects of sustainability, from climate to chemical use to labor rights for workers.
“There is a strong consumer demand for sustainably certified wines,” said Edwin Massey, general manager sustainability for New Zealand Winegrowers, the national organization for the country's grape and wine sector. “This demand is growing through demographic change: Younger people are drinking less alcohol overall, but when they choose to drink, they are more often choosing premium products that connect with their ethics and values. Having a robust sustainability certification process helps assure these consumers that New Zealand wine is the right choice for them.”
The New Zealand wine sector has set sustainability goals that are critical to the future success of the industry. New Zealand wine is differentiated by the country’s cool climate and water supply, meaning that working to mitigate climate change is in the best interest of vintners and other industry stakeholders. Research is currently underway to identify vines resilient to disease and pest pressure and that are more drought tolerant, Massey said.
Meanwhile, consumer demand for New Zealand wine is strong. “Demand for New Zealand wine continues to outstrip supply and is the key reason why New Zealand proudly occupies some of the highest price points in any market we export to,” said Charlotte Read, general manager of marketing for New Zealand Winegrowers. "New Zealand wine exports have surged to new record levels with their largest ever one-year growth, lifting 25 percent in value to NZD$2.4 billion [about US$1.5 billion].”
Although New Zealand produces less than 2 percent of global supply, the country is now the sixth largest exporter of wine by value, Read said.
While wine grapes are New Zealand’s biggest horticultural crop by area, kiwifruit are its biggest horticultural crop by economic value. Kiwifruit is a $2.6 billion sector in New Zealand, with most of the farms found in the Bay of Plenty. Zespri is the marketer for the country’s kiwifruit industry and handles exportation, marketing, and distribution of New Zealand kiwis to over 50 countries worldwide, including the U.S.
New Zealand kiwifruit production increased by close to 70 percent between 2010 and 2019, and at the same time, the industry improved efficiencies on-farm and in packing and shipping that accounted for a 24 percent drop in greenhouse gas emissions.
“We’re starting from a strong base in terms of already treading fairly lightly on the land, but as an industry, we’re making steady progress on improving environmental practices both on-orchard and throughout the supply chain,” said Rachel Depree, executive officer for sustainability at Zespri.
On orchard, Zespri has developed research and development partnerships to better grow and promote regenerative and sustainable farming practices in the kiwifruit and apple sectors. “Over the next five years, we’re looking to test the regenerative concept in three kiwifruit and three apple orchards, using a specific combination of soil, water and biodiversity management practices, comprehensive monitoring of critical ecosystem services, and undertaking an economic analysis of the results,” Depree explained.
Zespri is also working in partnership with key leaders in New Zealand’s primary sectors to prepare for the impacts of climate change and manage biodiversity risks. It also set long-term sustainability goals that account for the priorities of customers, growers and other stakeholders, in packaging, water, climate change, health and wellbeing and community investment.
While sustainability claims can help a farmer market their products, Acland emphasized that New Zealand farmers also implement more regenerative practices as a labor of love. “I don’t know a single farmer who is driven solely by money,” she said. “We do it because we love the lifestyle, and we love everything about it.”
For example, the country's largest red meat producer encourages its farmer-suppliers to keep swaths of their land wild in order to promote carbon sequestration — allowing them to formulaically offset the emissions from the beef they produce through this practice.
“It’s a cool story. It’s not purchased carbon credits, but it’s happening within each individual farming system.” Acland said. “Because New Zealand is so good, especially in the greenhouse gas space, the challenge for our export businesses is to go to the world and try to claim a premium and sell their story.”
At the same time, Acland acknowledges that as consumers move increasingly toward eating local, selling the world agricultural products from New Zealand could seem counterintuitive. However, she noted that transport plays a small role in the overall emissions from New Zealand agricultural sectors like beef and lamb. “People are wanting to eat local, but 90 to 95 percent of emissions are made on farms, so that’s where the gains can be made,” she said.
New Zealand’s sustainability commitments also provided the basis for a robust free trade agreement with the European Union that aims to improve the sustainability of both New Zealand and EU food systems.
The deal was signed on July 9 of this year and includes standards for climate impact, labor and gender equity, as well as subsidy provisions for sustainable fisheries. Trade between the EU and New Zealand is projected to grow by 30 percent as a result of the agreement, according to the European Commission.
For her part, Acland is confident in the future of regenerative agriculture across New Zealand farms. “We are regenerative by the very nature of how we farm: grass fed and pasture raised,” she said. “We have huge pride in what we do and our environmental stewardship.”
This article series is sponsored by Beef + Lamb New Zealand and produced by the TriplePundit editorial team.
Image courtesy of Beef + Lamb New Zealand
Mary Riddle is a writer and sustainability consultant based in Florence, Italy. As a former farmer and farm educator, she is passionate about regenerative agriculture and sustainable food systems. Currently, she and her husband also own and operate Italy in Season, a subscription box company with a mission to support small-scale Italian artisans and traditional craftsmanship.