An Easter message on some things thought sinful

Climate change challenges come in many forms, quite apart from that of making sense or nonsense of the numbers. Here is another: genetic modification.

New Zealand has adopted as official policy a quasi-religious ban on genetic modification (GM). There is a similar quasi-religious ban on nuclear power. This post-Easter week a big international meeting in Wellington will — at least by inference — raise the GM one.

The meeting, of the New Zealand-initiated Global Research Alliance on Agricultural Greenhouse Gases, involves officials from 30-plus countries, including all those with the biggest economies. Twenty-eight have joined. Brazil, China and Korea are observers.

Cabinet folklore has it that eight heads of government told John Key at Copenhagen in December that his and Tim Groser’s initiative was the most positive thing to come out of that meeting, which is not too far wrong. (Former Environment Minister Simon Upton, now the OECD’s environment director, three years ago seeded the idea at the Australia New Zealand Leadership Forum but that does not diminish Key’s achievement.)

This week’s meeting will focus on how the alliance is to be run — a charter is to be finalised over the next year — how it will be financed — so far the United States, $US90 million over five years, and New Zealand and Canada, $NZ45 million and $CDN27 million over four years, have chipped in — and the research focuses.

The four main areas are: extensive agriculture, New Zealand’s specialty; intensive livestock farming, common in Europe; arable cropping; and paddy-field farming.

There is also an intellectual property issue: how to make sure information is shared to maximise the value of the research. The United States, normally very prickly on IP, said, in the words of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on 16 December: “Just as climate change has no borders, our research should not.”

Globally, agriculture accounts for 14% of greenhouse gases (GHGs). Only some is from the belching of farm animals. Gases released by tilling the soil growing crops for poor people is a major source.

Getting this recognised by rich countries through an alliance with poorer countries and skilful lobbying by officials, backed by ministers, over the past two years was a signal New Zealand success: agriculture is now a serious part of the global talks.

Most agricultural GHGs released here are ruminant animal methane and gases released from use of nutrients (fertilisers) and from livestock effluent. But New Zealand does share with poorer countries the fact that a high proportion of GHGs is from producing food.

Two facts flow from that.

One is that agriculture, made up of biological systems, is far more complex than most GHG-generating systems, for example, power stations. There are no simple solutions.

The second is that, whereas doing less can reduce GHG emissions, doing less of agriculture is not an option. Without food, people die.

And the world is producing more people, fast. That expansion is projected to slow and the total population to flatten off — but not until today’s 6.8 billion has reached around 9 billion by 2050.

A huge amount more food will be needed over the next 40 years — not just to feed more mouths with the basics but to cater to more sophisticated tastes of the rapidly expanding middle classes in “emerging” economies. There is not enough extra land to produce the extra food on current practices.

To some extent this additional demand can be met with better management of water, stocks and distribution. Much food is wasted. But even then, much more food will have to be produced — and even more intensive agricultural activity will be needed if more land is used for crops for biofuels.

So there is a dual need for research.

One need is to find ways to generate food with lower emissions for each unit of food. That is especially important to New Zealand which needs, along with other rich countries, to show willing to get poorer countries join any climate change action. That needs lower-methane animals. As it happens, the bulk of the world’s ruminant animal methane scientists work here.

The second need for research is to find how to grow more food on existing land with existing water. One solution, already well advanced, is genetic modification.

And nuclear power is an alternative to fossil-fuel-generated electricity.

Those solutions will be adopted in countries less endowed and more crowded than this one. That will pose a large question for the quasi-religious belief here that both solutions are sinful: is not allowing starvation or the damage from climate change more sinful?

It is perhaps apt that the research alliance is meeting just after Easter. The original Easter message was the remission of sin. Over the next 10 or 20 years the remission of others’ supposed sins of GM and nuclear power is likely to be asked of New Zealanders.

The response will not come easy. But, if in character, it will be pragmatic and down-to-earth.