Friday, February 25, 2011

No “Fart” Tax, No “Fert” Tax, Yes “Soil Carbon Credits” 2

The Government confirmed that emissions from agricultural sources won't be taxed under the carbon pricing mechanism announced yesterday because "it is not practical", meaning it's too hard to measure them. Ministers Combet and Ludwig are enthusiastic about soil carbon: "The proposal does recognise that farmers and landholders can still play a vital part in reducing our carbon pollution... The Carbon Farming Initiative will demonstrate how land sector abatement is real and can deliver significant benefits to regional and rural Australia. It will allow sectors not covered by the carbon price mechanism to generate carbon credits for actions which reduce or store carbon pollution. In particular, it will help farmers move beyond existing practices to unlock farming techniques with better carbon and productivity outcomes, helping adapt to the effects of climate change we cannot avoid."

Carbon Farming For Higher Yields

In State of the World 2011, Innovations that Nourish the Planet, the Worldwatch Institute ( presents an alternative vision for food production. There is sufficient worldwide experience with agroecological farming — including practices such as organic farming, agroforestry, conservation agriculture and evergreen agriculture — to demonstrate a workable alternative. Using conservation tillage and crop rotations, for example, some 350,000 Zambian farmers have improved yields 30 to 100 per cent. In Malawi, farmers who substituted “fertilizer trees” for mineral fertilizers tripled their yields, from as little as 0.5 tonnes per acre to 3.5 tonnes above the world average.

One major study reported in the book looked at 286 agroecological projects covering 37 million hectares in 57 countries. The average yield gain over previous practices was 79 per cent. These methods also showed a measurable improvement in biodiversity.

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

The Greens will vote against what?

We have heard Christine Milne speaking on the Carbon Farming Initiative twice in week, including last Thursday at Rob Oakshott's Land Use Forum at which AAP alleges she vowed to block the legislation. She did not say anything like that in her speech or in answers to questions. (She may have said it privately to the AAP journalist.)

Christine said the Greens objected to perverse outcomes, such as was the case with forestry under the old regime where whole farms were sold to forest sink companies who planted the entire property and the next and the next, and planted single species biodiversity deserts of oil mallee and they were marketed as Managed Investment Schemes which inevitably failed. Meanwhile the forests marched across the countryside, sucking the children out of the schools, the business out of the local townships, and the lifeblood out of rural communities.We agree with her that such forest sinks have perverse outcomes. The new Carbon Farming Initiative makes promoters prove their project will have no environmental or social or food security detriment.

Christine Milne believes we need a national vision to merge the siloed solutions into an integrated plan, to avoid perverse outcomes. Such outcomes are easy to come across in the world of carbon. For instance, opening the Carbon Market in Australia with only forestry offsets for biosequestration would distort the market, channelling money that would have transformed farm landscapes and soils to health. And every day we put off the massive task of drawing down the legacy CO2 in the atmosphere takes us closer to overshooting the 2°C target. It also takes us closer to the day we need to feed 9bn people. And closer to the day we mourn the passing of the last family farm into corporate hands. Now there's a perverse set of outcomes. I'd vote against that.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Ylad opens first store/depot/office

An audience of 250 helped Bill and Rhonda Daly launch their new facility in Young NSW - and the celebrations took on the atmosphere of a country wedding. TV's celebrity gardener Costa was the star attraction. (He is known as Jesus to the schoolboy rugby teams he referees.) There was also a rousing speech by Graeme Sait of Nutri-Tech Solutions. The Biological Farming Army marches on.

We put the question: the answer is 'No'.

We asked the first question of Minister Combet after his presentation to MP Rob Oakshott's Land Use Forum Thursday last. "The $20million Soil Carbon Research Program will only provide one fifth of the data needed to drive a comprehensive soil carbon sequestration model, according to sources inside the project. Will the Government meet the challenge and fund the balance of the work so farmers everywhere can have access to offset trading opportunities?" Minister Combet: "No." (It was a longer answer than that, but meant the same thing. He said they have to balance the budget. We're trying to balance the biosphere.) So now we know.

Readers might remember we complained to then Minister for Agriculture Tony Burke that we were not given an opportunity to comment on the structure of the research project. The Modelling Approach, to be useful, must have benchmark data that reflects practice. To make an accurate assessment of potential – to discover the benchmark - one would expect the research would seek to create the most favourable conditions within which the highest increases possible could be recorded. Such a study could see all the following practices actioned at the same time on the same piece of land (among others).

1. Grazing Management as a basic practice to use animals to transform the soil.

2. Pasture Cropping to stimulate native grasses.

3. Compost Teas using local compost to feed the soil microbes.

4. Biological Inoculant to address microbial community gaps.

5. Soil Stimulants to awaken microbes to action.

6. Water Management to rehydrate the landscape, reduce erosion and build biomass.

7. (Perhaps) Deep-ripping to start, subsoiling ongoing.

No one does just one thing when trying to increase carbon. It is always a portfolio approach. And it is not 1 + 1 + 1 = 3. It = 111. Potentially.

Major General nails the science - somebody's naked

The current scientific potentials for soil C sequestration are based almost exclusively on conventional land management. (Why?) It remained our dirty little secret until an ex-Governor General let the cat out of the bag during Independent MP Rob Oakshott's Land Use Forum this week at Parliament House. "The carbon sequestration potential under conventional farming practices should not be seen as the maximum possible or be the drivers of policy, when we know that numerous innovators have been achieving greater bio-sequestration outcomes by some orders of magnitude," he told the forum. The ex-GG seemed to be suggesting that there are two realities - parallel universes. One offers hope; the other doesn't. (Ex-GG is Major-General Michael Jeffrey)

The Biofert Microbe Army Marches On

They fly beneath the radar, but the powers that be know they are there and are terrified of them: the Biological Farmers. They have abandoned conventional agronomy, deciding to nurture rather than destroy the soil dwellers which can drive nutrient cycling and soil health. They source their fertilisers, etc. from private consultancies much maligned by the official extension officers because they sell 'product'. Naturally they cannot see how conventional, government-funded agronomy also sells product, in their case on behalf of multinational agrichemical corporations. The battle for the future is taking place at the grass roots, where private agronomists like Guy Web of Gaia Consultancy serve a growing base of clients. Officially these farmers are being conned by snake oil salesmen. In reality, these are confident, intelligent farmers who trust their own ability to judge results in the field. Guy provides education for his clients at his annual Grain-Maker seminars where farmers hear from speakers such as microbiologist Dr Chandra Iyer from Delta Laboratories [pictured with Guy Webb]. Chandra told this year's audience in Forbes that Phosphorus-solubilising bacteria can provide 50% of a crops P needs from the nutrient locked up in soil. More snake oil? The GRDC launched its own P-solubilising microbe product last month in a joint venture with Novozymes Biologicals. Has the worm turned? The GRDC distributed to 37000 growers a paper by 5 CSIRO scientists called "The Hidden Cost of Soil Sequestration" which concealed the existence of P-solubilising bacteria - claiming growers could not afford to grow humus because N, P and other nutrients that make up humus cost too much to buy. The core proposition was cost to the farmer. No mention was made of the free source: free-living N and P-fixing bacteria. One of the authors has agreed that it was misleading. Read it in the GRDC's GroundCover newsletter, September 2008. Passed on with approval by official agronomists. Ask not for whom the snake oils.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

When the food runs out

"We talk about alternative energy; There is no alternative soil." Thus said Prof. John Crawford the University of Sydney Institute for Sustainable Solutions. He touched a nerve when he predicted that the world's soil will run out in 60 years recently in The Australian. "It is not to say that soil will disappear in 60 years, but when you consider the amount of topsoil lost in the past 100 years, that figure of 60 years starts not to look so daft."

The Australian report is optimistic about the reception that soil carbon methodologies will receive from the Domestic Offset Integrity Committee, the Government's gatekeeper: "A US Studies Centre conference in Sydney this month heard how Australia is at the forefront of the scientific understanding of soil carbon and how policy-makers here are ahead of the curve when it comes to thinking about ways to reward farmers for improving soil quality by building carbon content."

The urgency of the need for widespread adoption of soil carbon-friendly farm practices will eventually break down the barriers: John Crawford says soil health is at the root of most of the challenges that society faces in the next 30 years - food security, water supply, energy, climate change and health. "Soil is the basis for human health, and agriculture is the basis for civilisation and there is great historical evidence that most of the great ancient civilisations fell as a result of decline in their soil," he told The Australian. "What we need to find are incentives to start giving farmers the resources they need to manage the eco-system services that we've all taken for granted, and soil being the major part of that."

The shrinking family farm

The retiring Managing Director of the Grains Research Development Corporation, Peter Reading announced yesterday at the CCRSPI Conference that he expects 60% of his organisation's constituents will leave the industry in the next 10 years. He predicted that 15000 mainly family-owned farms would be absorbed into corporate-owned groups. (Twenty years ago there were 47000 grain growers in Australia. Today there are 25000.) These farmers paid an annual levy for the GRDC which says its primary objective is "to support effective competition by Australian grain growers in global grain markets, through enhanced profitability and sustainability."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Mike Kelly gets it right about soil

"We need to get carbon back in the soil to increase productivity," said Mike Kelly, Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Agriculture, Forestry & Fisheries, Joe Ludwig, when he was speaking to an Horticulture Australia session at the CCRSPI Conference 2011 yesterday. Mike comes from an old dairying family from the Bega Valley, so he understands the farmers point of view. But, when questioned about the Government's plans to invest in soil carbon science, he referred to the funds already committed, even though Dr Jeff Baldock has indicated that the current Soil Carbon Research Program has been allocated enough money to do a fifth of the research needed to get the trade in soil carbon offsets off the ground. Mr Kelly said the Government was looking to private investment to come to the party. But investors invest for a return and a return comes from margins from turnover. How can there be sufficient turnover if the return to the farmer is too low to attract their interest. They are too low because the data populating the models is scant, covering less than 20% of the soil sequestering activities, and the naturally low performers at that. At the same time, the Department of Climate Change & Energy Efficiency has indicated that it will take a 'cautious' approach to soil carbon. The Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry into Soil Carbon Sequestration also decided on a 'cautious' approach and put the whole issue on the back-burner until there is more science. The DCCEE looks like it thinks a couple more rounds of research is needed. This could consume another 5 or 10 years. (One year to get the funds, three years to conduct the trials, one year to get published = one cycle; two cycles needed.) If this is soil carbon at the speed of science, the question needs to be asked: Is food security really a first order issue? Is getting more carbon in the soil a major answer to food security? Who is serious about this?

Thursday, February 10, 2011


Monday, February 07, 2011

Lal congratulates Carbon Coalition

Australia leads the world in carbon farming, according to Professor Rattan Lal, America's most respected soil carbon expert. "I think that Australia's Government and farmers are way ahead more so than the United States... The awareness of policy makers and the tremendous interest from the farming community with the Carbon Coalition group here which is incentivising its colleagues and members community into that. I think Australia is going to set an example to the world community on this type of carbon trading and farming carbon, where farmers can buy and sell carbon, and trade it, and make carbon in soil another income stream for them through carbon credit trading." Lal was in Australia for the Soil Carbon Summit staged by the US Studies Centre.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Global Summit The Woodstock of Soil Carbon (Going down to Yasgur's Farm)

Robert Hill (John Howard's Environment Minister who negotiated the famous "Australia Clause" which allowed us to set a target of 108% in the first commitment period of Kyoto) is a genuine soil carbon believer. As Director of the US Studies Centre at University of Sydney, last week he hosted a 3 day summit of soil carbon specialists from around the world. From the US, Canada, UK, Europe, and NZ, they came to volunteer their time to discuss with each other how to achieve a breakthrough to save the soils of the world from disappearing. Professor Iain Young from UNE set the pace with a terrifying presentation on the scale of the problem. If the panda becomes extinct, we lose the pandas... But if we lose the last two species of soil microbe, we all die. Rousing stuff. Cut to the last presentation by Professor John Crawford of the University of Sydney and we 'stakeholders' hear the result of the experts' two days of brainstorming for a breakthrough. The draft of the "Soil Security Initiative" lifted the spirits. The Goals included raising the issue of soil carbon to water cooler conversation status. They also include soil sustainability through the change of land management by farmers. The strategies in the draft include increasing soil C to optimise soil function, improving engagement between farmers and scientists, establish a global network of researchers, devise incentives for farmers that will get them to manage soil carbon optimally, and finally build a new partnership between city and country. In between these two presentations, it became clear that "Incentivise farmers appropriately" does not necessarily include trading offsets - for three reasons: 1. The entire science community has been unable to record carbon and biomass increases that farmers have achieved. (Explained by the Norton Syndrome, explained in the upcoming first issue of Carbon Farmer magazine.) So they don't believe such increases are possible. We know two important things about the gap between farm and lab reality: no farmer uses just one management practice; they tend to use two or three together; this creates a level of complexity because of the interaction between the practices and the ecological nature of soil carbon's networks and multiple levels of relationships. Scientists tend to study one management change in a vacuum. Therefore they always have small amounts to report. 2. Almost all scientists believe that direct measurement is too expensive and consequently we will rely on models. "We're gonna have to trust the models, even though they aren't perfect," said Prof. Bill Parton from Colorado State University who specialises in modeling and has done so for 40 years. Conclusion: The models are being populated with this discounted data, which is further discounted by an uncertainty factor because it is not direct measurement, it's several steps away from reality, hence a discount for risk. The end point of this could be that only small amounts are offered to farmers in return for a change in culture and business practice and the demand they personally remain liable if the carbon escapes at any time during the next 100 years. No farmer is going to want the risk at those prices. Even at A$100/tonne - according to Prof. Lal the amount being budgeted for by geosequestration advocates - a farmer could expect to make $25/acre, which implies small amounts. 3. As reported in CSIRO’s magazine ECOS (September 2010), there is a consensus among scientists that soil offsets trading is inappropriate. It is common to hear the following: "The benefits of increased soil carbon levels are so great that farmers shouldn't need offsets." This was said from the podium at the Summit without challenge. Many scientists have trouble understanding farmers. You never hear a farmer saying such things.

But the bigger issue is this: NO FARMERS, NO OFFSETS... NO OFFSETS, NO DRAW DOWN.... NO DRAWDOWN, NO SOIL SECURITY... NO HOPE. Instead of obsessing the details, the powers that be should set themselves the goal of getting as many farmers as possible to sequester as much soil carbon as possible, as fast as possible. If soil is as important as they say, they would do whatever it takes to achieve the change en masse. The cost of measurement can and has been solved. By creative thinking... something Prof.Alex McBratney pleaded for from his colleagues. When there is a decent return from soil carbon sequestration, the innovations will flow. If it is left to education and extension about the benefits of soil carbon (respectfully, why has it not worked already?) or direct payment by government (which will last until the next election, maybe, or the next minister), it will resolve itself in the way Dr Andrew Rawson suggested during the panel session (pictured above): "I've heard it all before and nothing has happened of lasting value then. Why should this be different?" To meet those big hairy goals, there is going to have to be some out-of-the-box thinking. Einstein said we can't solve a problem using the same paradigm that caused it in the first place. To break through we must step out of the box and break the rules governing normal thought about the issue. Smash the paradigm. Dr Jeff Baldock declined our invitation to ‘break the rules’ and join us in stepping outside the box, citing the need to maintain integrity. (The event was expertly organised by Andea Koch.)

Farmers have little input into these deliberations. Their advisers (associations and institutes) take science at face value and recite lists of problems when what is needed are solutions. Which is why we have founded the Carbon Farming & Trading Association... to see soil carbon traded and farmers paid fairly for what they grow.

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