WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — Farmers across New Zealand took to the streets on their tractors Thursday to protest government plans to tax cow belching and other greenhouse gas emissions, though the rallies were smaller than many had expected.
Lobby group Groundswell New Zealand helped organize more than 50 protests in cities across the country, the largest of which involved several dozen vehicles.
The government last week proposed a new farm tax as part of a plan to tackle climate change. The government said it would be a world first and that farmers should be able to recoup costs by charging more for climate products.
Because New Zealand’s agriculture is so large – there are 10 million cattle and dairy cattle and 26 million sheep, compared to just 5 million people – about half of all greenhouse gas emissions come from farms. A particularly large contribution is made by methane from belching cattle.
But some farmers argue that the proposed tax would actually increase global greenhouse gas emissions by shifting agriculture to countries that are less efficient at producing food.
At the protest in Wellington, farmer Dave McCurdy said he was disappointed by the low turnout, but said most farmers were working hard on their farms during a period of beautiful spring weather at a particularly busy time of year.
He said farmers are good stewards of the environment.
“It’s our life, our family’s lives,” he said. “We’re not here to destroy it, we wouldn’t make any money. We love our farms. That’s what annoys us. We’re painted as these bad guys, but many farmers have spent generations taking care of that land.”
He said the proposed tax did not take into account all the trees and shrubs he and other farmers planted, which helped sequester carbon and offset emissions. He said it would be disastrous for many farmers if the proposed tax and herd cuts were disastrous.
“I’m out,” he said. “Waste of time.”
Agriculture remains vital to New Zealand’s economy. Dairy products, including those used to make infant formula in China, are the country’s largest exporter.
McCurdy said farmers almost single-handedly kept the economy afloat during the COVID-19 lockdown, and now that the threat has passed and a recession is looming, the government is coming after them.
New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has pledged to make the nation carbon neutral by 2050. Part of that plan includes reducing methane emissions from domestic animals by 10% by 2030 and up to 47% by 2050.
The government worked with farmers and other groups to try to come up with an emissions plan that everyone could live with. But many farmers were angered by the government’s final proposal, while environmentalists say it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
Farmer Matt Swansson said he had “been encouraged” by the government and would consider refusing to pay the new tax.
He said that on nice evenings on his farm, he thinks he has the best job in the world.
“But when it rains, it rains, and you come home and listen to the news,” Swansson said. “Why bother?”