Comment: Sam McIvor, chief executive of Beef + Lamb New Zealand, says turning productive farmland to plantations for carbon farming will have negative effects on rural communities and the Government should rethink its flawed approach.

Trees have become a hot topic with farmers lately, and with good reason.

Beef + Lamb New Zealand supports protecting and restoring native bush and the planting of forestry on farms in a way that complements the landscape. However, we're concerned about the impact of policies that economically incentivise wholesale land use change from pastoral-based farming into exotic trees for carbon offsetting.

Put simply, we're not anti-forestry – we're against policies that will lead to widespread carbon farming, which will have detrimental effects on our rural communities.

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Picking up the tab

Proposed changes to the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) will incentivise fossil fuel emitters to offset their pollution by planting trees – or planting pollution on farms. This means sheep and beef farmers and rural communities are being asked to pick up the tab for other industries' pollution.

We acknowledge there's a place for offsetting – trees absorb carbon dioxide and it's good for the climate to plant some forests in the right place. In fact, some of our farmers are doing exactly that within their farms.

Sam McIvor, chief executive of Beef + Lamb New Zealand. Photo / Supplied
Sam McIvor, chief executive of Beef + Lamb New Zealand. Photo / Supplied

The problem is that the Government has not set any limit on how much offsetting can happen through the ETS, nor on how much land can be converted to forestry to create carbon credits for sale – that is, carbon farming. We've asked for a limit but as yet no limits have been applied.

Without a limit, the Government's own projections show sheep and beef farmland decreasing by nearly 20 percent over the next 15 years, and the land in exotic forests increasing by 25-30 percent over the same timeframe.

This is a slap in the face to an industry that has already reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent since the 1990s, and has worked to protect and restore native habitats on our farms to the tune of 2.8 million hectares, the second largest holding of native vegetation in the country.

Negative effects

Turning productive farmland to plantations for carbon farming will have negative effects on rural communities. It reduces biodiversity, and is potentially negative for soils, and freshwater. It also adversely affects jobs and exports – two critical ingredients in New Zealand's Covid-19 recovery. And allowing fossil fuel polluters to just offset means they don't have incentives to reduce their emissions.

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Sheep and beef farming and processing accounts for more than 92,000 jobs in New Zealand. Can we afford to lose more than 18,000 jobs over the next 15 years if large-scale afforestation occurs?

Farmers are actively working to reduce emissions. Through the He Waka Eke Noa partnership between the primary sector, Māori and Government, we're being accountable and doing our part.

Flawed approach

We're committed to protecting the environment as well as providing food, jobs and export earnings for New Zealand. However, the Government is effectively kicking the can down the road, and kicking rural communities in the guts by incentivising pollution-planting in rural communities.

It's not only rural communities that are up in arms, but the concern is branching out into urban communities. It's time for the Government to rethink its flawed approach.