Speech for Bluegreens Conference “Pitch a Policy” Panel

// Industry

I’m Kate Acland, Chair of Beef + Lamb New Zealand, but more importantly I’m a farmer; I farm Mt Somers Station, 1.5 hours West of Christchurch with my husband David. We’re farmers of sheep and beef, Dairy farmers, farmers of forestry both carbon and production, and honey producers.

image of Kate Acland

But the other thing we are is caretakers, of 550ha of Native bush and shrubland that isn’t farmed, of several hundred hectares of managed tussock grasslands and 76km of fenced waterways. 

Our ability to be caretakers is made possible by the strong economic engine that the balance of our productive pasture and farming operation provides. 

Farming is the foundation of NZ’s economy – it's our country’s engine room. 

It provides the key ingredients to multiple products and multiple stories that we sell to the world. 

Farming can’t afford to stand still, we need to continue to improve in all pillars of our operations profitability, people and planet – however, we will struggle to do anything if we are not profitable. Profitability is the key. 

Today I will outline 4 policy proposals for consideration, that include supporting catchment communities; striving for bipartisan support on the environment; and taking a different approach to climate change; and biodiversity.   

We know that meaningful and enduring change in the rural space will be farmer led – it will be from the ground up. 

We know regulation is needed to give the NZ public confidence that farmers are being good custodians of our environment, but regulation must be light on bureaucratic process and enable farmers to lead change.  

Regulation needs to recognise that farms are biological systems and rules need appropriate flexibility to allow farmers to manage their specific catchment and individual farm’s risks and to innovate to solve challenges – in the way our farmers are so good at. 

Farmers need to buy into and understand why they are being asked to change – so it needs to be pragmatic and sensible - not Wellington centric. 

Catchment communities are critical to progress.  When farmers are working together, in a coordinated way, to tackle the risks in their region – that is when real progress is made.   

One thing the previous Government did get right was their support for catchment communities and I commend Minister Simmonds for undertaking to continue and build on that. 

The other thing farmers need is certainty – most of us are here for a generation or more, we operate on generational cycles rather than election cycles.  

Change doesn’t happen overnight because we are dealing in biological systems. 

Most importantly certainty means we need regulation to be enduring. 

This might be a stretch goal, but we need to aim for cross party support on environmental issues – Farmers don’t want to be at the mercy of pendulum swing politics. 

Policy should focus on the outcomes we’re looking for and give farmers the ability to innovate and adapt our systems to meet those outcomes. 

Climate Change in agriculture is a prickly issue – farmers know they have a part to play, but they want the methane targets to be fair.   

The scientific understanding of methane, it’s warming impact and how it should be dealt with from a policy perspective, has really evolved in the last few years.   

Its clear from research that respected Climate Scientists at Oxford University did for us last year that the current methane reduction targets are too high.   

We welcome the coalition Government’s agreement to review the targets based on no additional warming and look forward to a proper look at what they should be.   

New Zealand  can be a world leader in terms of setting appropriate targets for biogenic methane but leading needs to have our people following – all our people. 

If farmers feel confident that targets are underpinned by science that recognises not only the warming impact of gases, but also the important role the NZ agricultural sector plays in producing quality sustainable protein, they will get on board with achieving them.   

We also need to give farmers the confidence that if they meet those targets they won’t face a punitive tax on their emissions, they will be celebrated as the one sector in NZ who is meeting their targets without relying on offsetting.   

If farmers have certainty on this, they will have the confidence to invest in and try new technologies that they otherwise might not be willing to do so. 

We need to rethink the approach to pricing agricultural emissions.  Things have changed substantially globally in the last year on this issue and New Zealand needs to look outward, as there are other ways to achieve the goal.   

Most countries have moved back from pricing agricultural emissions and are now looking at ways to incentivise change.  In California, farmers don’t face a price on their emissions, they are able to get carbon credits for building biodigesters that convert the methane they produce from manure into a fuel gas. 

The Canadian Government is currently consulting on a proposal to give carbon credits to farmers for undertaking actions like improved diets, management or other strategies that supported more efficient animal growth in a feedlot environment.  

We understand that the European Union had been considering a potential price on agricultural emissions last year but are hearing they have moved away from this approach in response to farmer’s protests and are now looking more at other options. 

Once the technologies are available to reduce agricultural emissions, I also believe the processing companies will play a role in encouraging the uptake of these, through incentivising with supply premiums – hopefully as a result of genuine market premiums.  

More broadly, there is an opportunity here to position our produce and grow our trade through promoting and celebrating NZ farmers for the fact they are already the most emissions efficient producers of protein in the world and they are continuing to improve.  

When people are celebrated and praised for the good they do, history will tell us they strive to do more. But this significant narrative change needs to come from the top. 

Biodiversity is another area where we need a rethink.  

Indigenous biodiversity is hugely important to our farmers.  

We know this because sheep and beef farmers are looking after a large portion of New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity with 24 percent of the country’s native vegetation cover on sheep and beef farms 

But the National Policy Statement for Biodiversity currently penalises those farmers that have done the most to protect their biodiversity to date. 

Those farms will have major areas identified with having a Significant Natural Area and therefore face major restrictions going forward in what they can do on that land.  

The definition of a Significant Natural Area is very broad and currently identifies any biodiversity (regardless of value) as being significant.  

If implemented in its current form, a substantial cost and time burden will fall on landowners, including engaging in planning and appeals processes, and obtaining resource consents for many activities in and around SNAs. 

It is vital that we pause the implementation of the Biodiversity NPS and take the time to create a new framework.   

We want a framework that supports landowners to integrate and manage biodiversity as part of productive farming systems and incentivises rather than penalises the protection and enhancement of indigenous biodiversity.  

This could include support with fencing, pest control or provision of ecologists to do assessments, or even the possibility of establishing biodiversity credits, that could be privately funded. 

We must acknowledge that off the back of economic deregulation in the 1980’s, without the support of the subsidies that farmers in almost every other developed agricultural nation still enjoy, our farmers innovated and became world leading in our productivity – that’s something no other sector in NZ can claim such success at.  

But through this singular focus on economics, there has undeniably been an impact on our environment. 

The previous government fell into a mindset of singular focus on the environment, that risked significant economic impacts - our challenge is to find the right balance. 

We need to strike a balance with policy where increasing profitability and productivity from our rural sector can sit alongside a thriving environment. 

We also need to recognise the significant progress that farmers have made in improving their environmental performance over the past decade – this has come at considerable costs, both financial and mental.  

We can’t afford for the environment to be an election issue – it’s just a part of what we do as farmers to manage our land, and we need to get to a place where we’re celebrated for the great job we do. That change in narrative needs to come from the top. 

My challenge to those of you in this room with the power to do so, is to enable and empower meaningful long term change by allowing farmers to innovate and grow with policy that will set us up for a generational cycle rather than an election one.