In contrast to its positive social agenda to improve the average person’s lot by lifting the minimum wage, increasing teachers’ pay rates and attempting to increase home ownership, this government seems to have gone missing in action with respect to the farming sector, writes Allan Barber.
Apart from Agriculture Minister Damien O’Connor’s rather lonely efforts as a cheerleader for agriculture, other government ministers only pop their heads above the parapet when there’s some good environmental news or forestry initiative to crow about, or a new, and scientifically flawed, methane reduction target to ask farmers to meet.
Agriculture contributes about 80 percent of merchandise exports and employs 15 percent of the workforce which underlines how critical the sector is to the New Zealand economy. Yet to observe the government’s attitude, one would think agriculture’s contribution to the economy was relatively insignificant or easy to replace. When it comes to addressing climate change and formulating the Carbon Zero strategy, agricultural production, at least red meat and dairy, appears to be an inconvenience which must be discouraged so New Zealand can meet a set of unachievable targets. These targets are being negotiated against a backdrop of dire predictions about the catastrophic effect of global temperature and sea level increase which the world’s economies should have addressed 50 years ago to avoid disaster.
So in spite of present trading conditions across agriculture as a whole forecast to generate the highest ever annual export sales of $45.7 billion, many farmers feel nervous, threatened and undervalued. There are several reasons for this, not necessarily the fault of farmers or the government, but the latter has a responsibility to encourage and provide leadership where I believe it falls a long way short.
The government can claim it is responding appropriately to the challenges the country faces, including climate change, immigration settings, foreign investment, health and safety, environmental issues, water quality and regional development. One of the problems posed by the coalition government is the sharing of portfolios between three parties which leads to individual biases being reflected in various policies. The Greens dominate the environmental space, while New Zealand First drives regional development, as well as exerting pressure on immigration and foreign investment.
When significant on-farm cost increases and bank pressure, particularly but not exclusively on dairy farmers, are added to the mix, there is a cocktail of challenges facing farmers. On top of all this is the worry over the sustainability of trading conditions with Trump’s ratcheting up of his trade war with China which some commentators see as a preamble to a trade war with the EU. On top of the Brexit saga, these could cause serious disruption to agricultural trade with all three of our most important markets.
A major cause of the loss of farmer confidence is the largely urban public’s attitude to farming which admittedly may be only the view of a vocal minority, but appears to carry more weight with government than logical arguments based on science. The Interim Climate Change Commission proposals for methane reduction by 24-47 percent by 2050 are unnecessary and unachievable without massive loss of production which would be economically unsustainable. The Primary Sector Climate Change Commitment is a practical alternative which the government should evaluate and respond to positively instead of hiding behind its incorrect assumptions which fly in the face of scientific facts.
Federated Farmers vice-president Andrew Hoggard emphasises the importance of correctly set targets for greenhouse gas reduction and the need for incentives to invest in finding scientific and technological solutions to achieve them. B+LNZ’s Jeremy Baker says farmers are receiving unclear signals about whether they will be rewarded for bush blocks on their farms, while all the incentives are directed at carbon farming speculation. Both Hoggard and Baker see carbon speculation as a greater problem for sheep and beef than the billion trees programme, because of the more permissive requirements for overseas forestry investment as opposed to land purchase for pastoral use. They are also concerned by the unintended consequences of providing carbon offsets which enables corporates like Air New Zealand to convert pastoral land to forestry and earn the incentives from pine trees which they can leave in the ground. What an incredible waste of land and resources!
Baker points to the massive carbon sequestration difference between exotics and natives, whereby natives absorb carbon for 300 years, albeit at a slower rate. The soil under natives also produces an infinitely better carbon sink, but exotics are being rewarded while farmers get no recognition for native bush. This example is typical of a government that appears not to understand the contradictory impact of a number of its policies. For instance it is busy negotiating free trade agreements, while actively discouraging the sector best placed to take advantage of them; the Just Transitions Conference held earlier this year to consider how New Zealand can transition to a low emissions economy invited James Cameron, arch-vegan and anti-livestock farmer, as its keynote speaker.
It’s about time the government woke up and realised just how much progress the sector has made on improving water quality, land erosion and reducing its environmental footprint, before it chucks the baby out with the climate change bathwater. It needs to support New Zealand agriculture to encourage progress towards feeding the world’s growing population sustainably.