We emit 'because we are over-achievers'

The supreme irony of the British Daily Mail's headline, Buy New Zealand Lamb To Save The Planet, is that it took a British newspaper to make mainstream media in New Zealand realise that our farms are pretty darn good. Another irony is that this is old news to Jan Wright, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment.

Speaking recently on TV3's The Nation, Dr Wright helped to balance a myth that farmers are exempt from the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS).

When she was asked about agriculture, the host, Rachel Smalley, appeared surprised by the response. "New Zealand is in an interesting position because half of our greenhouse gas emissions are from agriculture, which is unusual among developed countries, but I am actually less concerned about agriculture than I am with these heavy industrial emitters and that's because the agricultural gases are different.

"It is difficult and there are challenges there . . . I say agriculture should come in but I don't have the same problem being generous to it . . ."

Where Dr Wright and Federated Farmers diverge is the entry point for agriculture. But even she recognises that agriculture is not complacently sitting on its haunches.

Like mums and dads everywhere, farmers pay the ETS. Every time we fill up the tractor or turn on electric pumps, we pay.

This also finds its way into the cost of a vet's visit through to the price of No 8 wire.

The Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment also knows that when my ewe "Jackson" gave birth to quintuplets, nicknamed the "Jackson Five", it was an efficiency that is a global good.

This is not just limited to lambs but is carried into almost all facets of the primary industries.

I only question why it took a British newspaper for the penny to drop.

The "Jackson Five" may be a fun media story but it illustrates how we have reduced our carbon intensity. New Zealand's farms are producing more lambs, more dairy and more fibre on an individual animal basis. That is efficiency for you. It means we can put lamb into a London Marks & Spencer for less carbon than an equivalent lamb coming from the Welsh valleys.

My vice-president, William Rolleston, followed Dr Wright on The Nation. William made the sensible point that if you drive our production overseas to less efficient economies, you simply export those emissions too.

Given we are at world's best, it means increased emissions, so where is the global leadership in that?

I believe Dr Wright was more relaxed about agriculture because, of all the sectors in New Zealand, we are perhaps the most committed to finding solutions.

It surprises many, pleasantly I must add, when they discover farmers help to fund agricultural greenhouse gas research every time we send goods for processing.

As each year passes, our farms and processors reduce carbon in each unit of output by between 1.3 and 1.8 per cent, and New Zealand is leading the world in this research.

Perhaps one of the reasons why Federated Farmers is so critical of the ETS is found on my farm. Trelinnoe Park may be an internationally recognised woodland yet not one tree on it qualifies under the ETS' tight rules. I fail to believe not one of my trees sequesters carbon and I have planted many thousands.

I can also add to that the hundreds of hectares of native bush and trees we have spreading out to the millions of hectares of pasture on New Zealand's farms.

None of it counts as an offset because under the ETS, forestry land is defined as forest cover occupying at least 30 per cent of each hectare. If the average width of a forest is less than 30 metres, it does not qualify. Trees planted for erosion control, shelter belts and even riparian margins, don't exist as far as the ETS is concerned.

So while agriculture is said to account for half of all our emissions, we don't count everything we do to soak it up.

We also overlook that we feed not only ourselves, but at least 20 million more people beside. While the Daily Mail story said food production generates up to 29 per cent of global emissions, food happens to be a basic physiological need. Along with water and shelter, we die without it.

In penning these words, I hope people will realise our global leadership comes by producing and sharing skills on food production. We produce emissions because we over-achieve when it comes to food production and in that respect New Zealand is no island. Bruce Wills is the president of Federated Farmers.

Taranaki Daily News