Farmers question carbon sink tree planting plans

Written by Heather Chalmers

A proposal for large-scale tree planting on sheep and beef farms is an act of "mild desperation" by government officials looking for ways to achieve its carbon zero goal by 2050, says an industry spokesman.   

Sheep and beef farmers say their industry is already a leader when it comes to meeting greenhouse gas emissions targets.  

Despite this it is being targeted with providing land for the large-scale tree planting required as a carbon sink to offset greenhouse gas emissions.  

Beef + Lamb New Zealand's chief insight officer Jeremy Baker said that rather than being a marginal industry only fit for large-scale commercial forestry, sheep and beef was profitable and productive and making its own significant greenhouse gas emissions reductions.  

"We felt it was a bit on the nose that sheep and beef farmers provide the solution for the rest of the country by providing land to plant large tracts of pine plantations."

There was no recognition of the existing 1.4 million hectares of native forest and 180,000ha of plantation forestry on sheep and beef farms which were already playing a role in carbon sequestration.

"That is some of the land they are talking about planting in pines." 

The Productivity Commission recommends 1.3m to 2.8m hectares of marginal sheep and beef country be put into forestry to help New Zealand move towards a zero-carbon economy by 2050.

Without dramatic reductions in carbon dioxide emissions, which would require significant changes in sectors like transport and energy, New Zealand was reliant on tree plantings to provide a carbon sink to offset this.  

Federated Farmers climate change spokesman Andrew Hoggard said up to 2.8m more hectares in forestry was around a fifth of all land in agriculture, about 14m ha.

"That sort of land use change would be devastating for many rural communities in terms of job opportunities and sustaining the social and economic fabric of small towns." 

Baker said farmers were concerned about climate change.

"As a biological system, dependent on the climate, it will have a huge impact. Increasing global warning with more droughts and extreme weather is something farmers are keen to mitigate. But other parts of the economy will have to play their part as well if we are to achieve the required outcome."  

Since 1990, sheep numbers have reduced by 50 per cent and beef cattle by 23 per cent, with the sector reducing its carbon emissions by more than 30 per cent on 1990 levels. 

Despite sheep numbers falling from a peak of 70 million in 1982 to 27 million now, the amount of sheepmeat exported to world markets had remained at similar levels.

This was because New Zealand had one of the most productive flocks in the world, with continual farm management and genetic improvements leading to increasing lambing percentages and lamb slaughter weights. 

Falling sheep numbers did not indicate a retreat of the industry, but a transition from volume to value, Baker said. 

"It's a great story of an industry that has already made the transition the Productivity Commission seeks to a more efficient, less carbon emitting producer of higher value exports. Sheep and beef farms are twice as profitable now as they were in the 1990s." 

Economically marginal, steeper, erosion-prone land was the type that farmers had already planted in native bush. "We don't want another Tolaga Bay (where significant volumes of forestry harvest slash was swept downstream in floods)." 

Baker said that commercial pine plantations were a "quick fix", providing 30 to 40 years of relatively high rates of carbon sequestration before being harvested. "You then have to replant to maintain your carbon credits.

"In comparison, it takes native forest 300 years to fully regenerate and over that time it continues to sequester carbons. So it's a long play.

"It's likely that sheep and beef farmers will have a mixture of commercial forestry and native bush."  

Some farmers would plant radiata pine for carbon credits. "It won't be blanket pine plantations, but more woodlots in areas close to roads and ports for more efficient harvesting, milling and export.     

"In other areas it will be much better to focus on native regeneration." 

Sheep and beef farmers were adaptable and resilient, generating income from not just livestock, but cropping, tourism, manuka and forestry, Baker said.  "Farmers are realising that a diversified portfolio is the most sustainable, rather than blanket tree planting."  

Beef + Lamb NZ was working to understand the extent of the sequestration already occurring on sheep and beef farms from existing tree plantings, both native and exotic.