A new report looks at the impact on jobs if New Zealand boosted its forestry and horticulture industries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It finds there could be more jobs, but also social dislocation, reports Eloise Gibson.

New Zealand could one day have more jobs in agriculture for about half the greenhouse emissions, according to new modelling from Motu. But the change wouldn’t come without social upheaval.

The work is part of a joint project by farming industry groups and government departments to work out how to reduce farming’s emissions of methane and nitrous oxide with the least pain.

Releasing a major report Thursday, farming groups and government ministries agreed that significant changes to how we use land are “reasonable” to expect in the next 30 years (and noted that we’ve survived similar transformations in the past).

While previous decades saw New Zealand’s landscape shift from sheep and beef to dairying, researchers are now looking at what would happen if we grew a lot more forests and farmed more plants, such as vines and orchards.

The latest contribution to the conversation comes from the Biological Emissions Reference Group (BERG), a group including Fonterra, Federated Farmers, Beef & Lamb NZ and the ministries for primary industries and the environment.

BERG has commissioned nine reports from third-party experts and the first tranche, released today, confirms that merely improving farming methods won’t achieve New Zealand’s Paris goals. More reports are expected early next year.

At most, farming’s greenhouse gases could fall by 10 percent if all farmers adopted existing good practices, such as once-a-day milking, fewer-but-more-efficient cows, and planting marginal land, research for BERG concluded. Even achieving that modest drop would be difficult and expensive for some farmers, the report says – although other research for the group found that farmers would adopt progressively more of the helpful management tactics with an increasing emissions price.

Existing regional council policies aimed at cutting water pollution would also, as a spin-off benefit, cut greenhouse gas emissions by about 4 percent, the report noted.

While every little reduction helps, achieving the bigger gains needed to meet New Zealand’s Paris commitments will require changing the mix of what we farm – ideally helped by technological breakthroughs, BERG found.

It will also require better information for farmers.

A survey for BERG found many farmers thought they should cut emissions – but they didn’t know how to do it.

Changing food mix 

This isn’t the first time a report has raised the question of changing land use.

The Productivity Commission says New Zealand’s highest-emitting farms produce roughly twice as much methane emissions and three times as much nitrous oxide emissions per hectare as the lowest-emitting farms, and one of the main factors is differences in local climatic and soil conditions.

The commission suggested foresting a fifth of our farmland with another 2.8m hectares of forests, mostly converted from marginally profitable beef and sheep land.

While the former Prime Minister’s chief science advisor, Sir Peter Gluckman, didn’t delve into the land use issue in detail in his emissions report, he told Newsroom last month that New Zealand had been “very loose” in thinking about land use. “Shifting the Mackenzie Basin into dairy, nobody in their right mind, if you look at it lucidly, would think was a sensible thing to do, but we did it. [Nor] moving large amounts of government-owned forestry into dairy,” said Gluckman.

Now BERG has added its contribution by releasing modelling by Motu, an economic and public policy think-tank, looking at how much New Zealand would need to change land use to meet emissions targets.

BERG cautioned that the models were not perfect and couldn’t be used as predictions. But they sketch some of the options and effects on both emissions and jobs in broad terms.

Motu modelled a range of options, from huge forestry planting with no change to horticulture and no new tech, to doubling the land dedicated to horticulture.

It found the farming sector could cut its emissions in half by 2050 without new technology or a wholesale switch to horticulture – if it planted lots of trees.

Roughly half of the new forest would be planted on scrub land while the rest would likely come from converting land used for sheep and beef, along with a small decrease in dairying, the new report concluded.

Trees aside, doubling the size of the horticulture sector could also decrease emissions from farming just as much as if all farmers obtained a hoped-for vaccine to cut cow burp methane – a project New Zealand scientists are still working on. Experts assisting BERG gauged that a vaccine is “likely” by 2050 but probably not realistic by 2030.

Crucially, Motu found the changes to land use wouldn’t cost jobs – in fact it may increase them – but the increase in jobs might include seasonal employment.

Building up horticulture and forestry could raise employment in agriculture from a projected 86,500 to 136,900 full-time jobs if plant-based farming grew rapidly, says Motu, although the new jobs might require different skills and be in different places from today.

While Motu’s work didn’t discuss who should bear the cost, Motu senior fellow Suzi Kerr has said previously that the cost of shrinking emissions shouldn’t necessarily all fall on farmers.

“Achieving a 50 percent reduction in land-sector emissions by 2050 (beyond reductions through the current Emissions Trading Scheme) would be possible even with no new horticulture and no new on-farm mitigation technology. It would, however, require planting a lot of trees,” Kerr said in comments accompanying the report. “It would be possible to reach a 2030 target of a 30 percent reduction in land-sector emissions, but this will be harder to meet because of the speed of change required and the large costs this rapid change would impose,” she said. “Our modelling also shows that if we were able to double the size of Aotearoa’s current horticulture sector it would reduce greenhouse gas emissions as much as full implementation of a methane vaccine.”

A methane vaccine, if it succeeds, could reduce methane burped by cows and sheep by about a third.

Crucially, the Motu report did not just model greenhouse gases but also what would happen to farmers’ revenue and on-farm employment.

It found that if the horticulture sector grew rapidly, it might bring in enough money to offset any corresponding revenue losses in pastoral agriculture. Small losses of employment in the dairy and sheep and beef sectors as they expanded less, or gradually contracted, would be more than offset by increases in forestry employment, said Motu.

“If Aotearoa carries on as it is now, our research showed that there would be around 86,500 people employed full-time in the agricultural sector. If we are able to build up horticulture and forestry, this could increase to 136,900 full-time employees. These jobs would however sometimes be in different places and require different skills,” said Kerr. “Many farmers and Māori trusts will need some kind of help in transitioning land towards horticulture and forestry if the transition is to be a positive one for the rural sector,” she said.

“Landowners will need more information and training. There will also need to be support from government and from the horticultural sector as a whole, and probably changes in regulation, to help farmers produce new products and access international markets for these new products,” said Kerr.

The report by BERG was can be found on the Ministry for Primary Industries website here. 

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