The UK’s National Farmers Union pledged in January that UK agriculture would achieve net zero emissions of all its gases by 2040. It beat the UK Government by five months, and went a big step further. In June the Conservative-led Government committed the country to net zero but by 2050. This was still a significant tightening of the UK’s decade-old commitment of an 80 percent reduction.

Meanwhile here in New Zealand Federated Farmers is leading the passive aggressive resistance by many in the farming sector to tackling the climate crisis. Fed Farmers says its members fully support New Zealand’s efforts to meet our international climate commitments. But it says the “limited tools in the toolbox” means the maximum our farmers can achieve is a 3 percent reduction of methane by 2030 and 10 percent by 2050.

The Fed Farmers’ goal is paltry compared with our Government’s science-based targets of a 10 percent cut by 2030 and a 24 percent to 47 percent cut by 2050. Worse, it denies the actual progress long underway in our agricultural science and farming practices.

While Fed Farmers’ strategy might help it shore up its sagging membership, it is deeply damaging to the profitability, reputation and well-being of its members and the farming sector as a whole.

For the past 25 years our farmers have averaged a 1 percent a year cut in methane emitted per litre of milk and kilogram of red meat – and have enhanced their farm profitability in the process; and the best farmers are achieving faster reductions. One example is Owl Farm near Cambridge, which is one of the commercial farms monitored by DairyNZ, the sector’s farmer-funded research arm.

Our Interim Climate Change Committee featured the farm on page 33 of its recent report Action on Agricultural Emissions saying: “Owl Farm has reduced total greenhouse gas emissions by 8 percent and lifted operating profit per hectare by 14 percent through improving management practices over the past two years. Based on additional modelling, further farm management changes involving reduced feed use and lowering the stocking rate is expected to increase profitability by another 21 percent, reduce nitrate leaching by 14 percent and greenhouse gas emissions by 13 percent. Owl Farm notes there is a potential downstream economic impact of reducing the intensity of their farming operation.”

Meanwhile, Fed Farmers is playing a very dangerous game. It makes its members feel good by saying they are among the most efficient in the world, which is true. But by distorting the climate truth it is making its members complacent about their performance and blind to the increasing competition from progressive farmers overseas and from other food technologies and dietary choices.

While Fed Farmers’ strategy might help it shore up its sagging membership, it is deeply damaging to the profitability, reputation and well-being of its members and the farming sector as a whole.

In its submission on the Zero Carbon Bill, Fed Farmers said the results of its online survey of farmers in June showed that:

• 92.1 percent of respondents to our member survey would not support the adoption of emissions reduction targets at the cost to food production;

• 89.1 percent said that they were concerned about the economic, environmental and social impacts of forestry conversions on their rural communities;

• 3.45 percent believe that agriculture should be brought into the ETS (which the Government proposes);

• 53.4 percent replied that agricultural emissions should only be priced once farmers have cost effective mitigation technologies to reduce emissions without reducing productivity and only once other countries look to price their agricultural emissions; and

• 24.8 percent rejected non-pricing options to help farmers reduce emissions and 17.5 percent said farmers should not have to reduce emissions at all.

Fed Farmers’ members-only website encouraged them to make their own submission on the ZCB. Its advice on what to say is at the bottom of this column.

The UK Farmers Union takes a different line

In stark contrast, this is how the UK’s National Farmers Union explains its commitment to net zero emissions from agriculture by 2040:

“Climate change is the greatest and most compelling challenge facing society today and each and every one of us has a part to play to mitigate the climate threat. For farmers, this means tackling the climate challenge head on – adapting the way we produce food to help deliver a greener planet for us all.

“The British farming industry is pushing itself to become net zero by 2040. This does not need to impact net farm income, and certainly doesn’t mean downsizing production or exporting our production abroad. Instead we need to implement a portfolio of methods to improve our production efficiency, capture more carbon on farmland and boost our production of bioenergy and land-based renewables. Effective incentives are going to be vital in each of these areas.

“As both a sink and a source of greenhouse gases, British agriculture is uniquely placed to be a key part of the solution to the climate challenge. Our unique landscape and diverse farming systems enable us to produce food efficiently and sustainably, and we have been very clear in our ambition to build on this further and lead the way in climate-friendly food production.

“Our journey towards climate neutrality must be made together. If we work together, learn from each other and share our ideas, I truly believe we can reach our net zero aspiration, and show the world that it can be done.”

But now [UK] farmers have committed to climate action, they will no doubt lobby the supermarkets to favour them over suppliers … with inferior climate commitments and performance.

To back its commitment, the NFU produced The Future of Food 2040 report. In its introduction, Minette Batters, the NFU’s first female president, wrote: “Farming and food production is on the brink of a revolution which will see the food we eat and how we produce it undergo a huge change. Advances in technology and the challenges of a changing society are already creating new opportunities for the sector as people’s preferences for what they eat and how they buy it shift on a scale perhaps never seen before.”

More on the NFU’s climate work and the policies behind it are here.

The NFU is also one of nine rural organisations in an initiative called Championing the Farmed Environment, which it set up in 2009 with the Country Land and Business Association. One part of CFE’s integrated approach to environmental sustainability is a comprehensive Greenhouse Gas Action Plan.

British farmers have been improving their environmental performance for some decades, pushed by stringent supplier requirements imposed by supermarket chains. But now farmers have committed to climate action, they will no doubt lobby the supermarkets to favour them over suppliers from home and aboard with inferior climate commitments and performance.

These are strong signals our farmers would ignore at their peril. Yet our farmer lobbying is making the internal politics of climate change increasingly fraught in the National Party. At its annual conference in Christchurch last month the session on the future of primary industries was dominated by the climate crisis, with particularly vociferous input from climate deniers, as Sam Sachdeva reported for Newsroom.

The day after the conference, party leader Simon Bridges removed Todd Muller as National’s climate spokesman. He handed the job to Scott Simpson, an MP with stronger environmental credentials but less caucus mana than Muller. Muller became the party’s agricultural spokesman. But his rise in caucus ranking to 14th from 31st as climate spokesman was a clear indication of the priorities of National and its conservative farmer supporters.

Unlike their British farming and political colleagues, National is dragging the chain on responsible, beneficial action on the climate crisis. On its current course, it will deny support for, or at least drastically weaken, the Bill – thereby significantly compromising our climate response.

Yet it is exactly this type of multi-decade, goal-setting, policy shaping and response triggering legislation which has driven the UK’s significant emission reductions over the past decade. At the same time, the UK has grown its economy faster than the G7 average and begun its transformation to a low emissions nation. Above all, the legislation has emboldened British farmers to lead.

This is Fed Farmers’ policy positions on the government’s proposals, from its website advice to farmers urging them to make a ZCB submission:

Strongly oppose [the government’s] Option 1: placing processors into ETS. Won’t do anything to reduce emissions and will be expensive and administratively burdensome.

Strongly oppose Option 1: farmer levy based on ETS (with “free allocation and rebate) from 2025. The price of units under the ETS is unpredictable and irrelevant to on-farm actions, the 95 percent free allocation figure is political and cannot be relied upon.

Support Option 2: where the industry has proposed an Action Plan that instead of government taking this money, and likely wasting half of it, then maybe giving some back for research. The sector instead proposes that the levy bodies focus on particular aspects of research and get in place a proper farm level accounting system that takes into account not just emissions but ALL our sequestration on farm, along with other on-farm actions and extension.

The government has spun this a bit to say that we all agree to agriculture going into the ETS. This is not correct. Federated Farmers’ position on pricing agricultural emissions has been clear and consistent, and it remains the case that it is critical that any pricing mechanism must:

Occur at the margin for methane (the point where additional warming occurs) and not on the inaccurate GWP100 value.

Only occur to incentivise the use of a cost-effective mitigation tool that is available, with regulatory approval, to farmers. None are currently available.

Ensure that New Zealand farmers are not put at a disadvantage to our main international competitors. Any reduction will be replaced with production in countries that have higher emissions per unit of output, and often are subsidised. This is known as “emissions leakage” and results in higher greenhouse gas emissions and higher food costs.

New Zealand Farmers are proud to be among the most efficient producers in the world and, unlike many of their overseas competitors essentially stand on their own two feet, as their animals stand on their own four feet, largely unsubsidised by consumers (by way of inflated prices) or taxpayers and have done so for over 30 years. Give our farmers a problem and they will find a solution. However, telling them that they must respond to a price on agricultural emissions when there are limited tools in the toolbox is a bridge too far.

The proposed price on agricultural emissions is initially low, but it is absurd to assume that the price of carbon will remain at $25 a NZU and that the free allocation will remain as high as 95 percent. This is the thin edge of the wedge and pricing agricultural emissions has the potential to soon reach 123 percent and 60 percent of a sheep and beef and dairy farmers respective profits.

Rod Oram is a weekly columnist who covers climate, economics and politics.

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