From dirt farming to green farming

Phillip Adams, on his regular ABC Radio program Late Night Live, recently spoke with two experts on the topic of carbon sequestration, reforesting the land and the future of our soils – extensively damaged through modern agriculture. Here is an edited transcript of the discussion*.

Phillip Adams: Tonight we’re going to look at how important soils and trees are in sequestering carbon; that is, removing the older or historic emissions from the atmosphere, something that only sequestration can achieve. To do this, I’m joined by Christine Jones, an internationally renowned groundcover and soil ecologist who is also the founder of the Australian Soil Carbon Accreditations Scheme. On the blower from Melbourne is Andrew Grant, who is currently the CEO of CO2 Group Ltd, the Australian market leader in the establishment and management of forest carbon sinks.

Christine, how much of Australia’s agricultural land has been stuffed since European settlement?

Christine Jones: 99.9%.

Phillip Adams: As little as that?

Christine Jones: Yes, I’ve just been on a bit of a road tour down through New South Wales, Victoria, across to South Australia and back, so I’ve seen a significant proportion of Australia in the last couple of weeks, and I didn’t see any land that wasn’t degraded in that time. So it was a bit sad.

Phillip Adams: Isn’t the problem, in fact, accelerating because of topsoil erosion and the impact of declining yields and forced farming?

Christine Jones: We certainly have lost massive amounts of topsoil. Geologists would say that most areas of Australia have lost between 50 cms and a metre of topsoil, which is a lot by anybody’s standards, and unfortunately we still are losing soil. Some more fragile areas are losing it more quickly than others, but I’d say just about everywhere I’ve been where we’ve got out in a paddock and had a look, there’s evidence of topsoil being lost right now.

Phillip Adams: Are we still losing about seven tonnes for every tonne of wheat we produce?

Christine Jones: We’re losing more; it’s around 15 tonnes of topsoil.

Phillip Adams: You’re kidding!

Christine Jones: No, that’s the average. There are places that are losing about 200 tonnes of topsoil for every tonne of wheat produced, now, this year.

Phillip Adams: I’m so depressed I don’t think I can go on with the program.

Christine Jones: Oh, but there is a good side to the story.

Phillip Adams: We’re going to get to that in just a second, but I also want you to tell them what’s happened over the last 50 years in terms of the organic carbon content of our agricultural earth.

Christine Jones: Well, that’s a sad story too, Phillip. That has been declining. Most of our losses in carbon came originally from losses in topsoil, and now that we’re down to farming in subsoil we’re doing a pretty good job of removing any organic material that’s in that as well. And of course, because that’s associated with life — life in the soil is carbon in the soil — our soils are losing their life and they no longer have the structure, and that means they don’t have the function, so they’re not functioning as we would expect soils to function.

Phillip Adams: I like one of your lines, that our catchments are really ‘drainments’. That’s one of the impacts, isn’t it?

Christine Jones: Yes, that has a lot to do with management; management of livestock and the way that we undertake our cropping. Most of these things can be fixed by fixing that space between our ears. It’s our association with the land, how we relate to the land, whether we understand it, nurture it, care for it, how we manage it. That’s where the solution is. Human creativity can overcome all of these issues.

Phillip Adams: You’ve got a philosophy, which is called YGF, Yearlong Green Farming. Reveal all.

Christine Jones: Yearlong Green Farming, that term relates to the fact that the only way to get carbon dioxide to be fixed as carbon and to be transferred into the soil — if we want to build soil carbon — you need to have green leaves to do that. Carbon dioxide is a gas circulating in the atmosphere, but carbon can also be humus in the soil or it can be wood in a tree, but to turn that gas into something solid you need a plant with green leaves to do that.

So Yearlong Green Farming just relates to finding… there’s a whole variety of ways that that could be done, to having green leaves present for as much of the year as possible. Obviously that’s going to be related to rainfall, but you need to have plants that can respond to rain at any time that it does fall. And one of the things that we’re seeing in the southern part of Australia (Victoria, South Australia and the southern part of Western Australia) is that rainfall patterns are changing quite significantly and there’s more of that rain falling in summertime, so that people need to have plants there in summer that can respond to that rain.

Phillip Adams: Christine, we had six or seven years of intractable drought at our place, and the only thing green that was left was cactus. You’re telling me that there are plants that we can grow during drought even?

Christine Jones: Yes, there are, and it relates to the perenniality of those plants. So if you’re looking at… now, when you say 'seven years of drought', when people talk about drought they mean reduced rainfall, you still do get some rainfall… you just have to find ways of making effective use of every drop that falls when there’s less drops falling.


100 years ahead

Phillip Adams: Well, I’ve given up personal hygiene, what more can a bloke do? Andrew, let’s move from perennial groundcover and talk about trees, because your company, CO2 Australia, is into establishing and managing forest carbon sinks. And yet I remember President Reagan telling us that trees were the problem.

Andrew Grant: Important in the carbon cycle is understanding the role that trees play in removing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and when you look at the causes of climate change, one of the biggest contributors has been deforestation at a global level, and Australia has been sadly one of the leaders. So whilst our gaze focuses on the Amazon and the destruction of Amazonian rainforest, and the depletion of temperate forest around the world, since settlement we’ve cleared over 20 million to 22 million hectares of land in our continent. And not surprisingly, one of the solutions, therefore, is reforestation, so as a business we’ve pioneered the commercial reforestation for the sole purpose of carbon sequestration.

Phillip Adams: You’re a fan of the Mallee eucalypt.

Andrew Grant: Again, one of our biggest inland forests in Australia was the Mallee forest, widespread over 16 million hectares before conversion to agricultural use.

Phillip Adams: Are we talking a particularly tough tree?

Andrew Grant: There’s 180 species of Mallee eucalypt, a very important group of eucalypts, and widespread, and what we’ve done is looked at which species of Mallee are most vigorous in their growth and respond to a variable rainfall. So, for example, in our plantings in New South Wales we had one year when we were establishing, the annual rainfall had dropped from 480 millimetres to 180 millimetres — so lower than Alice Springs had in a year — and even with such low rainfall we still got excellent establishment and growth.

We’re developing what I would describe as industrial scale plantings to partner with [major] companies in terms of managing their carbon emissions…

Phillip Adams: What have I got to do to have you knocking on my door getting me to sign a contract at our place?

Andrew Grant: You’d need to be in it for the long haul. Carbon trading is a funny kind of instrument, because there’s a whole range of particular points of proof and legal documents that landholders have got to be comfortable with. It’s not a short-term activity, and one of the most critical tests you’ve got to meet when you create one carbon credit through forestation, is that you have to demonstrate that that one tonne of carbon remains removed from the atmosphere for 100 years.

Phillip Adams: I’d be willing to sign that, but I won’t be around for most of that century.

Andrew Grant: No, so in terms of scheme compliance you’ve got to demonstrate legal title to the carbon in the trees, and so landholders that we partner with are having to undertake agreements that go beyond 100 years, that once the trees are in the ground they’re not removed.

Trees on farms

Phillip Adams: Andrew, what are some of the positive environmental benefits of integrating trees and farming systems?

Andrew Grant: They’re substantial, and the history of our business came about from many years of state and federal government research into dry land salinity, the curse that it is — and it’s particularly pronounced in Western Australia in the wheat belt region, but it’s also an issue in Victoria and New South Wales. And after tens of millions of dollars of research, surprise, surprise, the solution was that we should plant the trees, at least in part, back into the landscape from which they were removed… If you don’t have trees or perennial crops in the ground, what little rain you do get migrates across the landscape, leaches those salts from the soil and concentrates them in the lower lying areas.

Planting trees also improves the microclimate for crops. Often when a farmer is at harvest, a hot, dry wind can desiccate the crop and you can lose a very important proportion of your yield. It also provides shelter for livestock…

I’m an ecologist by training, and it’s surprising that in 2009 we’re still coming to terms with the fact that Australian soils don’t behave like northern hemisphere soils. Australian ecology is, strangely enough, a very young science, and we had to disprove through the ’70s that a lot of those learnings didn’t apply particularly well. We’ve got very ancient soils with unique soil/plant relationships. So even the Mallee, for example, can grow in very low fertility soils because it has this unique relationship with a fungus, what are called mycorrhizal fungi — and that’s a symbiotic relationship, so the fungus that’s growing on the roots makes what little nutrient that’s available in the soil available to the plants. But European crops can’t access those nutrients. So learning to farm and maintain our catchments in a way that’s harmonised with our natural systems is, I still think, our biggest challenge.

Phillip Adams: Andrew, back to forests. Under the kind of emissions trading scheme that the federal government seems to at least pretend to want to introduce, can your forest carbon sinks generate significant carbon credits?

Andrew Grant: Yes… my observation is that we’re fantastic at increasing our emissions profile, we’re great at debating the problem, but we’re pretty lousy about implementing large-scale solutions — and we don’t have the luxury of time. So some independent work done by Treasury, and also Professor Garnaut in his review*, made the observation that reforestation in Australia can contribute potentially up to 10 per cent of what the market would need and…

Phillip Adams: 10 per cent? While delivering other advantages?

Andrew Grant: Yes, and there’s been some fantastic work done out of the US on what’s called the climate wedge study, which looked at all known technological solutions in terms of meeting the international targets, and it’s best summarised as we need all known solutions plus some. So we need biochar, soil carbon, reforestation, renewable energy, energy efficiency and so forth…

We have the twin challenge of reducing our emissions profile as we go forward, and dealing with the consequences of historic emissions — scientists estimate that CO2 has a lifecycle in the atmosphere of about roughly 100 years. So even if we were to go to totally renewable energy as of tomorrow and reduce our industrial emissions, we still as an international community have to deal with legacy emissions. So things like soil carbon and reforestation really have an additional attribute in that regard…

Sequestering carbon in the soil

Phillip Adams: Christine, back to you. How does the Australian Soil Carbon Accreditation System work?

Christine Jones: The system was set up to demonstrate that farmers could sequester carbon in their soil… The point is, though, that we can’t sequester carbon in soil if we continue with the practices that we’ve used to lose it. So, in other words, the way we’ve conducted agriculture up until now has resulted in massive losses in soil carbon, and if we continue in those same techniques we will continue to lose carbon. You can’t put it back the same way that you lost it. So we have to have regenerative agriculture, we have to have innovative approaches to management, and that’s where things like Yearlong Green come in. Most of Australia, as you’ve indicated yourself, is not Yearlong Green, but it was Yearlong Green. We know that 200 years ago it was, and we know that we can farm in ways that will reinstate that.

Phillip Adams: I’d love to think that’s true. You’ve put forward a proposal to the government, Christine, for a green agriculture demonstration scheme. Can you quickly talk about that?

Christine Jones: The Green Agriculture Stewardship Scheme would be to establish 100 sites around Australia, where we would demonstrate that it is possible to sequester carbon, and to increase the moisture-holding capacity of the soil, and to increase the biodiversity, the microbial diversity in that soil… to grow food and to make the land more productive. And that would be in 100 different locations in different regions, all of those in the temperate part of Australia, in the agricultural zone, and just using different techniques, farmers sort of being creative in the way that they went about it. But they would be paid to do that; they would receive a stewardship payment for doing that, provided they met all of those criteria.

References and more information

* Large sections of the discussion concerning the current political debate on a national carbon emissions trading scheme, and also a section on biochar, have been cut for space. However, the full program is available for download at http://www.abc.net.au/rn/latenightlive/stories/2009/2655330.htm

** The Garnaut Climate Change Review was an independent study conducted by economist Professor Ross Garnaut, commissioned by Australia's Commonwealth, state and territory governments in 2007. For more details go to http://www.garnautreview.org.au/domino/Web_Notes/Garnaut/garnautweb.nsf

By: Phillip Adams

First published: December 2009

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