Land-use decisions between farm and forest need unbiased information from within New Zealand, without Government screwing the scrum towards foreign investors
In my last article on forestry, a little over two months ago, I ended by saying that “there is a need for an informed and wide-ranging debate as we search for the path that will lead to the right trees in the right place, planted and owned by the right people”. Here I take up that issue again.
In the interim, the Climate Change Commission (CCC) has published its draft report on how New Zealand might meet its Paris obligations through to 2050. A key message in the report is that forestry must not be used as the ‘get out of jail card’ (my term) that avoids facing hard decisions elsewhere in the economy.
The CCC estimate is that under current policy settings and with carbon priced at $35 per tonne, then new forests will increase by 1.1 million hectares by 2050. If the carbon price rises to $50 then the CCC thinks new plantings will increase to 1.3 million hectares.
Here is their precise wording (p45) in relation to using forestry in this way:
“This [forestry-based approach] would fail to drive meaningful decarbonisation and instead use up land resources for the purpose of offsetting avoidable emissions. This is not sustainable and would leave the next generation with the task of reducing gross emissions at the same time as they will need to be adapting to escalating climate change impacts”.
The CCC has done an important job by pointing out that it is a policy that takes us to the 2050 targets but then leaves New Zealand falling off a cliff. As the Commission puts it: “We need to avoid pushing the burden to future generations”
The CCC then suggests just 380,000 hectares of new exotic forestry by 2035 in addition to replanting of harvested forests, together with 300,000 hectares of permanent native forests on less productive lands. The CCC says (p67) that there is ‘in the order of 1,150,000 to 1,4000,00 hectares of marginal land’ that could be most suitable for these permanent forests but acknowledges nursery capacity, pest control and fencing as practical limits to the speed at which this conversion can occur.
The apparent flaw is that the CCC seems to over-align permanent forests with native species. The much-maligned radiata pine can also provide an important pathway towards non-harvested permanent forests on some marginal lands. It is much easier and a great deal cheaper to establish radiata pine than native forests. The fast-growing radiata will also provide much greater carbon credits.
There is no single answer as to the right tree for permanent forests. However, radiata pine and perhaps other trees such as Douglas fir do have a role to play, even if the long-term aspirations remain focused on natives. Sterile pine-hybrids, which do exist, might be part of that transformation strategy.
The scrum is getting screwed
A key issue right now is that Government policy is screwing the scrum towards forestry on productive farm land. This derives from a policy that encourages foreign investment on productive land as long as that land is used for production forestry. Conversely, these investors cannot purchase the land for farming purposes.
This policy means that investment decisions largely lie in the hands of foreign investors with time horizons based on the first production cycle. Their logical decision processes, based on 17-year carbon averaging and first-cycle lumber at around 28 years, take us right up to the 2050 regulatory cliff that the CCC has so elegantly described.
Big questions therefore need to be asked as to why Government policy favours overseas investment in production forestry. New Zealand has plenty of capital of its own looking for a productive home, so why are we screwing the scrum in this way to foreign investment?
Converting farm land to forestry does not require foreign technology or imported materials. Why does it need foreign investors? It would be better if New Zealanders were making those decisions.
The second area of policy where Government does have a role to play is in fostering permanent forestry investment on steep and erosion-prone marginal land. This is where institutional factors need realignment. Perhaps there is need for an extension of QE2 Trust mechanisms so that planting on steep land of both permanent exotic forests and native forests can be undertaken in partnership between landowners and the public to create win-win situations for all.
My use of the term ‘public’ rather than simply ‘Government’ is purposeful. This reflects that there could be an increased role for the New Zealand Super Fund, for example, to invest in joint ventures with landowners on behalf of all of us.
The need for independent information
Just recently, I enjoyed a Sunday lunch with a very experienced farmer with professional forestry qualifications who has lived his life with a focus on the ‘right tree in the right place’. He has complemented this with placing the ‘right livestock in the right place’. One topic we discussed was the lack of good-quality independent forestry information available to farmers. And from there he introduced the idea of an independent farm-forestry extension system.
By coincidence, in recent months I have been sharing reminiscences with former extension officers from the long-extinguished Ministry of Agriculture Farm Advisory service. That was where I started my own career a long time ago.
I see zero chance for re-establishment of an agriculturally-focused service for farmers. In large part this is because farmers have many existing sources of information relating to their farming activities. However, there is a real gap in relation to unbiased independent forestry expertise which farmers can trust.
Under the old farm advisory system – dismantled by neoliberal policies in 1987 – advisers were expected to work in the interests of farmers. They did not see themselves as being tools of Government policy. Rather, they were science and economics-led in trying to help farmers achieve their own goals.
The Farm Advisory Service did have a system for reporting back to Government as to the issues from a farmer perspective and what advisers were doing to assist farmers, but advisers would never have taken instructions from Government as to the policies they were to promote.
Many of us have opined over subsequent years that, with the destruction of the farm advisory service, ‘Wellington’ lost its independent perspective of what was really happening in rural communities. Instead, agriculture policy was increasingly led and administered by people who did not understand agriculture.
The essence of the advisory relationship was farmer trust. Therefore, if Government had ever told advisers what to say, then we would have given Government the proverbial two fingers.
I do wonder whether such a service could be created to assist land owners through the decision-making maze that they now face in relation to farm and forestry land-use decisions. Such a body might also keep Government much better informed as to the landholder decision-making framework.
The fundamental issue is that such advisers are not agents of government. They must be independent of government and every other lobby group in any advice they give. It is worth thinking about.