19 Jun 2020

Government may review farm to forestry conversions if they reach 40,000 hectares a year

4:07 pm on 19 June 2020

The much criticised conversion of farm land into forestry could be checked by the government if it goes too far, politicians have been told.

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Photo: 123rf

Agriculture Minister Damien O'Connor, who is also Minister for Rural Communities, yesterday told Parliament's Primary Production Select Committee that land conversions might have to be reviewed if they reach 40,000 hectares a year.

The conversion of farmland into forestry has been repeatedly accused of undermining thriving rural communities and replacing them with a green desert.

Federated Farmers and Beef + Lamb said this would be even worse when trees were grown for carbon credits, not timber.

In that case, rural communities would never get an economic boost from visiting pruning contractors or tree felling gangs.

Instead, absentee landowners would cash carbon sequestration cheques from afar.

O'Connor was repeatedly challenged on this at the select committee.

The National Party's agricultural spokesman, David Bennett, charged him with neglecting the welfare of rural communities, which was an important part of his portfolio.

The minister defended his role, saying the rural sector had proven how robust it was, even during the Covid-19 crisis.

He added it was not his job to tell farmers and other landowners what they should do with their property.

But he would act if too much land was converted.

"What we have said is that we will monitor this," O'Connor told the committee.

"If we saw massive investment and massive afforestation [of high quality agricultural land] then we would have to intervene."

Questioned by Bennett, Damien O'Connor said 40,000 hectares of conversion a year would be the likely threshold for government action.

But he stressed this would not be his decision alone - other government ministers would take part.

The select committee also heard a lot of debate about how serious the farm conversion problem really was.

It also debated what were the correct statistics.

Federated Farmers has said 70,000 hectares of productive sheep and beef land had been converted to forestry since 2019, often driven by carbon-related investment.

This seriously undermined the viability of the rural economy.

Damien O'Connor expressed doubts about these numbers.

"I am not going to get into a debate how the Feds have worked out their figures," he said.

"But the facts are these: in 2016, there were 2000 hectares of new planting; in 2017, 6000 hectares; in 2018, 6000 and in 2019, 22,000 hectares (in provisional figures).

"So it has gone up but it doesn't add up to the [Federated Farmers'] numbers."

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