As consumers start worrying more about climate change, big businesses are increasingly looking to forests to assuage their greenhouse gas guilt. The concept, called forest carbon offsets, is fairly straightforward—a company pays to plant trees, sometimes even buying land to do so, and the carbon taken in by the forest cancels out emissions the company produces in other places.

But Reckitt Benckiser Group PLC (RB), a major U.K.-based company behind well-known household products like Lysol, Woolite and Durex condoms, is learning that acquiring forest carbon offsets sometimes means the acquisition of new neighbors—neighbors that aren’t necessarily happy with what’s being done with the land.

As part of its sustainability efforts, RB is buying up farms in the Canadian province of British Columbia and planting trees there by the millions. Since 2006, the company’s website states, RB has planted 7,014,000 trees in Canada, offsetting 2.4 million metric tons of CO2. A spokeswoman reports RB now owns nearly 26,000 acres in British Columbia.

This has landed RB in hot water with a number of British Columbia farmers and politicians, who argue that the land should be used to raise cattle or grow hay, not trees.

The company did not respond directly to unverified allegations from individual farmers, but strongly countered claims of a land “bidding war.” Yet its offset activity broadly in the province has in the least created a lot of rumors and angst.

Among those complaining is Doug Hatfield, 65, who has been in the farming business in British Columbia for four decades. Hatfield claims that in March, he expressed interest in purchasing more than 1,300 acres in the central portion of the province to grow a hay production business but later heard the owner had fielded an offer from RB.

Hatfield is furious, calling the concept of forest carbon offsets “bogus crap.”

“RB group is quietly and as fast as it can buying up this farmland to plant trees on it ... so they can continue to pollute in Europe—that’s the way I see it,” Hatfield said. “If you’re polluting, clean up your act. Don’t come here and steal our farmland from our future generations.”

‘We have never engaged in a bidding war’
RB is far from the only company putting down cash for forest carbon. According to a recent report by the nonprofit Forest Trends, the cumulative market value for agriculture, forest and other land-use offset projects topped $1 billion in 2013. The vast majority of offsets were bought voluntarily by companies “seeking to meet corporate social responsibility commitments or demonstrate industry leadership on climate change.”

In a statement, RB stressed that its RB Trees program is part of a “wide range of emission-reduction initiatives,” enacted as part of a goal to achieve net-zero emissions across its manufacturing operations.

RB also denies that it is in competition with British Columbia’s agricultural community for land.

“All properties RB has purchased have been on the market for a significant enough of time prior to our offer for other interested parties to purchase the land,” Lynn Kenney, RB North America communications director, said in an email. “We have never engaged in a ‘bidding war’ over any property and would not seek to engage in bidding against any local party that would seek the land for use.”

But other British Columbia farmers—some of whom have reached out to elected officials about the issue—are reporting frustration with the company’s recent land purchases. Like Hatfield, rancher Mike Gilson, 55, alleges that he and RB were interested in the same land.

Gibson acknowledged “what they’re doing, they can do,” but he added, “whatever they forest and take out of production is basically just stealing it right out of the heart of the ranching industry.”

Bill Miller, chairman of the Regional District of Bulckley-Nechako in central British Columbia, said that while RB’s purchases were initially concentrated on marginal land that was far from infrastructure like roads, the company has become “more aggressive” in recent years and is now buying up “fairly decent” agricultural property.

Meanwhile, international demand for British Columbia’s hay and cattle has made the farming business more lucrative in recent years.

China, for example, is seen as a growing customer for British Columbia’s hay and beef. A December 2013 report by the British Columbia Forage Council noted that with its growing dairy industry, China “represents a significant potential market for forage export.” And last June, according to a release from Canada’s agriculture department, Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz met with Chinese officials to secure additional deals to increase beef, live cattle and hay exports to the Asian nation.

“We’re looking at such good cattle prices, such good hay markets, so there’s a demand for the farmland,” said Mark Parker, a district director for the Bulkley-Nechacko regional district.

Company draws political ire
RB’s land purchases have landed on politicians’ radar, stirring debate in British Columbia’s Legislative Assembly. Lana Popham, a member of the opposition party, seized on the issue to criticize the governing Liberal Party’s oversight of the province’s agricultural reserves, calling the situation “out of control” during a legislative session last week.

British Columbia Agriculture Minister Norm Letnick responded that the Provincial Agricultural Land Commission is aware of the carbon offset purchases, and if the commission determines that the land is improperly used, “they have all the tools necessary to take care of the issue.”

Popham is introducing legislation to allow the Agricultural Land Commission to turn down applications for carbon sequestration programs. In an interview, Popham said she isn’t opposed to the idea of forest carbon offsets, but she added, “It’s devaluing our communities, the way that they’re doing this purchasing. ... I don’t think it’s an acceptable practice on agricultural land.”

Joseph Pallant, a manager at the New Westminster, British Columbia-based Brinkman Climate, which helps develop carbon offset projects in British Columbia, said that while he applauds RB’s effort to address carbon emissions, he believes a re-examination of its land-purchasing standards “would be viewed well in the province.”

But Pallant also noted, “there’s going to be a lot of emissions associated with farming [the land] for hay, shipping it across the ocean, and feeding it to ruminants.”

“I think the broader issue is that society is trying to figure out how they are going to address climate change, and in putting things into practice, we realize that different people have different ideas,” Pallant said.

RB spokeswoman Kenney said in an email that company officials are meeting with the Regional District of Bulkley-Nechako in June.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500