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3 September, 2020

Farmers adopt bold new 'zero carbon' policy

PRODUCERS have butted heads with the Morrison Government, calling on a tougher climate policy and an economy-wide target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.


Grazing BestPrac Queensland Director, Mick Alexander, remains cautiously optimistic about the latest carbon targets

The National Farmer’s Federation, which claims to represent the interests of more than 80,000 Australian farmers, raised more than a few eyebrows and surprised many when it voted in favour of the landmark policy earlier this month. 

NFF President, Fiona Simson, said agriculture was already leading in the carbon space.

“In the past decade Australian agriculture has consistently reduced its emissions intensity and net emissions,” Ms Simson said.

“We want to chart the path, and now require strict caveats regarding fair implementation and economic viability to support our policy.”

But the Coalition refused to support the target last week and said Australia would work towards net zero emissions in the second half of the century.

Agriculture Minister, David Littleproud, said he would not support the NFF’s commitment when they had not identified quantifiable pathways to achieve their goal practically.

“Every effort is being made to reduce emissions across the economy,” Mr Littleproud said.

“But blindly setting a course to achieve such a goal without a clear strategy could have serious implications, not just on farmers but the entire nation.”

It’s not just farmers ticked off

University of Queensland academics have questioned the Coalition’s existing Technology Investment Roadmap, which identified soil carbon as a potential way to reduce total emissions from agriculture.

Professor Robert Edwin White said the Government claimed increasing soil carbon would reduce emissions from livestock grazing while increasing productivity.

“Theoretically, this is true,” Prof. White said. “Increased soil carbon should lead to better pasture growth.”

“When biomass is decomposed in the soil, CO2 is produced and mostly released into the atmosphere.

“If science could intervene by using technology to keep carbon in the soil rather than the atmosphere, in theory it would help mitigate climate change,” Prof. White said.

In May, Energy Minister, Angus Taylor, released the long-awaited Technology Investment Roadmap which examined more than 140 technologies for potential investment between now and 2050. 

They included electric vehicles, biofuels, batteries, hydrogen, nuclear and carbon capture and storage.

Prof. White said the government's strategy of carbon capture pointed to ‘biochar’ in particular, a plant material transformed into carbon-rich charcoal then applied to soil.

“Making biochar involves heating waste organic materials in a reduced-oxygen environment to create a charcoal-like product,” Prof. White said.

“The carbon from biomass is stored in the charcoal, which is very stable and does not decompose for decades.”

However, Prof. White said the Coalition’s plan contained misconceptions about biochar and the effectiveness of soil carbon as part of a broader emissions reduction strategy.

“Firstly, the process of pyrolysis used to make the biochar uses energy and produces combustible gases," Prof. White said. 

“All energy inputs and outputs considered, the net energy balance can be negative. In other words, the process can create more greenhouse gas emissions than it saves.”

Prof. White also said there would not always be a gain in soil fertility.

“While biochar may improve the soil carbon status at a new site, the sites from which the carbon residues are removed, such as farmer’s fields or harvested forests, will be depleted of soil carbon and associated nutrients,” Prof. White said.

A group of 20 Central Queensland producers gathered in Emerald on Monday for Grazing BestPrac Queensland’s Introduction to Carbon Farming seminar.

GBP Queensland Director, Mick Alexander, said while past conversion of native land to agriculture had depleted soil carbon by 40 to 60 per cent, this provided significant potential for today’s crop of primary producers.

“Improved crop management practices have resulted in a relative gain on average of 0.2-0.3 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year," Mr Alexander said. 

“Further, pasture improvements have generally resulted in relative gains of 0.1-0.3 tonnes of carbon per hectare per year."

Mr Alexander spoke of how cows sequester carbon, the link between management and healthy soils and how to measure and monitor carbon.

Mr Alexander, together with his wife Noela and sons Lachlan and Matthew, operates the 1400 ha beef breeding property Bindaree, 42 kilometres north-west of Rockhampton.

He has adapted his operation to cope with climate change, with the farm certified organic in 2016 and operating under rotational farming practices.

“Before us, Noela’s dad implemented rotational grazing for about 10 years, so we’ve done a lot more fencing to make up those paddocks to move the livestock into," Mr Alexander said. 

“Before, cattle were only being rotated around four paddocks, now they’re being rotated around 70 paddocks between four and 30 hectares in size.

"We also built trenches and planted trees to battle the heat of the tropics, keeping methane levels to a minimum. Stock are always looking for shade and if there’s no shade there they are not going to be producing.”

Mr Alexander said the benefits were already paying off.

“Ten years ago it would have taken five years to get a bull to its prime weight, now it only takes half the time. We just have to keep adapting to that change in climate."

Mr Alexander remained cautiously optimistic about the new carbon targets, but said the relationship between science, producers and the Federal Government lacked alignment.

“The serious issue we have is that nobody has put the science, the on-farm practices, and the funding together," Mr Alexander said. 

“Unfortunately, there are also plenty of scientists who don’t know all of the science.”

The NFF’s strategy to achieve net carbon emissions by 2050 is yet to be released.

Australia’s red meat sector, which is considered a major contributor to emissions, has already committed to become carbon neutral by 2030.

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