Environmental gains from reducing carbon emissions will come at a high financial and social cost:
Becoming a net zero carbon economy by 2050 could result in a 16% drop in production from sheep and beef farms as livestock is replaced by trees to sequester carbon.
The Productivity Commission’s report, Low Emissions Economy, said up to 17% of sheep and beef farmland Otago, Canterbury and Manawatu-Wanganui will convert to forestry as part of plans to plant the 2.8 million hectares of new forestry needed for New Zealand to be carbon neutral.
A shift to horticulture and forestry could reduce the dairy area in Taranaki by between 35% and 57% and Waikato by 8% and 22%.
Commission chairman Murray Sherwin acknowledged such a change will affect rural communities. . .
The financial and social impacts will be huge.
While some jobs will be created, more will be lost and people who work on sheep and beef farms and in businesses which service and supply them may not be willing, or able, to work in horticulture and forestry.
Sherwin said that degree of land use change up to 2050 is comparable to the shift to dairying since the 1990s and the Government will have to manage the social and financial fallout.
“It is a shift in land use, a shift in the nature of rural communities and a shift in the workforce.”
The report is designed to shape thought on the issue rather than be a prescriptive tool.
“It is in a form to shape your thinking rather than anything you could say was a highly accurate, predictive tool.”
That aside, he acknowledged such a reduction in sheep and beef productivity is not to be sneezed at but, as has previously occurred, productivity improvements could temper any decline and returns can be improved by better marketing. . .
The impact could be as drastic as that of the ag-sag of the 80s when subsidies were cut over night.
The result is a much stronger farming sector but getting there came at a significant cost in both financial and social terms.
Beef + Lamb NZ’s chief insight officer Jeremy Baker says farmers are rightly questioning the commission’s tree planting proposal.
“A lot has been done already and I don’t know if there is much of this so-called unproductive land left.
“I’m not sure how they came up with that figure. It’s a lot of land.”
Baker said farmers feet they are not given credit for reductions in greenhouse gases, which have declined much quicker than other sectors.
Methane emissions are 30% below 1990 levels, achieved while growing production and returns. They also own 1.4m hectares of regenerating native bush and 180,000ha of plantation forest.
“The sheep and beef sector has done its bit and will play its part again but it has to be economically rational and environmentally sensible and everyone else has to come along too.”
National’s agricultural spokesman Nathan Guy says rural people have been forgotten in the commission’s report and the NZ First billion-tree policy, which risks gutting rural communities of people, jobs and services.
He described maps he has seen of proposed tree planting in Rangitikei District as bloody scary.
“Effectively there would be a whole lot of sheep and beef production gone.
“The Government seems hell bent on being carbon neutral by 2050 at all costs and I am concerned at the on-farm production losses and losing our competition edge.”
Guy said farmers will plant more trees if the sequestering value of riparian planting, shelter belts and native bush is counted.
He is confident the Pastoral Greenhouse Gas Research Consortium will discover a methane reducing bolus but that is only part of the solution to reduce greenhouse gases.
Science will play a part. It could play an even bigger part if the illogical opposition to genetic modification could be overcome.
But politics and emotion too often trump science.
In this case politics dictates that New Zealand should reduce stock numbers without taking into account of what will replace the food that we don’t produce if sheep and cattle are replaced by trees.
Most of that meat is exported and if beef and lamb no longer produced here are replaced by meat from less efficient producers elsewhere the global environmental cost will be added to the local financial and social costs.
Sustainability is supposed to be like a stool with three evenly balanced legs – environmental, social and financial.
Failing to take all the consequences of radical changes to primary production into account will make all the legs unstable.
That will make the sustainability stool very wobbly with high environmental, social and financial costs.