What are the biophysical limits to New Zealand’s food and energy future? Mike Joy says people need to do a lot less of what they are doing now if New Zealand is to have a sustainable future. Joy says we need to change the way we live if we are to avert a significant climate crisis. Oscar Perress spoke to Joy about his work and what we need to do to become more sustainable.

Mike Joy is a Senior Researcher at Victoria University. He is an expert in freshwater ecology and biophysical economics and is the author of Mountains to Sea: Solving New Zealand’s Freshwater Crisis.


This interview has been edited for clarity and length 

Oscar Perress: What are the biophysical limits to New Zealand’s food and energy future?

Mike Joy: Climate change is in the news a lot but it is just one manifestation of limits to growth. The biophysical bit of it is that we have reached a limit in terms of extracting everything we can from the planet to get the population that we have and to get the lifestyles that we have. And all of those limits are sort of hitting us at the moment, there are so many things that are running out and energy is a big part of it, fossil energy etcetera. In my work, I talk about how dependent we are on fossil fuels in every way but especially our food. I mean, people are probably aware of the green revolution, and it was some great technology but all of that technology requires fossil fuels. And really what it was all about was this process that we invented in the early 1900s to convert fossil fuels into nitrogen fertiliser or using fossil fuels to take it out of the atmosphere. And so now we create more artificial nitrogen to grow food than any natural system, so we are totally dependent on fossil fuels for our food. Something in the vicinity of seventy to eighty percent of our food comes from fossil fuels: we are basically eating the past and that past is now catching up on us because we have a huge population and we are increasingly unable to either access the fossil fuels or by climate change use the fossil fuels.

OP: Do you think the majority of New Zealanders are aware of our reliance on fossil fuels within food?

MJ: No, I don’t think most global citizens have any idea because all we have known in our lifetimes and the lifetimes of our parents and grandparents is this massive amount of energy available. We just think it is a normal part of life.

OP: Why do you think we accept that?

MJ: We just are not aware of it because it is all we see around us. A good example is how many New Zealanders smugly think that we are fine because eighty percent of our energy comes from renewable sources, things like hydro and geothermal. But most people do not realise that, that is about twenty percent of our energy use. When you include embodied energy then eighty percent of our energy comes from fossil fuels. So the things that we take for granted, the huge buildings, the cars, the roads, the infrastructure, all of it comes from fossil fuels, or almost all of it. And the other part of that is that people assume that we have more renewable energy than before but that is completely wrong as well: we actually have less renewable energy as a proportion of our total energy use than at any time in our history. It is just getting less and less, every day we use more and more fossil fuels. We are increasing wind turbines and solar panels and that kind of thing but nowhere near as fast as we are increasing our overall energy use.

OP: What would you say the future of food and energy is?

MJ: The reality is that a huge amount of energy that goes into our food production goes into feeding animals. So the first step to being able to support anything like the population we have without the energy coming in is that we are going to have to reduce animals in our diets in a really big way.

OP: A lot of media outlets seem to label you as a feisty environmentalist or some form of radicalist. Do you think that is a fair reputation or is it an issue that people who produce work like you are seen as feisty or fierce?

MJ: What they are trying to do is put me down. The threat to business as we know it is the realisation to people that we cannot keep growing as we are and so there is huge money invested into making sure that people are not aware of reality so that they will keep on consuming and flying around the world and doing all the other things that have a major impact on the planet. I am just one of a handful of people really who are trying to stand up and point out this reality and we are up against armies of PR and communications people. The main areas I work in with freshwater in New Zealand I am up against the agriculture industry, the fertiliser industry, even in local and central government the economy comes first. And these people spend more and more money every day on spin and comms and painting a rosy picture of reality because they are reporting on themselves and in the case of the industry, they make their money from selling more of their products. And so you get the situation I have been pointing out in New Zealand where farmers can make a lot more money and be better off and have happier lifestyles with way less input. But they just don’t get that message, they keep getting told to produce more and buy more fertiliser and industrialise their farming systems more and more to produce more volume for the likes of Fonterra. There is a massive incentive to do more, to spend more, and there is very little money or incentive to do less, and so getting the message across that we need to do a lot less is difficult and of course we open ourselves up to being attacked and shut down for getting that truth out.

OP: Earlier this year, you co-authored an article titled “Despite its green image New Zealand has the world’s highest proportion of species at risk.” It breaks down a whole heap of facts about the New Zealand environment. This idea with the New Zealand environment that we have this clean, green, 100% pure image, do you think that relationship is quite dangerous in how we move forward with the environment?

MJ: Yeah certainly. I mean just from a marketing point of view, tourism and dairy are two of our really big earners and they are at odds because the intensive farming is destroying the environment. And if the truth ever got out about the reality of the environment here then we would use that green image and we would never get it back again. But I have said it before and I will say it again, it is what footballers would call an own goal, it is an own goal for the industry, for the framing industry because the biggest value-add that they can put to their produce is the clean, green image. I mean, as the rest of the world gets more and more degraded, people will pay more and more for products that they can trust from a clean, green country. The same procures that would profit and gain from that are the same ones that are destroying that reality. So it is a really big dilemma and it is really dangerous for us to be going down this pathway where we just keep industrialising and doing more and more damage as we go ahead.

OP: What would you like to see as the key main fixes in both the agriculture and freshwater industries?

MJ: It is not going to be a choice much longer. I am not saying that people should eat less meat for any other reason than that is the reality of that is where most of the damage comes from. And if we want to have a future then we are going to have to eat less meat, it is not about a want – it is about an inevitable reality. The kind of changes that we need to do is to stop using fossil fuel-derived fertilises and farm more naturally. The buzzword at the moment is regenerative farming which is a way of making food that doesn’t have impacts on the planet and it is the only way that we can survive into the future. At the moment we are the biggest importer in the world of palm kernel, another thing that intensifies our farming. So fossil fuels, plus fertilisers, plus palm kernel put together to make industrial farming has huge impacts on our environment. So very simply, get rid of those things and farm to suit the land and to suit the rainfall and to suit the fertility of the soils. This has way less impact on the environment and this is the future we will either voluntarily go into or it’s the future we will be forced into if we don’t get on to it. And if we get forced into it, it will get really messy and really damaging, but if we manage our way into it we will be able to survive and thrive.

OP: If you could tell New Zealanders three things to remember about the environment what would those three things be?

MJ: The reality is we are at a crisis point when it comes to biodiversity and ecosystem health in New Zealand and the drivers of that are industrial intensive farming, fossil fuel-based farming, and what we do as humans, the reliance we have on fossil fuels etcetera. So we have to cut back the impact and intensity of energy and our lifestyles and our food production to have any kind of hope of a future.

This interview originally aired on 95bFM’s weekly news and current affairs show The Wire. For more stories like this, click here.

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Disclaimer: The ideas expressed in this discussion reflect the views of the guest and not necessarily the views of The Big Q. 

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