Thursday, April 25, 2024

Incentivise farmers, don’t penalise them 

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Primary producers shouldn’t face a tax on their emissions, but be celebrated for meeting science-based targets, writes BLNZ chair Kate Acland.
BLNZ chair Kate Acland says the awards are an opportunity to feel proud of the sheep and beef industry.
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By Kate Acland, chair of Beef + Lamb NZ and a sheep, beef and dairy farmer

Farming is the foundation of New Zealand’s economy – it’s our country’s engine room.

It provides the key ingredients to multiple products and multiple stories that we sell to the world.

Farming can’t afford to stand still, we need to continue to improve in all pillars of our production – people and planet. However, we will struggle if we’re not profitable.  

Profitability is the key.

We know regulation is needed to give New Zealanders confidence that farmers are good custodians of our environment, but regulation must be light on bureaucratic process and enable farmers to lead change. 

Farms are biological systems, so rules need appropriate flexibility to allow farmers to manage their specific catchment and farm risks and to innovate to solve challenges in the way farmers are so good at.

We know that meaningful and enduring change in the rural space must be farmer-led – it needs to be from the ground up.

Catchment communities are critical to this progress. 

When farmers are working together, in a co-ordinated way, to tackle the risks in their region – that’s when real progress is made. It’s critical that the government continue to support these groups. 

The other thing farmers need is certainty – most of us are here for a generation or more, we operate on generational cycles rather than election cycles. 

Certainty means we need enduring regulation.

We need to aim for cross-party support on environmental issues – farmers don’t want to be at the mercy of pendulum-swing politics.

Policy should focus on the outcomes we’re looking for and give farmers the ability to innovate and adapt our systems to meet those outcomes.

Climate change in agriculture is a prickly issue – most farmers accept they have a part to play, but they want the methane targets to be fair.  

The scientific understanding of methane, its warming impact and how it should be dealt with from a policy perspective has evolved recently.  

It’s clear from research carried out by respected climate scientists at Oxford University for Beef + Lamb NZ last year that the current methane reduction targets are too high.  

We welcome the coalition government’s agreement to review the targets based on no additional warming.

NZ can be a world leader in terms of setting appropriate targets for biogenic methane, targets that recognise the warming impact of gases, as well as the important role our agricultural sector plays in producing quality sustainable protein for a growing world. But leading needs to have our people following – all our people.

If farmers feel confident that targets are underpinned by the latest science they will get on board with achieving them and if they meet those targets, they shouldn’t face a tax on their emissions, but be celebrated.

If farmers have certainty on this, they will invest in and try new technologies that they otherwise might not be willing to do.

Pricing agricultural emissions needs a rethink.  

Things have moved significantly on this issue globally, and NZ needs to look outwards and explore other ways to achieve our goals. 

Rather than pricing agricultural emissions, most countries are now looking at ways to incentivise change.  

In California, farmers earn carbon credits by using biodigesters to reduce their methane emissions.  

The Canadian government is currently consulting on a proposal where farmers could earn carbon credits for undertaking actions like improved diets, management or other strategies that support more efficient animal growth. The European Union has also moved back from pricing agricultural emissions.   

We have an opportunity to position our produce and grow trade through promoting and celebrating NZ farmers for the fact they are already the most emissions-efficient producers of protein in the world and they continue to improve. 

Biodiversity is another area that needs work. 

Sheep and beef farmers care about biodiversity. We know this because 24% of the country’s native vegetation cover sits on sheep and beef farms

But the National Policy Statement (NPS) for Biodiversity penalises farmers who have done the most to protect their biodiversity to date.

Those farms will have major areas identified as having a Significant Natural Area (SNA) and face major restrictions going forward in what they can do on that land. 

The definition of an SNA currently identifies any biodiversity (regardless of value) as being significant. 

If implemented in its current form, a substantial cost and time burden will fall on landowners. 

It’s vital we pause implementation of the Biodiversity NPS and take time to create a new framework. This framework should support landowners to integrate and manage biodiversity as part of productive farming systems and incentivise rather than penalise the protection and enhancement of indigenous biodiversity. 

This could include support with fencing, pest control or even the possibility of establishing biodiversity credits.

We must strike a balance with policy where increasing profitability and productivity from our rural sector sits alongside a thriving environment.

We also need to recognise the significant progress farmers have made in improving their environmental performance over the past decade – this has come at considerable cost.

We can’t afford for the environment to be an election issue – it’s just a part of what we do as farmers to manage our land and we need to get to a place where we’re celebrated for the great job we do. 

My challenge to decision makers is to enable and empower meaningful long-term change by allowing farmers to innovate and grow, with policy that will set us up for a generational cycle rather than an election one.

• This is an excerpt from Acland’s Pitch a Policy address delivered at the National Bluegreens Forum in February 2024

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