Green MP Teanau Tuiono: Agriculture is at a turning point, and we need to seize the opportunities

  • Opinion
  • 23/11/2021
Green MP Teanau Tuiono.
Green MP Teanau Tuiono. Photo credit: File

OPINION: We share a great deal in common with the Irish. We're more or less the same size, population wise. We love our rugby. We can each rightfully claim to be home to some of the world's most spectacular natural landscapes. Our values are rooted in family and community. And we both have a rather complex relationship with colonisation. 

Right now, one the issues that ties us most closely together is climate change. And in particular the challenge of what to do about the fact that our agricultural sectors are the number one contributor to our country's greenhouse gas emissions. For New Zealand, methane makes up 48 percent of our emissions, for Ireland it's about 37 percent. 

The ability to farm is obviously dependent on a stable climate. In a world that warms by more than the globally agreed goal of 1.5 degrees, Aotearoa is likely to experience more frequent flooding in the south, and drought and fires in the north. We have already seen some of this unfold. Earlier this year, Westport was devastated by flooding, while last year Northland was hit by prolonged drought. It seems rather obvious to say it but frequent droughts and flooding aren't great for farming, wherever you're from. 

Addressing the climate crisis, then, is an imperative. Not only to safeguard the future of food production, but to seize one of the biggest opportunities New Zealand's agriculture sector has right now. Markets all over the world are seeking more and more low emissions products. To take advantage, we need to change how we produce food and fibre. 

For decades, successive governments have treated farms like factories, prioritising quantity over quality. It has polluted our water, hurt our land and animals, and warmed our planet. It has left farmers without the tools they need to weather climate and market changes, and our communities without the secure and just food and fibre producing systems they need to thrive. 

Efforts to change this are often contentious and fraught with political difficulties. Much like New Zealand, Ireland has its own forces pushing back against change. But these protests often miss the point. Turning our agriculture and horticulture sector from one of the biggest impacts on the climate and natural environment into one of its biggest solutions will help rural communities to thrive. If we make the right choices now, we can create a thriving and sustainable farming sector that is good for farmers, good for communities, and good for the planet. 

How we go about capturing these gains - and who stands to benefit most - is crucial. For me, the answer is clear: we will only have succeeded if we transition to low emissions agriculture in a way that also supports farming communities to flourish. People know that change is coming as a result of climate change and other trends, and so we need a just transition to support them through this change.

That means proactive transition planning with farming businesses, unions, iwi, and affected communities at the table; widely accessible education and training; dedicated support for workers in transition; working for a fairer distribution of health outcomes, and making sure we fully understand the distributional impacts of climate policies on population groups.

The next best chance the Government has to show that it has the courage to step up will be the Emissions Reduction Plan it publishes next year. This will set the direction for climate action in New Zealand for the next 15 years and if the consultation on the development of the plan is anything to go by, there is work to do. 

It is no exaggeration to say that the decisions this Government makes in the next couple of years will have a profound impact on the type of planet - and farming system - our children inherit from us. Nearly every Minister has a part to play in making sure the final Emissions Reduction Plan does enough to build a more equitable, more prosperous, and more innovative future. That means coming to the table with more and better ideas for how they will reduce emissions in their sector. 

For agriculture, hopes right now are pinned mostly on the work of He Waka Eke Noa (HWEN) - a partnership between the Government and the farming sector to develop a fair system for the industrial agriculture industry to pay for its emissions, like all other sectors of the economy have to through the Emissions Trading Scheme. While useful, let's not put all of our hopes for a climate-friendly agriculture sector in this one waka. 

There are farmers up and down the country moving towards organics or to regenerative farming. Part of the challenge right now is that these things have often been seen as on the fringe. But actually if we were to fully commercialise those and roll those out, we could get huge gains. And so, let's see the Minister for Agriculture include a plan to support organic farmers and regenerative farming in the Emissions Reduction Plan. 

Some dairy farmers are already finding that reduced stocking rates can be more profitable, due to a combination of premium pricing and lower fertiliser and supplementary feed inputs. A Lincoln University farm has shown how a typical Canterbury dairy farm can maintain profitability with fewer cows, reduced nitrogen fertiliser use, and reduced supplementary feed. Regenerative farming can also increase organic matter in soil, which makes farms more resilient to the droughts that are likely to be more frequent in a warmer world. 

A regenerative farming fund to support farmers to make the transition, alongside a complementary phase-out of nitrogen fertiliser, would make a big difference to efforts to tackle the climate crisis. It would also create more highly skilled, stable, year-round jobs in our rural communities, which will support flourishing small towns. 

It is time to change New Zealand's out-dated model of industrialised agriculture. A model that enables yield increases while drastically reducing the number of people employed in agriculture globally. Support for regenerative agriculture through the Emissions Reduction Plan would reset the balance.

When the Irish tour New Zealand next year for a three-match series, alongside the rugby banter, we should be sharing ideas and strategies for our common challenge of reducing methane emissions.

Teanau Tuiono is a Green Party MP