Climate Change Minister, James Shaw; Prime MInister, Jacinda Ardern and Primary Industries Minister, Damien O'Connor launching the controversial Government response to He Waka Eke Noa last month on a Wairarapa farm.

Federated Farmers’ hard line on agricultural emissions has won the day, and all the country’s major livestock farming organisations are now opposing the Government’s methane emissions targets.

That is likely to set the agriculture sector on a collision course with the Government.

The boards of Federated Farmers, Beef+LambNZ and Dairy NZ met in Christchurch on Tuesday and agreed to end their support for the current methane targets.

That effectively means that on the eve of Climate Change Minister James Shaw leaving for the United Nations Climate Conference in Egypt, the farmers appear to have ambushed him and pulled the rug out from under his feet on-farm emissions.

It also challenges the Prime Minister’s claim on Sunday that New Zealand was creating a world-first regime to make sure we reduced agricultural greenhouse gas emissions, which made up just under half of our emissions profile.

Ultimately, pressure from GroundSwell on Federated Farmers, in particular, may well be seen to be behind the farmers’ move.

Last night’s statement follows a tough speech at a farmer protest meeting from Federated Farmers President Andrew Hoggard in Invercargill three weeks ago.

“They need a gross reduction, and at the moment, without mitigations, a 10% gross reduction only comes from 10% less dry matter going down ruminants’ throats,” he said.

Hoggard was referring to the zero carbon legislation, which provides for a 10 per cent reduction from 2017 levels of biogenic methane by 2030.

The Climate Change Response (Zero Carbon) Amendment Act 2019, however, does not say that reduction should be a net reduction; that is one achieved by taking into account offsets such as accounting for carbon sequestration by vegetation on a farm.

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But apart from Federated Farmers, industry leaders have not been too concerned about the 10 per cent reduction because dairy cow numbers are slowly declining from their 2014 peak anyway.

Since 2017, numbers are down 3.8 per cent.

Even so, there is a requirement already that the target be reviewed in 2024, and the ultimate target, a reduction of biogenic emissions by 24 – 47 per cent by 2050, is also required to be reviewed. Plainly, given its range, that number in the Act is little more than a placeholder.

What was going on last night owed more to politics than anything else.

It seemed that the statement was a concession by Beef+Lamb and DairyNZ to keep on side with Federated Farmers, who themselves are under pressure from Groundswell.

Groundswell has focussed its attacks on the Government’s farm emissions proposals on Beef+Lamb and DairyNZ, who they argue are too close to the Government.

Hoggard has said he was always sceptical about the He Waka Eke Noa proposal to reduce emissions drawn up by 11 agriculture organisations along with the Ministry for Primary Industries and Ministry for the Environment.

The rejection by the Government last month of one critical part of the proposal, that all farmers get a credit for their carbon-sequestering vegetation has ignited a storm of protest among farmers, particularly sheep and beef farmers who, as a consequence, stand to see their incomes decline by as much as 20 per cent.

That set Federated Farmers against Beef+Lamb and DairyNZ, who had continued to support engagement with the Government even after it rejected the sequestration proposal.

The Christchurch meeting was, therefore, something of a conciliation meeting between Federated Farmers and the other two organisations.

They were obviously determined to keep Federated Farmers on side and thus avoid any perception that the sector was divided.

But the price of that unity might be the relationship with the Government.

So the statement last night repeatedly stated that the three organisations were “united”.

“A united voice on emissions pricing is the best way to ensure positive policy outcomes for farmers,” it said.

In their message to farmers, they said the Christchurch meeting “was a productive discussion, and all three organisations have agreed on the following core principles that we will all be raising directly with the Government on your behalf.”

There were nine principles, most of which had been previously raised, but the new one was that the targets be reviewed.

“The current methane targets are wrong and need to be reviewed,” the three organisations said.

“Any target should be science-based, not political, and look to prevent additional warming.”                 

When POLITIK spoke to Shaw last night, he had not had any contact with the organisations over their statement.

CVEO, Miles Hurrell, told the cooperative’s annual meeting in Rotorua yesterday that addressing methane emissions was critical for the company.

“In short, it comes down to us collectively meeting the climate change expectations of our stakeholders and the risk if we don’t,” he said.

“Now that COVID-19 restrictions have largely been lifted, the Chair and I have been spending time in our markets.

“The subject that dominates conversations with our customers and debt capital providers is sustainability.

“Our high-value customers are setting emissions reduction targets and looking for our help.

“If we can’t give them confidence that we will help them achieve their targets, they will look to our competitors — including using alternatives to milk.”

The statement last night set out eight points apart from the call for the targets to be reviewed.

Apart from one that asked for levy relief if a farmer’s busy was threatened, the rest were all not that far from current Government policy.

What is unclear is whether the three organisations will insist on all nine principles being agreed upon before they will agree to support the Government’s proposals.

However, the Government holds the whip hand; it can simply impose a so-called processor levy on farmers, which would see all milk and meat levied by the dairy company or meat works that processed it.