Agriculture: National’s double whammy on the environment

Here’s the first in a series of NZ election special articles from Hot Topic’s contributors. More pithy comment to follow… Last week I was open-mouthed when I heard the National Party release its environment and climate policy pretty much in the same breath as  releasing the agriculture policy (same province, same day). I can’t figure out how they thought these two things went together — well, in a good way anyway.

Climate change: no mention of the importance of the issue, the alarming reports coming from the scientists.  A lot of blather about keeping up (or perhaps “down” would be a more appropriate term) with other countries. Slowing down the ETS. Never mind that our actions are among the smallest in the industrialised world (see the Climate Action Tracker’s assessment here — rated “inadequate”).

Agriculture:  the sector most likely to undermine New Zealand’s climate policy. Our largest source of greenhouse gas emissions.

Essentially, Key confirmed that agriculture will continue in its role as climate killer by announcing that the sector will not be part of the ETS until – erm – when? Indefinitely, apparently. As John Pagani noted  in a post last week:

“When farmers say they don’t want to be “brought into the ETS”, that doesn’t mean that their emissions will not be paid for — it just means they won’t pay for them. You will. You subsidise them. Under the delays National announced yesterday, it is as if you sat down at the kitchen table and wrote out a cheque and handed it to a farmer.”

But if that wasn’t enough,  Key went on to give another massive subsidy to dairy farmers  —  a $400 million fund for irrigation. At this point I was beginning to think this was some kind of sick joke.

Clean water, said Key, is a major priority,  yet  National’s Policy on Freshwater management removes the need for a resource consent for land use intensification. And the main reason for our increased need for water around the country is industrial dairy. A 2010  article from NIWA says:

“We’re fast approaching water resource limits in some parts of the country, and pollution issues are threatening our clean, green brand.”

The quality of our lakes and rivers, NIWA tells us, is still in decline:

“There is no doubt that our declining river water quality over the last 20 years is associated with intensification of pastoral farming and the conversion of drystock farmland to dairy farming, particularly in Waikato, Southland, and Canterbury”

I grew up on a farm in Canterbury.  We had some irrigation for the traditional Canterbury farming practice:  mixed cropping. Dairy was a little-known activity for the Canterbury plains in those days – the “Dairy region” in New Zealand was the Waikato. Canterbury was too dry and we didn’t have enough water.

I moved away from the area in the mid-80’s and,  by the time I returned in 2004, I found the whole landscape of the plains had changed. Dairy rules now. Shelter belts have been cut down and replaced by massive irrigation schemes across the region.

In the early 1980’s, as environment reporter at The Press, I sat through weeks of hearings over the Water Conservation Order (WCO) on the Rakaia River: it was enacted in 1988.  Trustpower now wants to break that WCO apart to increase hydro power in Lake Coleridge and irrigate another 40,000 ha of land across the Canterbury Plains.

Nick Smith has  fast tracked  this application to his appointed Commissioners. From his statement:

“The application order  “does not vary the outstanding features of the Rakaia River recognised in the water conservation order, the minimum flow levels specified for each month, or the operating limits of Lake Coleridge in existing resource consents.”

However, according to  Fish and Game,  because the irrigation is outside the scope of the WCO, Trustpower has not proposed any mitigation options for the irrigation.  Nor has Trustpower done its homework on river flows to protect the salmon fishery.

I don’t know whether anyone else noticed this double-whammy for the environment: the continued assault on the climate and our waterways by agriculture, but it certainly wasn’t picked up by the mainstream media.

29 thoughts on “Agriculture: National’s double whammy on the environment”

  1. National has a knack for the Denial Train:
    We used to have government Sustainability website at:, but under National the website has been closed down and been replaced with this text:

    “The Ministry for the Environment has retired its website at “

    I guess the sustainability quest is best denied and put into the “way to hard basket” if you are a center-right party in government….

    What a shocker in an election year to close doors to the only pathway into the future that our descendants need us to go right now. What a hoot!

  2. Pielke conveniently left out these quotes from the IPCC report on Richard Black’s blog:

    “It is very likely that the length, frequency and/or intensity of warm spells, including heat waves, will continue to increase over most land areas…
    “It is likely that the frequency of heavy precipitation or the proportion of total rainfall from heavy falls will increase in the 21st Century over many areas of the globe…
    “Mean tropical cyclone maximum wind speed is likely to increase…
    “There is medium confidence that droughts will intensify in the 21st Century in some seasons and areas…
    “Low-probability high-impact changes associated with the crossing of poorly understood thresholds cannot be excluded, given the transient and complex nature of the climate system.”

      1. Bennydale: You are not doing your homework. Why not? For somebody with a strong opinion you should do some reading perhaps?
        And no, don’t rely on the right wing blogosphere where science is replaced with opinion at every turn of the road.

        Some reading hints for you:

        So go way and stop dragging the discussion off-topic by your ill informed opinions. Alternatively have a pleasant holiday in Bangkok and ask the locals what they think about a warmer and wetter world….

          1. BTW I told Benni elsewhere that he will need to negotiate with your cat if he wants to play the nuclear card… 😉
            And I offered to personally buy your cat a fine tin of the best sardines to make an offering the day the first country in the world has solved the long term nuclear waste storage problem… 😉

            On Agriculture: The issue of Vegetarianism is still a matter that receives less of a public attention than it should:

            1. Yep, the issue of the carbon / environmental impact of intensive meat consumption is the elephant in many a room – whether the household is ‘aware’ or otherwise.

              Or the very fleshy Bos taurus, at any rate.

              At this stage of the game dealing with the issue is like pushing the exhaust products of the said beasts uphill. A very steep hill. With a salad fork. With one tine missing.

              So, once we’re all moving along in roughly the right direction, maybe… but anyone who’s looking for a simple way to minimise their own footprint in the meantime could consider…

  3. “Agriculture ….Our fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions.”

    I thought the Caygill Review found that agricultural emissions were dropping by 1.3%pa on average. If so, they should match the 50% by 2050 target, without entering the ETS.

    All other sectors are increasing by about 2%pa aren’t they?

    1. Australis, I stand corrected! And have indeed corrected it.

      All our emissions have slowed down, agriculture in particular because farmers used less fertiliser and because of – erm – the drought in 07-08 (which is still having an effect). However, Agriculture remains our largest source of greenhouse gas emissions (at 46.5%) with transport close behind at 44.4%.
      Full details at MfE here

      So I guess if we carry on having droughts, that might kill off our agriculture industry and reduce emissions? They’d certainly have an impact on irrigation/water availability. And droughts are one of those impacts that we can expect more of in Canterbury.

    1. oh please, not wheeling out that cherry picked comment benny. You cherrypicked it from 2009 – and 2010 was the hottest year, tied with 2005. 1998 was especially hot due to an El Nino.

  4. Regarding that quote about taxpayers paying for agriculture emissions – that is only the case if the government has binding targets to reduce or manage emissions, where excess emissions above the national cap require purchasing reductions offshore. That isn’t the case now as NZ doesn’t need to buy units to meet its Kyoto target (except if agriculture was in the ETS, then the govt could have excess units to sell offshore). And it won’t be case in the immediate future either, as there appears to be little prospect of NZ signing up to any agreement without the US or China also on board. Therefore talk of taxpayers ‘subsidising’ agricultural emissions is just a catchphrase and is actually wrong.

  5. Password1, an exemption from the NZETS is still an exemption from a ‘carbon’ (GHG) price. If one industry is in the NZETS, and another (pastoralism) is not, thats preferential treatment in anyone’s language.

    1. So what? Read my post again. Just because a sector is not facing ETS costs doesn’t automatically mean the taxpayer is paying for the emissions. It depends on what the government’s obligations are and what they amount to in financial terms.

  6. That’s a bit tough, Mr February! Nobody’s suggesting that farmers be left out of the ETS. They are already paying more than any other sector because all domestic businesses can pass on the costs to their customers. Exporters can’t do that because their prices are decided by world markets – not their cost recovery needs.

    Most big exporters (aluminium, steel, methanol, pulp, etc) get free issues of credits, but that doesn’t apply to food producers in New Zealand.

    Our farm exports are competing with farmers from 192 other countries, all selling at the same prices. Farmers in the other 191 countries are not paying ETS charges on their methane emissions. In fact, farmers in Australia, USA and Canada get carbon credits from their activities.

  7. Bryan,

    Don’t forget that the highly atherogenic nature of dairy fat makes that a triple whammy. The highly controversial fat tax is already being employed in Denmark and possibly even Hungary, but in New Zealand the health bill is again being footed by the generous New Zealand tax-payer.

  8. Cindy: I agree re agriculture as the sector most likely to undermine New Zealand’s climate policy. (Our largest SOURCE of greenhouse gas) emissions. However, farmers appear to be unduly focused on the problems or liabilities of greenhouse gases … aren’t agriculture & forestry also potentially the largest SINK of resilient soil carbon & plant biomass?? (i.e. Crisis = Opportunity?)
    I also share your views regarding the apparent intellectual / rational disconnect & (emotional & economically focused) denial re National’s environmental & climate change policies towards promoting intensive land use, particularly dairy farming & irrigation in dry Canterbury climates & soils.
    This rural-focused voter bribery is all the more personally frustrating in the rapid run up to a general election where real global ecological & economic issues are relatively ignored or obscured by media publicity about antics or scandals of various personalities & political campaigns.

  9. I guess the fact that agricultural emissions are highly distributed is making it so difficult to deal with. Concentrated emissions from power generation or transport can in theory at least be dealt with by technology and investment while the diluted emissions of land use practices are hard to fight. Plus emissions from some personal choices such as flying or driving a gas guzzler are borne by people who could afford to contribute to solutions while eating (read agriculture) is a necessity for all.

    Simply putting cost pressure on agriculture in the hope that this will change things will through food price increases primarily hurt the poor, who in many cases already even in NZ struggle to put a breakfast in front of their school age youth. Just ask any school principal in a low decile community what the reality of the current poverty in NZ is like….

    So regulations that end in food price increases via putting ETS type cost on farmers across a wide range of products may be a socially unjust and disruptive move.

    What we would need is perhaps a more intelligent intervention, a lowering of the cost of healthy carbon friendly foods and a raise in the cost carbon laden foods while at the same time incentivising farmers to adopt pasture and soil management that is carbon capturing or retaining.

    Removing GST from carbon friendly locally produced foods might be one way to move ahead, which could be done overnight and would not affect any ETS trading agreements which are stuck for all sorts of reasons beyond our control.

    1. Well, if we look at the Australian example (on the question of hurting the poor), they have dealt with it well – by creating tax breaks and compensation rules to compensate the poorest for an increase in energy bills. Paid for by the polluters.

      A price on emissions is a great incentive to change practices. I don’t see much change in intensive agriculture practices (although it’s encouraging that less fertilisers being used).

      In Canterbury, it’s even more difficult as Ravensdown is heavily involved in Lincoln College which provides dairy farm advisors. I’ve heard stories about research projects (on alternative methods of farming to massive inputs) being turned down.

  10. Nothing is simple, any potential solutions will come at a complex cost:benefit ratio (+/+, +/0, 0/0, 0/-, -/- or -/- ), not just economic, but social & ecological.
    Unfortunately too nany Kiwi farmers & their advocates are unduly focused or worried about being punished by a legislative or economic STICKS, (“it’s going to hurt too much”, “why us? we haven’t done anything wrong”, “we can’t be expected to adapt if legislators keep changing the goal posts & putting higher & more hurdles in the path of economic growth” etc etc…
    Where is informed scientific & public dialogue about CARROTS to avoid, remedy & mitigate greenhouse gas emissions????
    * i.e. economic, social & ecological BENEFITS of soil carbon sequestration?,
    * localised effects of dairy effluent Nitrogen inputs on soil carbon decomposition?
    * … or biochar? / pyrolysis? / gasification technologies?

  11. @Thomas 10:55am

    1). “Simply putting cost pressure on agriculture, in the hope that this will change things, will through food price increases primarily hurt the poor”.

    I don’t think this argument applies to NZ agriculture. I am pretty sure hardly any of NZ’s agricultural exports reach the poor of the developing countries. NZ’s big ticket agricultural exports are sold via auctions (such as Fonterra’s milk powder auction) to the highest bidder. I suggest the highest bidder is unlikely to be a sub-saharan African experiencing a drought.

    2) “the diluted emissions of land use practices are hard to fight”.

    Yes, but mitigate we must if we understand and wish to act upon the implications of climate science.

    The relative expense of mitigation is not an economically valid reason to leave a sector out of an emissions trading scheme.

    The whole point of an ETS is that participants have varying costs of mitigation. As Paul Krugman explains.

    High-cost mitigators become buyers and low-cost mitgators become sellers. The ETS benefits the high-cost mitigators by reducing their mitigation cost to the lowest mitigation cost in the market
    I discuss this further in this comment

    1. February, My poverty / GST comment was not addressing exports but was specifically looking at the local food market.

      Food price pressure is already significant on NZ’s own poor with many families struggling right here in NZ to put the daily tucker on the table who are often buying imported and low nutritional junk food. I think that dropping GST on locally produced foods which have a low carbon footprint (Biological, no-till, etc…) could be an immediate measure that would make a difference without having to wait (seemingly forever) until the international climate negotiations produce substantive emissions reductions. At the moment we see that the difficulties of including agriculture are an important part of the “excuse” of our government and others to delay and derail ETS talks further while we need action now.
      I think we should look at more avenues than just the ETS concept to generate local meaningful action towards sustainability not beholden to the derail and delay mechanism of the international ETS process.
      I am mindful of the effects that a cost-rise of basic necessities of life such as the basic foods will cause on the political arena. In the end we need a majority of people applauding and voting for our measures and I think we need to make changes that find acceptance. Lower food prices of healthy local food with a low carbon footprint would be a very acceptable measure.

  12. .You will. You subsidise them.’

    We have to stay focused here. Ultimately, the end consumers pay the cost of any price increces. If the cost goes because of peak oil, carbon tax or destructive weather etc that is reflected to the customer.

    It’s importat that people have choices to switch to lower carbon products.
    However, agriculture will be affected in such away that our stand of living and health will ultimately suffer.

    1. So true: everyone will suffer in the face of climate change, especially farmers, and therefore consumers.

      The increasing costs of floods, droughts and other extreme weather events will make the costs of the ETS pale into insignificance.

      The sooner we stop subsidising those who are causing it, the better.

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