Concern over the impacts of carbon farming

Concern over the impacts of carbon farming

6th December 2022
Beef & Lamb NZ recently released a report that shows the pace and extent of farmland being converted to forestry in New Zealand. The report details how vast tracts of farmland are being sold to carbon farming speculators, with a significant amount being bought up by offshore interests. They offset their greenhouse gas emissions by planting trees on productive sheep and beef farms.
Much of the land is going into permanent forestry for carbon sequestering and this is destroying many rural communities through lost industry and jobs, and rural services and support disappearing. It is creating ghost towns.
The report says an analysis of farm sales for the first half of 2021 showed over 14,000 hectares of sheep and beef farmland were purchased with the intent of planting into trees and that in 2020 the amount of farmland purchased for exotic forestry totalled 24,864ha.
There is a major concern that the sale of farms into forestry will only accelerate as carbon pricing increases.
There are signs that carbon farming interests are spreading into new areas and onto more productive land with one area being Otago where there have been a number of sales.
The parent company of Swedish retail giant Ikea bought Wisp Hill Station in the Catlins for forestry plantation in August 2021. An area of 330ha would be planted with radiata pine seedlings and the long-term plan was to have a total of 3000ha, more than 3 million seedlings, planted in the next five years.
The same company bought a 1118ha sheep and beef farm at Waimumu, near Gore, in April and the company predicted about 87% or 977ha would be planted with predominantly Pinus Radiata.
Beef & Lamb NZ’s report shows the farm-to-forest conversion rate is far in excess of the recommendations put forward by the Climate Change Commission for the country to reach its emissions reduction targets and with the recent reduction in the climate predictions from the UN, we will be far above the targets once the new predictions are entered into the calculations.
In 2020 the Mid Dome Wilding Trees Charitable Trust, Federated Farmers, Forest & Bird and the Department of Conservation shared concerns after the Southland District Council granted a non-notified consent, with conditions, for Mataura Valley Station, near Kingston, to be planted out mainly in Douglas fir.
In October the council voted to prioritise the rules around plantation forestry in its review of the natural features and landscapes plan change, saying unmanaged pine forests planted on Southland’s productive farmland was an “ecological disaster waiting to happen”.
If the scale of carbon sequestration on farms can meet our climate change targets, then there are environmental benefits for biodiversity and freshwater health, whilst also keeping the social fabric of rural communities intact – a win all round.
The problem that New Zealand faces currently is that with the government’s subsidies to encourage planting of trees to help mitigate our climate change impacts we are in effect subsidising offshore corporations to plant so that they can benefit from that planting in their own country and all we get is the problem of rural ghost towns and eventually a forest plantation that has reached the end of its life in terms of carbon capture and no-one wanting to take responsibility for it.
The rising cost of carbon credits is the worst part of the whole situation as they dictate whether it is worthwhile turning prime land into carbon sinks or to keep farming it and with the rapidly rising price of the carbon credits it is a forgone conclusion that farming is the second best choice by a long margin when considering available income from any given piece of rural land.
Why is Grass Pasture not counted for Carbon Credit?
Studies have shown that grass pastures can store more carbon than forests because they are impacted less by droughts and wildfires and this doesn’t include the potential benefits of good land management to help boost soil health and increase carbon stocks in grass pastures.
Increased drought and wildfire risk make grass pasture more reliable as carbon sinks than trees.
Forests have always played a critical part of our environment as carbon sinks, consuming about a quarter of the carbon dioxide pollution produced worldwide.
But decades of warming temperatures and drought have increased wildfire risks which in turn have the potential to change forests from carbon sinks to carbon sources.
Unlike forests, grass pastures sequester most of their carbon underground, while forests store it mostly in woody biomass and leaves. When wildfires cause trees to go up in flames, the burned carbon they formerly stored is released back to the atmosphere. When fire burns grass pastures, however, the carbon fixed underground tends to stay in the roots and soil.
In a stable climate, trees store more carbon than grass pastures. But with global warming and a drought-likely future, we could lose some of the most productive carbon sinks on the planet from the extreme weather changes that are beginning to occur all over the world.
We are not suggesting that grass pastures should replace forests on the landscape or diminish the many other benefits of trees. Rather, that, conserving grass pastures and promoting good farming practices that promote reliable rates of carbon sequestration could help meet emission-reduction goals.
This would then have the added benefits of reducing the likelihood of rural ghost towns occurring; farmers being priced off the land and the detrimental effects of carbon farming on our national economy.
So why don’t we change the criteria for carbon credits to include Grass Pasture into the ETS to take into account the carbon sequestration that it is already achieving but is not currently recognised in the ETS system?
When people look at cows, they think of emissions, but the whole grazing system is actually sequestering carbon, yet the carbon sequestration from pasture is totally ignored when discussing emissions from farming.
It is only fair that if the discussions are to be held around the detrimental effects of farming on the environment, then the beneficial effects should also be part of the discussion to reflect the reality of the situation and bring some much needed balance to the discussions.
The world needs agriculture in all its different forms to ensure the population can be fed so any discussion should be based on science and include all of the relevant information that gives a realistic starting point when discussing rules around agriculture.
Unlike the current situation where the beneficial effects of agriculture have been totally removed from the discussion and there is no balance. The failure to include the beneficial effects, (from carbon sequestration in pasture through to security of food supply and reduction in food miles) highlights the inequity in the current discussions where agriculture is being unfairly portrayed as a destroyer of the natural environment, when in actual fact it is no worse or better than other parts of society as we see it today.