New independent research has confirmed a significant amount of sheep and beef farmland has been converted to forestry, underlining the need for limits on carbon offsetting, says Beef + Lamb New Zealand.
The organisation said the research also busted the "myth" about trees going on unproductive land and reinforced its view that the integration of forestry on farms was a better way of managing landscapes and meeting climate change targets.
The study by BakerAg, commissioned by B+LNZ, reveals there has been a significant increase in the amount of farmland sold into forestry, driven in large part by an increase in the carbon price.
The report was unable to identify exactly how much of the sheep and beef farmland sold into forestry was intended for pure carbon farming, but based on examination of the land titles, it was estimated that about 26,550 hectares of the 77,800 hectares of whole farms sold into forestry since 2017 were to carbon-only entities (about 34 per cent of the whole farm sales).
B+LNZ chief executive Sam McIvor said the report showed that in 2017, 3965 hectares of whole sheep and beef farms were sold into forestry; this increased to 20,227 ha in 2018 and 36,824 ha in 2019.
It declined to 16,764 hectares in 2020 (most likely as a result of Covid-19) but rural intelligence suggested it had regathered momentum this year and moved into new regions, threatening rural communities, McIvor said.
"While B+LNZ does see a role for forestry in addressing climate change, we are calling for urgent discussions and Government action on mechanisms to ensure that too much does not happen.
"They've repeated a mantra of 'right tree, right purpose, right place' but frankly the evidence shows that's not happening – it's threatening rural communities and undermining New Zealand's future economic viability."
According to McIvor, the amount of land intended to change into forestry on average already exceeded the levels of afforestation recently recommended by the Climate Change Commission for meeting Zero Carbon Act targets.
On average between 2018 and 2020, the report identified over 29,500 hectares each year intended to change into exotic forestry, which exceeded the 25,000 hectares per annum of exotic pines identified by the Climate Change Commission, he said.
The report found those 29,500 hectares were from a combination of the plantable area of whole farm sales into forestry and funding to plant exotic trees within farms under two Government schemes.
With the Climate Change Commission suggesting the carbon price would rapidly increase, the sector was calling on the Government to work with it, and the forestry sector, on how forestry offsetting can be managed, McIvor said.
He said the Climate Change Commission and the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment had also both recently suggested the need for policy changes to limit forestry offsetting.
"Without urgent action, the sale of sheep and beef farms into forestry will only accelerate as the carbon price increases, and fossil fuel emitters will continue to receive a 'get out of jail' free card and not change their behaviour.
"This is a critical issue for our sector – as evidenced by its inclusion as one of the seven key concerns in the recent Groundswell-organised farmer protests."
The research also analysed the land types of the farms sold into forestry. It found that over 90 per cent of the land within whole farms sold into forestry was of Land Use Capability (LUC) classes 6 and above.
The Labour Party indicated before the 2020 election that it would make changes to the National Environmental Standard for Plantation Forestry to require resource consents to be issued for plantation of carbon forests on LUC classes 1–5.
"We said at the time we weren't convinced by this approach and the research validates our concerns. Such proposals would be completely ineffective in resolving the problem," McIvor said.
A common narrative is also that the planting is happening on non-productive farmland.
The research found that 64 per cent of the planting is on low-erosion or moderate erosion land, which is often highly productive hill country.
"This idea that wholesale land conversion is happening on hills that aren't productive, that are prone to slipping away, isn't borne out by the evidence."
McIvor stressed that B+LNZ was not against forestry and strongly supported the integration of trees on farms.
The study also found that between 2018 and 2020 over 47,000 hectares of land within sheep and beef farms was approved under two government schemes to be converted into exotic and native trees.
"There is likely to have been even more conversion of land into exotic or native forestry within sheep and beef farms undertaken privately during this time, outside of these two government schemes."
The report backed B+LNZ's argument that the integration of forestry on farms could go a long way to enabling New Zealand to meet its climate change targets, McIvor said.
"It's an opportunity for a win-win situation where New Zealand can meet its climate obligations and still maintain livestock production.
"This is important to our rural communities who are concerned about the wider impacts of large-scale conversion of sheep and beef farms into forestry, particularly carbon farming, which does not support the same number of regional jobs – in fact, it undermines these communities."
While the Government had talked about rebuilding social infrastructure and supporting communities, this was an area where they had taken their eye off the ball," McIvor said.
"If they take immediate action on this issue it's an opportunity to show they're listening, they care, and have sustainable view for New Zealand's future."
B+LNZ estimated transitioning productive land to exotic forestry over the last three years had resulted in a reduction of up to 700,000 stock units (or 700,000 sheep) with downstream implications for processing companies and supplying services.
Read a summary of the report here.
Read the full report here.