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Has the Government Blown Its Chance to Reform Farming?

Most Kiwis want to see stronger action on the environment. Water quality is top concern at over 80%, followed by climate change at well over 60%. At the same time, most Kiwis don’t want to send farmers out of business in the process. 

TOP has previously set out our vision for farming in 2050. The question is: how do we get there? We think this government has made some serious blunders in the way they’ve rolled out their environmental agenda for farmers. While the climate change proposals seem to have been largely accepted, the Government now faces a huge backlash on their water quality proposals. 

This is a real shame because the water quality issue will have a much larger impact on farming, and is more important to the Kiwi public. Sadly it seems the current proposals will turn farmers off when we need them on side. Many farmers see themselves as guardians of the land and want to farm in a way that is friendly to the environment. Sure, there are some poor performers – but there are poor performers in any industry. We have to get buy-in from the majority of farmers to make this work. 

Let’s look at the climate and water quality policies from a farmer’s perspective and work out why they have worked out so differently. 

Climate change

First up, we had the Zero Carbon Bill and the proposal to make farmers responsible for their emissions. Thanks to the work of the Interim Climate Change Committee, the Government was able to present a decent idea of how that might all be implemented. The Government confirmed today that they would take the advice of the Committee and set up a new system for farmers to pay for their emissions. This will be different to the Emissions Trading Scheme and operate at a farm level, not the processor level. Sure, it will take five years to work through the details, but at least it looks doable. 

Farmers seemed to have accepted the need to address nitrous emissions, but have questioned the Government over methane. There are legitimate questions over how methane should be treated, and whether farmers have any real mitigation options other than reducing stock numbers. 

This will hopefully be worked through in the detail of the new farm based system. Regardless, the exemption for 95% of farming emissions (argued for by New Zealand First) rendered the whole idea pretty harmless. 

Forestry

The other big climate change issue for farmers is the impact of forestry. Currently, trees are the only way to offset emissions – although hopefully wetlands and soil carbon will be added in the future. The Government proposal will rightly allow farmers to plant trees on their own farms as an offset for their other emissions. 

However, forestry will remain part of the Emissions Trading Scheme. As a result, it looks likely that large amounts of farmland will be bought up and planted with pine for carbon credits. This raises the spectre of New Zealand getting to 2050 without having reduced our fossil fuel emissions and having simply planting trees instead. The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment thinks this is a dumb idea and that forestry should only be used as an offset for farming. This issue is creating huge uncertainty for land-owners but the Government seems set to stick with the status quo - perhaps because planting trees is the only thing all 3 coalition partners can agree on. The long term implications of this could be huge. 

Water quality

Next up we come to the Government’s proposed freshwater reforms. Compared to the watered down emissions proposals, these reforms have real teeth. When fully implemented, they could completely change the way we farm in some parts of the country (particularly Canterbury). If we achieved these fresh water goals, the impact of making agriculture pay for emissions would pale into insignificance. 

However, compared to the climate proposals, very little thought has been given to implementation. Let’s take the example of nitrogen leaching. Which farmers will have to reduce leaching, and by how much? How will any reductions be measured and enforced? Should those who have caused pollution pay? These tend to be the same farmers who have invested heavily in more intensive farming methods. Or should farmers who farm less intensively, and have invested less, bear some of the burden? Until these questions are answered, there will be a great deal of uncertainty and resistance in the farming community. And rightly so – these questions will have a huge impact on land values and will pit low intensity farmers (sheep & beef, forestry and low impact dairy) against the high intensity ones. 

Uncertainty

For farmers, paperwork has become a bigger and bigger part of the job, and many are already stretched on this front. Both the climate proposals and water reforms will add to this workload, particularly since they are not being implemented in an integrated fashion. With climate, there will be a lot of paperwork for very little change since 95% of emissions are exempt. You have to ask: why are we bothering? It would be simpler to just bring fertiliser companies into the ETS, which make up about 5% of farming emissions. We could do that now, not in 2025. 

We have a better idea of how the system will work for emissions than for water quality. Why hasn’t more thought gone into the implementation of the freshwater reforms? The answer may be simply that New Zealand First wouldn’t have agreed to them if they had really understood the impact. 

Regardless, new tools and a new industry of farm environment advisers will need to be created to work with farmers on their Farm Environment Plans. Given the complexity of the issues and the individuality of different farms, this will be difficult to avoid. While the Government has invested money in Overseer – the likely tool for measuring water quality improvements – it has done very little to build the support industry that will no doubt be needed. It may sound like a bizarre concept, but the farming industry needs an independent source of advice that isn’t tied to the big fertiliser companies. Besides, we used to have state farm advisers back in the day! 

Even if we had an army of farm advisers, there are legitimate questions over how Farm Environment Plans could be enforced. Will they be legally binding? And of course, environmental organisations are worried that if they aren’t binding, they will be no more than scraps of paper with nice words. 

In short, government bureaucrats have put enormous effort into an emissions proposal that will do bugger all, whereas the comparatively massive issue of water quality is being tackled head on with very little detail. No wonder farmers are pissed off! 

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