‘You can’t eat trees’: Productive land is sold and removed from food production in the name of climate action

Steve Martin The West Australian
WA Liberals Agricultural Region MLC Steve Martin.
Camera IconWA Liberals Agricultural Region MLC Steve Martin. Credit: Cally Dupe/Countryman

You can’t eat carbon offsets.

That might be a statement of the glaringly obvious, yet companies and businesses that don’t contribute to the task of putting food on the plates of the world’s 7.9 billion people are buying up prime WA farmland to plant trees.

Thousands of hectares of productive land are being sold and removed from food production in the name of climate action.

Companies who are desperate to promote a clean, green, carbon-neutral image to the increasingly environmentally aware investment market are snapping up farmland — and they’re not doing it to put bread onto the table of Indonesians or lamb on the plates of millions of people in the Middle East.

As reported in the Countryman last week, Woodside Petroleum is leading the charge adding thousands more hectares of Wheatbelt farmland to its carbon portfolio with plans to plant trees to help offset its emissions.

In isolation, that is a very small percentage of WA’s agricultural land.

However, productive agricultural land is in increasingly short supply around the world.

While rich countries in the developed world generally have enough food to feed their populations, the UN World Food Programme’s live Hunger Map estimates that 957 million people across 93 countries don’t have enough to eat.

WA farmers play a significant role in producing food that is eaten by millions around the globe.

However, the energy companies, airlines and other big carbon emitters will keep needing more offsets in the short to medium term — and that will probably mean using more farmland to plant trees.

As a Liberal, I generally favour letting private landowners decide the best and most profitable use for their property, but powerful government and market forces are pushing changes in agricultural land use.

Ten years ago today, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd spoke in Canberra at the National Climate Summit and famously declared climate change to be, “the great moral challenge of our generation”.

What about the moral challenge of producing enough food for a world with almost a billion hungry people?

Governments have also decreed that we need to be net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and business is under enormous pressure to play a role.

Larry Fink, BlackRock chair and CEO, made it clear in his 2022 open letter to CEOs where he believes the market is moving.

“Most stakeholders — from shareholders, to employees, to customers, to communities, and regulators — now expect companies to play a role in de-carbonising the global economy,” Mr Fink said.

“Few things will impact capital allocation decisions – and thereby the long-term value of your company — more than how effectively you navigate the global energy transition in the years ahead.”

In other words — if you want access to funds, you better be green.

And if your core business isn’t green, then you better look green and offset those emissions somewhere else.

BlackRock controls $10 trillion in assets and when they say jump, the market asks how high.

The WA Government is also now adding to the competition for hectares in the most productive patch of agricultural land in our state.

As part of the McGowan Government’s decision to ban hardwood logging from 2023, a $350 million fund was announced to plant pine trees.

Local farmers looking to expand their businesses will now be competing against a taxpayer-funded scheme designed to grow the area under pine plantation as well as multi-nationals looking to clean up their carbon emissions.

The WA agricultural sector is a multi-billion-dollar industry but remains based on a small business model of family-owned properties, at least in the southern half of the state.

Farming communities are anxious about the impact of large areas being locked up to be used as carbon offsets for big emitters, increases in land prices and decreases in the rural population.

Will the corporate owners be good local neighbours or will the carbon offset model of land use lead to a drop in local jobs and income?

As we read last week, Woodside vice-president Jayne Baird is keen to allay these fears.

And in November, Woodside said that the company was cautious to ensure it did not displace traditional agriculture, but instead enhance the areas where it had a presence.

Well, they would say that wouldn’t they?

You have to assume that the need for carbon offsets will remain and that the land purchases and tree plantings will continue to spread across the Wheatbelt, South West and Great Southern.

We also know the world’s need for food will continue to grow, with the expectation we will need to feed nearly 9.7 billion people by 2050.

That will inevitably mean millions more hungry mouths.

And they won’t survive on carbon offsets.

Steve Martin is a WA Liberals Agricultural Region MLC.

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