Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Don't even think about it: $770 per hectare per year for soil carbon

A 2% increase in soil carbon over 10 years, as reported by Dr Peter Fisher after a series of paired-site trials in NSW and VIC, translates into$770/ha/year (at 30cms, BD 1.4 and $25/tC). Not a bad bonus on top of the production you get from carbon rich soils. Yet some people are cautioning landholders against thinking about the money. They say: focus on the co-benefits (soil health, soil structure, water holding capacity, tilth, available nutrients, active microbial community, etc.) Don't focus on the money. Don't demand access to soil carbon credits.

Clearly those who give this counsel must have secure incomes; they cannot be farmers. And we invite those who argue this line to consider the ethics of asking landholders to acquiese meekly to the following injustice:

1. The Goverment has declared that Agriculture of a major emitter (based on what evidence we can't be sure, because the Government also claims it is impossible to measure emissions at the enterprise level, which is why Agriculture won't be included in the emissions trading scheme).
2. As a major emitter, we have to pay our fair share, but the "point of obligation" is set outside the industry and we pay higher costs and commissions as a result.
3. We cannot pass on these rises at the saleyards, as one government speaker suggested.
4. We do, however, have the ability to grow soil carbon - that is, our enterprise operates as a 'sink' as well as being a 'source'.
5. However, the same difficulty that the government has encountered with enterprise emissions bedevils soil carbon: difficult to measure.
6. Meanwhile the foresters (who don't measure carbon, but 'estimate' it) turn farms into forests for a profit.

What's fair and decent and equitable and ethical about that?

We ask Government officials and industry body executives to put the same effort into solving the soil carbon dilemma as has been put into denying that soil carbon could be grown in Australia (proved wrong), can be grown but only slowly (proved wrong), is too expensive to grow because of the price of nitrogen fertiliser (proved wrong) and isn't worth the money (proved wrong).

We ask all the people with secure jobs with executive salaries, who don't rely on the weather for their livelihood, and who are in a position to influence the debate about soil carbon credits, to consider what they are doing to farm families and rural communities by denying them this opportunity. At least make the effort to find out the facts about soil carbon, instead of relying on out-of-date reports.

FICTION: The Soil Carbon lobby quotes outrageous amounts of mioneyfor soilcarbon credits.
FACT: many people don't understand how we come to those high figures. When calculating the returns on soil carbon, you must multiply the carbon percentage increase by 3.67 to bring it to Carbon Dioxide Equivalent? We grow Carbon, but we trade Carbon Dioxide Equivalent units.

FICTION: Farmers could be induced to make a big mistake with soil carbon.
FACT: We caution landholders against committing their available land 100% to carbonfarming. We advise them to start small - with 100-200ha and learn the ropes that way.

FICTION: If there was any truth in it, they'd have scientific profof. But the science says we are wrong.
FACT: The main reason science has not been able to verify our findings about soil carbon for the past 2 years is because little work was done in the field; soil science has been defunded in the past decade, university courses closed, academic positions lost - and in the words of Michael Robinson, head of Land & Water, 'the science is lagging the politics'. There were no carbon farmers in the 1970s and early 1980s when most of the research was done.

FICTION: They are making up 'witches brews' and burying cow horns with compost in them. Hardly scientific.
FACT: What were dismissed as witches brews are compost teas, biodynamic preparations and other soil inoculants. These are barely understood by science, yet farmers using them are measuring and registering huge increases in soil health indicators, including carbon. Further, the real gains are being made in biological science, largely neglected in recent years in an industry where physics and chemistry predominate. It is the microbial communities that make the carbon. The soil physics and chemistry contribute by either making life easy or hard for microbes. And land management can affect all of them. But biology is the pointy end of the process. And not much is known about it in most places.

Here is an example of how this knowledge gap affects scientific research: Every carbon farmer knows that the composition of your microbial community will determine the outcome of soil performance. If you are playing with an incomplete deck, you cannot win. But how many scientific studies of soil performance start with a soil biology analysis of the plot concerned? Any? And how often is this reported as part of the background to the study's findings?

SO the next time you are told something about the 'potential' of Australian soils to sequester carbon, ask them what was the microbial count? Amen.

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