Comment: Farmer protesters at last week's march to Parliament were voicing concerns on Governmental policies. Although there were some loud agitators, they don't deserve to be called rednecks, writes National Party agriculture spokesman Todd Muller.

Last week around 500 concerned farmers came to Parliament to deliver Kerry Worsnop's petition asking the Government to take stock of the consequences their policies are having on rural communities.

11,000 people signed the petition and I was proud to accept it as the agriculture spokesperson for the National Party.

For myself and my National colleagues it was a great chance to listen and hear directly from those with very real concerns about the direction their industry is heading in.

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The march was about feeling heard.

There were some loud agitators as there always are at these sorts of events, but the majority of people walking the street were in Wellington because they feel disillusioned and disappointed with this Government.

They didn't deserve to be dismissed as rednecks.

In simple terms, people in the regions are worried that large scale afforestation has begun across rural New Zealand, triggered by the growing pressure for forestry offsetting to counter our transport and industrial carbon emissions.

At present, forestry offsetting is the only tool available aside from actually reducing emissions, to reduce our carbon footprint.

Reducing carbon emissions is, unsurprisingly, incredibly hard to do absent of technology that can be easily applied to the New Zealand context. Our larger CO2 emitters that are faced with limited ability to reduce emissions are seeking pine forests to offset their future liability.

The commercial signals are pretty strong that New Zealand Units (NZUs), or carbon credits as they are also known, could well be worth a lot of money in the future.

The most effective way to acquire NZUs is to grow pine trees.

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Speculators and investors are looking for profits and corporates are looking to tackle their emissions profiles. The local farming community are worried they are stuck in the middle and will find it hard to compete.

The current Government policies are intended to drive afforestation and they do not shy away from that.

NZ First Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones and National's agriculture spokesman Todd Muller at the farmer protest at Parliament. Photo / Jason Walls
NZ First Regional Economic Development Minister Shane Jones and National's agriculture spokesman Todd Muller at the farmer protest at Parliament. Photo / Jason Walls

Responsible levels of afforestation across the country is quite acceptable and in erosion prone land should be welcomed. There is land available for forestry and there is land that would be more appropriate to be in trees. But where is the limit for trees grown just for future carbon offsets and how will we know if we have hit this threshold?

The Government openly admitted last week that they have no current or regularly updated data on national levels of afforestation.

We need to have this data and we need to have the conversation on how much farm land we are willing to give up.

Minister Jones and Minister O'Connor have said that large-scale afforestation won't happen under their watch. But if they aren't actually monitoring it, then how would they know?

National fully supports planting trees. We want trees integrated into our landscapes. But if you plant trees purely for the future return of NZU profits and not for domestic and international sale of wood, environmental or biodiversity reasons, then you may find your profit margin being revised in the future.

Ultimately, the needle will have to swing the other way and more pressure be applied to actual carbon abatement, not looking for a farm to plant trees for a future offset.

We don't believe that aspiring to reduce emissions to net zero by 2050 should be predicated on turning one third of our sheep and beef land into trees.

Our farmers were protesting this point. They wish a future for their kids that sees New Zealand continuing to lead the world in growing sustainable food and fibre. Let that be our vision for the country.

In our first 100 days of Government we have committed to amend legislation to require the Climate Commission to review the appropriate use of forestry offset levels for New Zealand, and to also have regard for the carbon sink represented by other tree crops, riparian planting, and other farm biomass.

We think that is a common sense and practical approach.