The push is on to adopt rules for a maximum residual level for a range of benign compounds in food products. That progress will open up new ways to control greenhouse gasses from agriculture

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By Guy Trafford

With the impetus growing to reduce greenhouse gases becoming stronger the focus to date has been on methane. However, nitrous oxide (N2O) is arguably the greater problem with its 114 year life in the atmosphere which converts to approximately 300 times the heating capacity of CO2.

Agriculture, again, is the focus of where most is produced with about 30% of livestock emissions’ being in the form of N2O. For the uninitiated to where it comes from; it is a by-product of animals’ urination and nitrogen applications. With GHG’s being one of if not the major externality of livestock farming, a close second is the negative impact intensive livestock farming can have on water quality. The root cause of this in most cases is the same as for N2O, that is livestock urination. This leads to what is available to mitigate these effects.

Through the media a lot has been made about how few options farmers have apart from reducing livestock numbers, planning trees or both. Fortunately, Fed Farmers have longer memories and have recently revived the conversations around dicyandiamide (DCD) or EcoN as the Ravensdown version of the product was called.

Its initial use was to improve the efficiency of nitrogen usage by reducing the ability of the conversion of ammonium to nitrate during the process of nitrification which then holds the product in the soil longer and helps to enable plants to uptake the nitrogen improving growth and, in the process, reducing N leaching into waterways. A fortunate side effect of this process is the reduction of the volitisation of ammonia to N2O.

The success of the product(s) depended upon soil types and climate (mainly) but reductions in both leaching and the conversion to GHGs ranged from 30% – 70% in very successful cases. Uptake, mainly from the dairy fraternity, was limited mainly by cost as the economic benefits were only measurable on the improved pasture growth and it was reliant upon the farmers ‘good will’ to gain benefits for the externalities.

Unfortunately, in 2013 traces of DCD were detected in milk. It was in very small amounts and certainly wasn’t considered to be a threat to human health. However, in the process of developing the product no codex of minimum allowable levels had ever been applied for and so no matter what amounts were detected it technically meant a breach of standards. Initially Sri lanka, who have elements who have been keen to keep New Zealand dairy products out and not competing with their own industry but also followed by China and others rapidly banned the importation of dairy products containing traces of DCDs so effectively Fonterra were forced to ban the use of DCD products on their supplier farms.

A process to create a codex was begun and the time period of five years to get one was mooted, also with the drive to more ’natural’ products the consumers appetite for dairy products known to contain something that could be considered suspicious at the time it was felt that that was the last to be seen of DCD’s.

Roll on five years to the present. The scene has change considerably. Climate change is no longer debatable, and it is likely that costs will be applied to livestock emissions as well farmers are under all sorts of pressure to reduce their impact upon water ways. Back to Fed Farmers. In a statement last week they have highlighted that Ravensdown says there’s now a chance that world regulatory authorities, including NZ’s Ministry for Primary Industries, might ratify an umbrella codex agreement mid-2019 to set rules for a maximum residual level for a range of benign compounds in food products. 

If that happens, Eco-N could be back in use here during autumn to winter 2020 (DCD is a winter-active compound, and that’s the season when the impact of nitrate leaching is greatest). It appears that MPI is receptive to the reinstatement of the product and shouldn’t hamper the progress.

Another plus in the future use is that apparently the product has gone beyond the restricted patent stage and so more companies will be able to sell variations of it presumably reducing cost.

With the current climate around externalities farmer uptake should be a lot greater than it was back in 2013 and it is likely that other farming systems may be in a position to use also. Despite not being available in New Zealand it is still used by farmers in the US. To those who are put off by the thought of chemical elements being found in milk, they need to consider what is already floating around in the food chain. Microplastics are found throughout now as are heavy metals plus other chemicals such as DDT. So, in the context of these pollutants DCDs, at least until proved otherwise, appears quite innocuous. With the oncoming train of costs and regulations coming at farmers they are going to need a pretty complete tool box to deal with the future and DCDs may be a valuable addition.

Markets

SHEEP

Store lambs’ prices on average have held or slightly lifted however, in reality there are two markets operating, ‘last season’s lambs’ and ‘new season’s lambs. With the new season lambs providing the overall lift. In the ‘prime pens’ lamb prices held with tops getting near the $200 mark again. However, the supply must be drawing to a close. Generally, when it is this late in the season a lot of the “old seasons’ lambs come from merino influenced late lambing flocks. Some of the processing companies are now advertising a clear differential between ‘last’ and ‘new’ lambs with the schedule being up to 30c per better for the ‘new’. Ewe prices had a lift this week as ‘dry’ ewes carrying more weight are coming forward and also pushing the $200 mark for tops.

WOOL

No wool sales last week to report on so hopefully this week’s sale, which is being conducted at the Christchurch A&P show, will see an improvement after the declines of the previous weeks.

BEEF

Perhaps it has been the recent rain, but cattle prices took a small lift in the store pens. It was good to see that the schedule stopped the decline observed to previous few weeks and monitored processors have held their prices.

DAIRY

Westland have lowered their price expectations to fall more into line with the other companies for the 2018-19 season to $6.10 – $6.50 (previously $6.50 – $6.90). Still positive about their future, one of the ironies mentioned was that high production levels are meaning more milk is having to be diverted into the lower value bulk products to get rid of some volume. The biggest influencer on the prices chart this week, in relation to dairy products, has the the increasing value of Kiwi dollar against the US dollar which is starting to look like it might give .67 cents a nudge. With the bobby calf kill now over it will be interesting to see how the numbers pan out as a result of the ‘complications’ created by M.Bovis.

DEER

Another small decline in the venison schedule which corresponds with the end of the chilled meat program and start of the sea freight shipments next week.

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