Kerry Gets It Wrong on Climate’s Impact on New Zealand’s Dairy Farmers

By Patrick Goodenough | January 12, 2015 | 4:22 AM EST

The dairy industry is New Zealand’s biggest export earner. (Image: Dairy NZ)

( – In a speech in India on Sunday, Secretary of State John Kerry cited as an example of the global impact of climate change a recent drought in New Zealand that was so dire, he said, farmers had been forced to kill “all of their dairy cattle and sheep.”

It’s not true.

New Zealand did experience a severe drought in 2013 – the worst in nearly 70 years in some regions, according to the country’s climate research center – but it did not result in the wholesale slaughter of dairy herds.

In fact the 2013/2014 season accounted for a record level of milk production in New Zealand, surpassing the 20 billion liter mark for the first time, according to a new report by the industry body, Dairy NZ.

Moreover, 2013/2014 also saw a small increase in the number of dairy herds, with milking cow numbers rising by 138,600 animals to 4.92 million.

In his speech in Gujarat, Kerry cited floods in India two years ago, Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, drought in southern Africa, and then raised the New Zealand example.

“New Zealand recently experienced a drought that was so bad that farmers had to slaughter all of their dairy cattle and sheep because they didn’t have enough food and water to be able to keep the animals alive,” he said.

“So these are the problems that global climate change is already causing,” Kerry continued. “And there isn’t a scientist worth his or her salt who won’t tell you that the problem is going to grow more severe.”

Secretary of State John Kerry addresses an audience including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon at a summit in Gujarat, India, on Sunday, January 11, 2015. (Photo: State Department)

Federated Farmers of New Zealand adverse events spokesperson Katie Milne said Monday that Kerry’s statement was incorrect.

“It is normal farming practice in the drier parts of the year and especially in drought to destock – but I haven’t heard of any farms who have rid of 100 percent of their stock,” she said.

Graphs based on New Zealand Meat Board figures on the annual slaughter of all cows (both dairy and beef) show no marked rise in the 2013/14 season above that of the previous one.

“Total dairy cattle numbers increased to 6.6 million head for the year to 30 June 2013, up 2.3 percent on the previous season,” the industry group Beef and Lamb New Zealand said in a report released around midway through the 2013/2014 season.

A subsequent report by the group said, “Total dairy cattle numbers increased slightly (+0.7 percent) to 6.53 million head at 30 June 2014 on the previous season.”

Milne noted that the 2013 drought was severe – in some regions, the worst since the mid-1940s, according to the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA).

Last year, by contrast, was “generally a mild year with near normal rainfall and near average temperatures for most of the country,” says a NIWA summary of the 2014 climate, released on Friday.

“Farmers are pushing for more water storage in NZ to capture the excess rain fall we get in the winter and autumn to tide us over in the drier months,” Milne said.

New Zealand produces three percent of all the milk in the world, and the dairy industry is small Pacific island nation’s biggest export earner. About 95 percent of New Zealand’s milk production is exported to more than 150 countries.

With a population of just 4.47 million, New Zealand has more cows (4.9 million dairy and about four million beef cows) and many more sheep (around 30 million), than it has people.

The sheer number of cows and sheep prompted a Labor government in 2003 to propose introducing a tax on flatulence – methane emitted from both ends of the animals is considered a “greenhouse gas” – but it backed down in the face of a farmer-led protest campaign under the slogan Fight Against Ridiculous Taxes, (FART).

A longstanding advocate of the campaign against global warming during his almost three decades in the U.S. Senate, Kerry as secretary of state has prioritized the issue, which he says is at least as serious as other major global threats, including terrorism, epidemics and nuclear proliferation.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow