'Burp tax' causes outrage in New Zealand - but could this impact the elections?

Cattle grazing on the farm of Kate Wyeth, a sheep and beef farmer, near Wellington.
Cattle grazing on the farm of Kate Wyeth, a sheep and beef farmer, near Wellington. Copyright RYLAND JAMES/AFP or licensors
By Doloresz Katanich with AFP
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New Zealand has a plan to tax farmers for their livestock's burps and flatulence -- and it's causing a stink ahead of Saturday's general elections.


The New Zealand economy is driven by agriculture with around 10 million cattle and 25 million sheep - that's seven times more livestock than people in the country.

Like many in the world, the government in Wellington to tackle climate change and just under half of New Zealand's emissions come from agriculture.

As cattle are the main culprits, with their belches and farts containing methane, the plan is to put a price on agricultural emissions -- in effect taxing burps and farts from livestock.

Farmers would be taxed according to the size of their land, the amount of livestock they own, their overall production and their use of nitrogen fertiliser.

Many farmers fear, however, that the pricing will hurt profits and threaten livelihoods. 

How much could the 'burp tax' be?

The Irish Examiner cited a calculation prepared by US Department of Agriculture experts, using a modelling approach of NGO Beef + Lamb New Zealand Ltd.

It shows that the 'burp' tax would cost a typical big dairy farm in the country more than €11,000 per year, with methane priced at €0.067 per kg. The calculation includes plenty of incentive discounts on emission reduction actions and technologies, but without those the levy could be as much as €52,000 in a year. 

Could the burp tax heavily influence the elections?

And this topic may well be an important one to consider in the general elections on Saturday for some 85,000 voters employed in agriculture.

"I think it will impact on how agricultural rural communities vote this election," Kate Wyeth, a sheep and beef farmer near the capital Wellington on the North Island, told AFP.

"Particularly whichever party - or group of parties - is looking at giving the agricultural industry time to adapt new technologies that aren't even available to us yet," she added.

The proposed plan still needs the approval of the parliament before the tax system can take effect in 2025 at the earliest. However, opposition centre-right party National has said it will push it back further to 2030 if elected.

Wyeth said that technologies need to be developed -- for example, feeds given to livestock that reduce methane emissions -- to stop farmers feeling that their only choice is to reduce livestock numbers.

Could lowering emissions be financially beneficial?

"We are one of the world's leading agricultural countries and agricultural emissions make up half of the total pollution that we put into the atmosphere every year," James Shaw, the country's Minister for Climate Change, told AFP.

Lowering emissions could benefit New Zealand's farmers by attracting foreign buyers willing to pay more for sustainable agricultural products, Shaw said.

"There is a sweet spot with lower emissions and lower pollution and higher profits for farms," he added.

The Washington Post cited a government modeling that suggests that sheep and beef revenue would drop by around 20% by 2030 — driving many farms out of business.

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