Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Time for new leadership in Agriculture

Agriculture must look like a bunch of chooks with their heads chopped off as the industry reacts to the looming Emissions Trading Scheme. Afraid to take on the denialists in their midst, the leadership of the industry at every level has let farmers down. Falling back on the argument that there were many points of view was easy then. Hard now.
Those of us in the Carbon Coalition – campaigning for soil carbon rights so farmers could offset their methane and nitrous oxide emissions – have had a unique view of the way the industry has responded to the challenge of an impending ETS. We always believed that the industry had to engage with the ETS up front and fight for a fair deal on emissions and sequestration. Most people in Agriculture didn’t want to know. The establishment research institutions promoted the view that farmers should forget trading soil carbon: it’s too hard. One ran a series of campaigns (and is still running them) to discredit soil carbon. (It told a Senate Committee that there were no such campaigns.) If the energy and resources that were put into the campaign against soil carbon had been put behind it, farmers would be trading soil carbon today, and we’d have a very different negotiation with the Government.
Not everyone was asleep at the wheel. The grassroots farmers have been interested. Two years ago, when our local Farmers’ Association chapter took a motion to State Conference about soil carbon credits to help farmers, it was “speared” by one of the retired farmers who hang around the Association’s committees. “I speared it,” he announced to me at an event in Cobar. When asked why, he said a friend told him it as bad for farmers. Another senor Association person urged us to keep quiet about soil carbon because the Government might notice we were there and make us pay for our methane emissions. This is the level of debate we have encountered, even among scientists. There are two types of scientist: 1. Those who feel threatened and use terms like ‘snake oil’ to describe our message. 2. Those who sit down with us and are willing to listen and exchange views and collaborate on experiments. They speak at our conferences and don’t hide behind terms like “Soil Carbon Mythbusters”.
Not only has there been an unwillingness to engage with the issue, many protagonists believe they can enter the debate without understanding some of the basic concepts underlying soil carbon trading. The ignorance of some scientists who comment publicly is astonishing.
The Nationals at Federal Level have been missing in action until now. Senator Joyce is exploiting the situation for himself, but not helping the people he claims to represent. Where has he been for the past 3 years? Even the new boy, Mark Coulton, the Member for Parkes, is playing a constructive role as Parliamentary Secretary to the Shadow Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt MP.
Farmers are being hung out to dry because of poor industry leadership. But if you aren’t dealt in, you can’t play. Out-manouvered at every turn by the energy industry, Agriculture did not get a seat at Howard’s Roundtable in mid 2007. The Carbon Coalition had briefed the NFF a year earlier. They knew what was coming. Agriculture stood by and watched the coal industry get hundreds of millions of dollars for climate change research. When soil carbon was given $20million by the Government recently – the largest amount ever allocated for soil carbon research in Australia - the CSIRO’s Dr Jeff Baldock didn’t call one of the industry funding bodies to say thanks. He called the snake oil salesmen. The Carbon Coalition.
Climate Change is on us right now. We can’t afford to wait for the laggards to catch up. There is no leadership coming from the Leaders of Agriculture. We must provide our own leadership. Christine Jones, Ken Bellamy, Col Seis, Bob Wilson, Tim Wiley, Tony Lovell – these, and many more like them, are our leaders. They don’t have titles. They lead by just getting on with it.
Leadership groups are emerging: Think tanks and action groups focussed on sustainable agricultural philosophies and practices, such as a 'deep thought' group in the New England and the new “Eco-Ag” group forming after a recent meeting in Orange, NSW. Another alliance of activists is forming around Major General Michael Jefferies, the former Governor General, who is ready to use his influence to get the sustainability message heard. These must lend their support to each other, fuse where they overlap, and accept that together we make each other stronger. Now is not the time for sectional interests to pursue their agendas.
We know who the enemy is: ignorance and fear. And that disunity is death.

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