NEW Zealand has always been challenged to move from commodity mass production to targeting higher value, whether it be in agriculture, tourism or our manufacturing businesses.

In this country's frantic race to deliver on a throw-away election comment of 1 billion trees, we seem to be chasing numbers and not quality.

Hundreds of thousands of hectares of productive farmland is being removed from livestock production by investors chasing a potential windfall from a speculated rising carbon price.

The barriers for foreigners to buy land have been removed, as long as they plant trees, any species of trees. We as taxpayers will even give them $1500 per hectare to plant these trees. Basically, there are no strings attached; they keep the carbon credits and who knows whether they will be available to balance this country's emissions. They are likely to find a higher price for them in another country.

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Their motivation is to plant pine trees, which give the fastest accumulation of carbon credits.

Keith Woodford, an independent consultant, has highlighted some of the future consequences to New Zealand.

"It is important to understand that carbon credits can only be claimed for the first rotation of trees, typically 28 years for pine trees. Then the credits that have been claimed throughout the growth cycle are a liability attached to the land title.

This liability will prevent many of these trees being harvested, or the land being able to be used for any other production. They can sit back and take the stream of income from carbon credits over the next 28 years. And then write off the initial investment in the same way that a spent mine is written off."

Mike Cranstone
Mike Cranstone

We are gifting them our productive land for them to speculate on the international carbon market, and we are carrying the future liability.

When we allow our precious land resource to be taken over by pine trees, what does New Zealand have? When you walk through a pine plantation there are only dead pine needles on the ground and there is no native birdsong from tūī and other nectar-loving birds, or ferns for our native wētā and lizards.

The rural communities will be just as barren. As the productive farmland is lost, so are the families that provide the vibrancy and numbers to the schools, sports clubs, the business for the local store, for the plumbers and other tradespeople. The tourists who currently rave about the diverse landscape of green pastures, interspersed with sheep, native bush and friendly locals won't come either. A bland, dark green, monotonous forest, empty villages, and a yellow pollen that smothers everything, will not attract tourists out of our major centres.

This isn't the legacy I want to leave for future generations of our beautiful New Zealand. As we plant trees, we do have a great opportunity to create value now and for our kids. Isn't it the future that we are doing this for?

Firstly, let's be selective about what land we take out of livestock farming. We should be targeting our steep, marginal land, which would also achieve other environmental benefits of reducing erosion. Currently, some of our best gentle hill country is being snapped up by investors, this farmland being so important for our established meat and wool export earnings.

This isn't the legacy I want to leave for future generations of our beautiful New Zealand. As we plant trees, we do have a great opportunity to create value now and for our kids. Isn't it the future that we are doing this for?

By planting native forest species rather than pine trees, we would establish a habitat for our precious native flora and fauna. The forests would be regenerating. As trees reached maturity and fell over, a diverse undergrowth would fill the gap. The foreign investors would not be allowed to shut the gate and walk away but would be committed to further controlling pests and weeds so our native biodiversity can flourish. Since the productive land was retained in agriculture, the local communities would still flourish, the school children would share the native forest paths with tourists.

It might take longer for us to reach our carbon zero target, but look at the value we could create along the way for our future generations.

Currently the rapid removal of productive farmland into forestry is uncontrolled, wrecking our rural communities and doing nothing for our native biodiversity. How different it could be if we just paused, took a breath and created a vision for all that we want as New Zealanders.

•Mike Cranstone is Whanganui provincial president of Federated Farmers.