Labour's pledge to protect farmland from carbon forests a 'step in the right direction' but 'question marks' remain - Federated Farmers

Federated Farmers says it has "question marks" over whether a pledge by the Labour Party to protect productive farmland from being forested for carbon credits will be effective or not.

Labour has promised to revise the National Environmental Standards for Plantation Forestry - regulations under the Resource Management Act (RMA) for forestry planting - if re-elected to Government in September.

It came into effect in May 2018. 

Labour Party spokesperson Stuart Nash said the revisions would "ensure rural communities are well supported" during the country's post-COVID-19 recovery. 

"While we will continue to plant the right tree in the right place to meet our climate change challenges, our food producing soil will be our number one priority," Nash said.

William Beetham, Federated Farmers' meat and wool chairperson, said it was a positive sign there had been acknowledgement that plantings could be problematic but he had doubts over whether the proposed revisions would be effective.

"We’re really pleased there is now acknowledgement there’s an issue with large-scale exotic plantings - particularly those grown just for carbon credits - swallowing up land used for food and fibre production. The result of this trend is loss of export income, employment and the undermining of rural district social cohesion."

The issue of carbon credits has been in the headlines recently, since amendments were made to the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) last month. 

With New Zealand's goal to be carbon neutral by 2050, the ETS has effectively turned carbon into a currency. People receive credits for planting trees which can then be sold to companies to offset their emissions.

Climate Change Minister James Shaw said at the time the scheme is one of the most effective tools the country has for reducing climate-polluting emissions, but industry groups have expressed concern at some of the reforms.

The main fear for many is that it incentivises the acceleration of productive farmland being converted to pines planted for carbon credits.

Beetham said Labour's pledge to revise the National Environmental Standards for Plantation Forestry was "one potential solution". 

The revision would mean resource consent from the local district council would be required to plant forestry blocks larger than 50 hectares on "elite soils" - those classified as land use capability (LUC) classes 1-5, which means they are more suitable for agricultural production. 

Beetham said Federated Farmers "still had question marks" over whether the revision would stop sheep and beef farms on the East Coast, which are more likely to be LUC 6 or higher, being taken over by blanket afforestation.

"We'd much rather Labour had taken on board the strong opposition on the topic expressed for many months now by the wider agricultural sector and some environmental NGOs, and not rushed through policy changes that have led to this issue," Beethan said.

However, he said it was a "welcome sign" the party was "demonstrating a commitment to protecting productive farmland" for the food and fibre industry.

Beef + Lamb New Zealand also said it was "not convinced" by the party's announcement. 

Chief executive Sam McIvor said he didn't think the RMA was the appropriate vehicle.

"Consents can still be approved and will not necessarily restrict conversions," he said. "We want to work with political parties on what the best policy approach is for limiting wholesale conversion is and for the wider issue of emissions reductions."

The ETS has been highly controversial with opponents saying rural communities will suffer if productive land is used for planting pines.

Industry groups say around 70,000 hectares have already gone to planting trees, though the Government says that number is only around 22,000.