Bruce Wills: ETS will penalise good farming

While the primary sector has its challenges, science and agriculture must be given a chance to solve them.

The amount of methane produced in a litre of our milk is falling because of better farming practices. Photo / Christine Cornege
The amount of methane produced in a litre of our milk is falling because of better farming practices. Photo / Christine Cornege

Recently the vice-president of Federated Farmers, William Rolleston, not only attended a Green Party mini-conference on climate change but managed to return with all of his limbs intact.

For all of the spin about agriculture and the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), farmers are in it as much as you are. The only difference is whether farm biological emissions should be in or out.

In every other country, putting farm biological emissions in an ETS type-framework is as alien as Richie McCaw donning the green and gold and singing Advance Australia Fair.

Take this golden Daily Mail headline in Britain from last year: "Buy New Zealand lamb to save the planet." Then in May came the UK's Observer with: "Why worrying about food miles is missing the point."

Written by UK celebrity chef Jay Rayner, he not only recanted the food miles concept but swapped sides.

"Three years later," he wrote, "and I am reading an academic paper with a very snappy title: Food Miles Comparative Energy/Emissions Performance of New Zealand's Agriculture Industry ... I was so baffled by the report I wanted to know whether I had read it correctly.

"I emailed Tim Benton, professor of population ecology at Leeds University who is also the UK Champion for Global Food Security. I wanted to know whether the report was simply a function of the New Zealand agriculture sector attempting to protect its commercial interests by ferociously massaging some numbers.

"He threw in some caveats but, he said, 'The overall picture [of the report] is probably true'."

Speaking last year on TV3's The Nation, Jan Wright, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, said this: "I am actually less concerned about agriculture than these heavy industrial emitters and that's because the agricultural gases are different.

"It is difficult and there are challenges there ... I say agriculture should come in but I don't have the same problem being generous to it ..."

We would argue that inclusion penalises us for being good farmers that will only leak carbon to less efficient countries. Where's the global good in that?

As Jay Rayner put it to his British readers when comparing apples with, well, apples: "The researchers found that the actual weight of nitrogen fertiliser used was roughly similar in both countries (80kg per hectare in NZ to 78kg in the UK).

"However, in New Zealand they were getting a yield of 50 tonnes per hectare, as against 14 tonnes in Britain. Where lamb was concerned yield was higher in the UK than New Zealand, but so was nitrogen fertiliser use by a factor of more than 13.

"New Zealand simply has a better landscape and climate for rearing lamb and apples."

All of this in Britain's Observer.

While we have our challenges, science and agriculture must be given a chance to solve them. We know the amount of methane produced in a litre of milk is falling because of better farming practices.

A point reinforced on Radio NZ by the Agricultural Greenhouse Gas Research Centre's Andy Reisinger: "We don't have methane-free cows at this stage, and that's largely why New Zealand has invested, on a per capita basis, more than any other developed country in research to develop solutions that allow us to reduce agricultural emissions without constraining agricultural production."

Or, as Rayner told British consumers, "New Zealand simply has a better landscape and climate" for food production. A message that isn't quite getting through to some people.

The New Zealand Initiative think-tank argues that because less than 1 per cent of New Zealand is built upon, fears of using up all our farmland are grossly exaggerated.

Should not the first question be what percentage of New Zealand is suited to pastoral farming?

You see, about 12.3 million hectares is in pastoral farming out of 26.8 million hectares.

In other words, only around 46 per cent of New Zealand is suited to pastoral farming and as Mark Twain famously opined: "Buy land, they're not making it any more." Landcare Research has also pointed out that Auckland's urban growth between 1990 and 2008 has seen 4.1 per cent of its best farmland go under tarmac with another 35 per cent lost to lifestyle blocks.

What we need is more efficient urban land forms, the reuse of old industrial sites next, with greenfield sites becoming the last and not first resort.

We also need to take the lids off our cities. Only by building more compact cities will the cost of inner city rail loops be truly justified.

While the ETS still gathers headlines, less glamorous rating and land-use policies can be like death by a thousand cuts.

If we want to double our primary industry exports by 2025, that is do-able, but only if we can get policies working with us.

Bruce Wills is the president of Federated Farmers.

- NZ Herald

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