Opportunity for a global wooden showcase

New Zealand Forest Owners Association president Peter Weir on the panel at the Primary Industries Summit. Photo: Ivor Earp-Jones.

Reconstructing Wellington with wooden buildings following a massive earthquake would provide a global showcase for what can be done with timber, said New Zealand Forest Owners Association president Peter Weir at the 2019 Primary Industries Summit in Wellington in July.

“It would be a global showcase for how to rebuild a city in engineered wood and would drive a whole new era of manufacturing and innovation. Globally, there are a lot of seismically active places and rebuilding a city in wood would be a huge driver for our value chain.”

Peter made the comments when he took part in a panel discussion on the topic ‘How the primary industries are unlocking New Zealand’s premium potential’.

Other panel members were HortNZ CEO Mike Chapman, Wools of NZ director Lucy Griffiths, Beef+Lamb NZ chief executive officer Sam McIvor, and Fonterra’s director of group research and development Mark Piper.

Peter says NZ is lagging behind the UK and Australia in constructing multi-storied wooden buildings.

Cheap steel

Part of the problem is cheap steel coming out of China and the price of carbon under the Emissions Trading Scheme, which was too low, says Peter. “Look at the Christchurch rebuild. It was a lost opportunity with few new wooden buildings constructed.”

Peter told summit delegates that the forestry industry’s innovation gains would come through smart tree breeding and doubling production on the existing land base while maintaining a low environmental footprint.

The deployment of elite tree breeds would be part of that future, and Peter says the country’s big forestry companies, shareholders in a radiata pine breeding company are “on the cusp of delivering some amazing stuff”.

CRISPR technology

“Technology will take us to the next step beyond business as usual, and we’re expecting to see significant gains from gene editing of clonal tree stocks, including sterile Douglas fir and radiata with a 20 per cent gain in fibre production per hectare because trees are not putting photosynthetic energy into cones and pollen. T

“This will be done through [for editing genomes] that has Non-Government Organisation support as sterile trees mean no more wilding conifers and we’re seriously talking to Forest & Bird right now.” 

There would be some intensification of plantings and one to two applications of nitrogenous fertiliser at a rate of 150kg of N per ha twice during a 25-year rotation. “I don’t expect any leaching but there will be a product gain. It is important to stress that this gain will happen on flat to rolling forests, because those are our most profitable ones by far. I don’t think we will see gains on steeper forest, and it will not happen on steep marginal land or hill country.

“I think we will see the handbrake go on seven per cent of forest because the gains happen on flat to rolling forest.”

Good money

Acknowledging that timber is largely a commodity product, Peter said “there is nothing wrong with selling a sustainably grown commodity product”.

“There is good money in commodities with a good supply chain and good logistics, especially if your brand is better than tropical logging.”

China is the biggest market with a whole sawmilling industry dependent on NZ soft wood production. There are ports on the eastern seaboard targeting NZ radiata. India offers potential but is a complex market, says Peter.

Another challenge for the industry may be the newly-formed lobby group 50 Shades of Green, which is calling on the Government to rethink its One Billion Trees policy.

Peter says the group has “come out of nowhere” and could impact on the industry’s social licence to operate. However, NZ had signed up to the Paris agreement and committed to reduce greenhouse gases by 30 per cent in a decade, and much of that would have to come from offsetting by planting trees.

Uncapping the carbon price set under the Emissions Trading Scheme could see Fonterra convert its milk powder plants to burning wood chips instead of coal. “Wood chips could also run the Cook Straight ferries but right now oil is so much cheaper,” says Peter.


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