Proposed changes to carbon farming laws are ‘‘well overdue’’ but a step in the right direction, North Otago Federated Farmers president Jared Ross says.
Forestry Minister Stuart Nash said earlier this month there were four major pieces of work in progress to address concerns around the increasing amount of sheep and beef farm land being sold and converted to carbon farming.
They were: reviewing the process for overseas investors purchasing farms to convert to forestry; testing the premise that only native forestry should be allowed in the permanent forest category of the emissions trading scheme (which comes into force on January 1, 2023); better determining the carbon returns (sequestration rates) of native species to make them more financially appealing; and making changes to the national environment standard for plantation forestry to give local councils the right to plan where trees should and should not be planted.
Mr Ross said it was ‘‘absolutely’’ a step in the right direction, but it was not happening fast enough.
A study by BakerAg, commissioned by Beef + Lamb NZ, estimated more than 26,000ha of farmland had been converted into carbon farming since 2017 (about 34% of whole farm sales).
Mr Ross said the numbers were starting to ‘‘creep well up’’.
‘‘Over and above what was maybe expected.’’
There was a ‘‘big queue’’ of overseas investors interested in carbon farming, as its value increased, and companies sought to buy carbon credits to offset, rather than reduce, their emissions.
‘‘I guess, naturally, the worry is, yes [the Government is] talking about pieces of work are under way, and that’s all plausible, and that’s all fine, but the national policy statement for plantation forestry was . . . something that was to be addressed within six months of the  election, so it’s well overdue.
‘‘In the meantime, there is an awful lot of land that is selling and going into trees.’’
An immediate priority was to ensure more scrutiny of overseas purchasers.
‘‘If an intending purchaser is intending on converting the property into forestry, then there’s sort of a waiving of the need to demonstrate local value. That’s just a real concern, because ultimately, effectively, it’s just opened the gate for people to be able to purchase land from offshore with the intention to put trees in, and very little scrutiny of that.’’
The sale of Hazeldean farm, a 2590ha sheep, beef and dairy farm in the headwaters of the Kakanui catchment, to New Zealand Carbon Farming early last year, highlighted the issue for North Otago.
Mr Ross wanted to see local government with more power to stop the change in land use.
‘‘Because, yes, there’s national directives coming, but in the meantime irreversible conversion, like we’ve seen at Hazeldean, has occurred, and effectively here we are. We’re into stuff that’s now getting planted, good bits of land that we’ll never see again,’’ he said.
Environmental regulations were increasingly tightening around farming practices, and the National Policy Statement in relation to forestry needed to catch up, so there was consistency across the sectors, Mr Ross said.
‘‘What we’re seeing in pastoral farming at the moment, we’re being asked to demonstrate environmental impact — be it water quality, quantity, and absolutely what we’re doing is being scrutinised, and it absolutely has to be risk-averse, and all of those things.
‘‘So . . .for someone to plant trees without the need to have buffers, or water storage for fire management, having sufficient breaks so that a fire can’t just go from one hill to the next, to the next, all the way to the sea — which is kind of what the worry is in the Kakanui — it well and truly seems its just too far behind what we’re dealing with in farming.
‘‘We’ve actually had some real things happen, these large fires they are real, and we’ve had some close shaves, there needs to be a higher level of responsibility.’’
He thought there was merit in the plan to investigate the use of native trees, but had no interest in ‘‘knee-capping’’ the forestry industry.
‘‘I’m not across forestry concerns on what that would mean, but I think, naturally, natives is a good thing.
‘‘All of us that, sort of, put plants in on our properties, are typically putting in native plants . . . but there’s innate challenges in that — it’s time, it’s cost, its plant populations, there’s a lot more upkeep to get natives to where they need to be, and if we’re talking about an emissions offsetting point of view, natives are well behind. All of that stuff.’’
Investigations into whether some natives could produce higher carbon returns also made good sense, but again, it took time, Mr Ross said.
‘‘They’re not going to click their fingers on this — this is going to be years, you know. Is there some way we can do something in the meantime.’’
While there was a lot of emphasis on the purchasers of farms, people also needed to be mindful that it was a case of ‘‘willing buyer and seller’’.
‘‘Hazeldean got sold. Noone’s making any noises about why they chose to sell it to someone who’s putting trees in, you know. They took the money and left . . .So for advocates to wade in afterwards and say ‘Thou shall not put trees in’, well, look, the person chose to sell their property.’’
There was a ‘‘window of opportunity’’ for carbon farmers at present, Mr Ross said.
‘‘There’ll be some big sums of money at play, there’ll be some clever people at play, and they’ll be absolutely making sure that, OK, they’ll see this window closing, and it’s absolutely no surprise that some of these properties have been purchased and trees have gone in, because they can, at the moment.’’