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Carbon footprint research key to on-going success

Carbon footprint research key to on-going success of New Zealand agriculture

AgResearch is the first New Zealand research institute to be involved in the development of Life Cycle Assessment methodology for agriculture.

After almost five years of research, AgResearch scientist Dr Stewart Ledgard will present the findings of his research for the first time at the New Zealand Gasslands Association Conference in Taupo from 13 – 15 November.

The research, which to date has been focused on the dairy industry, has identified an alarming decline in energy and greenhouse gas efficiency in the New Zealand dairy industry – a trend that is seeing New Zealand quickly lose its comparative advantage over the European Union.

“New Zealand farm systems are currently still ahead of those in the European Union when considering such things as food-miles and on-farm energy use,” says Dr Ledgard. “The trend for intensification on New Zealand farms, however, means that comparative advantage is diminishing. We urgently need to focus on improved farm practices and intensification options to reverse this trend,” he says.

The purpose of the research is to increase the environmental efficiency of food systems by maintaining or increasing production, while reducing impacts on the environment.

The methodology focuses on working out the environmental footprint of agricultural products – from raw materials through to on-farm production, processing, transport, use by consumers and waste after disposal. It also looks at ways of improving environmental efficiency.

An environmental, or carbon footprint as it is often referred to, represents the total greenhouse gas emissions over the full life-cycle of a product.

“In a country where agricultural exports make up more than 50 percent of all products leaving our shores for the international marketplace and with a global demand for high quality food, fibre and health-related products, the need to reduce our carbon footprint and conduct environmentally sustainable farming practices is becoming increasingly important,” says Dr Ledgard.

“We are focused on discovering and highlighting to farmers the potential benefits of different management practices and mitigation options – not just with greenhouse gas emissions but also with water quality – our work is about looking for multiple gains”, says Ledgard.

There has been considerable debate internationally around the concept of food miles – the distance food travels from producer to consumer. Potentially this provides a very real threat to offshore market access for New Zealand food products. In AgResearch’s dairy farm studies, scientists have however discovered that only 2-3 per cent of the total carbon footprint comes from the transporting of produce.

Another key finding of the research to date is that 70 to 85 percent of the total carbon footprint takes place at the on-farm stage.

Dr Ledgard is also currently involved in an exciting piece of research in the UK which involves the development of methodology for carbon footprint labelling of produce in supermarkets. He says a primary reason for his involvement is to ensure that New Zealand products are treated as fairly as possible.

While the research to date has been focused on the dairy industry, AgResearch is now beginning to look at the sheep and beef industries to identify problems and devise solutions.

ENDS

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