Budget 2019: Primary

Getting the balance right for a lower emissions future

Fundamentally, the budget process has always been about priorities and trade-offs and a wellbeing approach brings another lens to this. This first Wellbeing Budget offers a glimpse of how a re-balancing of investment in the four capitals of the Living Standards Framework might play out. And for the primary sector this is still decidedly murky.

Budget 2019 includes a “productive and sustainable land use package”. The $229.2 million package invests in projects to protect and restore at-risk waterways and wetlands and provides support for farmers and growers to use their land more sustainably – although details in the Budget are scant. There was not a lot else for the primary sector.

Alongside the above initiative, the Government is also making considerable changes to regulation to drive the outcomes it is seeking. In particular, the Zero Carbon Bill sets out a “split gases approach”, meaning carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide (long-lived gases) and methane (short-lived gases) are treated differently. It sets a target for 10% reduction in methane emissions by 2030, and “aims for a provisional reduction ranging from 24% to 47% by 2050”.

Environmental groups have labelled the Bill ‘toothless’ while farming interests have called it ‘cruel.’ The layperson might think this means the Bill strikes the balance of sitting firmly in the middle. But does it?

In some cases, like electricity generation, less emissions-intensive alternatives exist. Coal-fired generation can be replaced by hydro, for example. But for livestock farmers, there are very few alternatives available if we want to maintain current productive capacity. In the current environment, the ability to mitigate methane from their animals to the levels proposed in the Bill is difficult and would likely mean the end of the livestock sector in New Zealand.

We have a pastoral-based, free-range farming system that is quite different from many of those in the Northern Hemisphere. Over the last 30 years, emissions per kilo of milk and meat have trended steadily down. Greenhouse gases emissions per kilogram of saleable product have dropped by 40% for the beef and lamb sector since 1990. And for dairy, emissions per kilo of milk have dropped 1% a year since 1990. These are positive trends that ought to be applauded.

These drops are mostly due to advances in agricultural science. Science – much of it home grown – has enabled farmers to access technology to improve their herds through things like improved feed management and greater control over the amount of fertilisers used. In fact, there are a growing number of inventions from local AgriTech that help farmers stay competitive while minimising their environmental footprint.

But while the demand for farmers to mitigate methane in herds grows, at the same time the ability to access new science is becoming more difficult. The ban on genetic modification has already been raised as a concern. For example, gene editing can remove undesirable traits from an organism, or add better ones. But current legislation makes it very difficult to access this technology.

Our farmers have a good track record of adopting new technology as it comes to hand. But it is unrealistic to place expectations on them that cannot be met at the present time. Science and on-farm management techniques have enabled much progress. If more innovation is expected from farmers, there needs to be greater investment into new solutions and farmers need to be able to access the right tools to ensure that their wellbeing, and the wellbeing of the communities in which they operate, is addressed.

New Zealand has never suffered the privations of food shortages. Yet the Zero Carbon Bill, as it stands, hampers the ability to tell a story we can be proud of around our locally grown and raised produce, risks driving our productive sector offshore and creates very real risks to our food security.

There is no doubt that finding an equitable balance between carbon reduction, ensuring a productive and sustainable livestock sector and food security is a complex juggling act. But the Budget 2019 trade-offs could leave us more out of kilter.  

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