Thursday, November 27, 2008

Soil Carbon Reality Check

Following up from the previous post, there has been additional material form the recent Soil Carbon conference in Australia, that does offer some sort of a reality check. Nothing that cannot be factored into the equation, but that does need some thinking about.

The message from high-profile scientists Dr Jeff Baldock and Professor Peter Grace was clear: soil carbon is intrinsically valuable, but on current understanding it seems unlikely to yield a meaningful return to farmers in a carbon trading scheme.

Dr Baldock, a leading CSIRO soil scientist, and Prof. Grace, a climate change specialist at the Queensland University of Technology, offered a contrary point of view against the prevailing mood of optimism at last week's Carbon Coalition's Carbon Farming Conference in Orange, NSW.

Prof. Grace observed that soil carbon will be traded under a scheme that also accounts for emissions—and right now, the farming ledger balances out with carbon inputs/outputs firmly in the red. He showed modelling of emissions from a 400 hectare Darling Downs farm, with 300ha of crop, 12ha of trees, and some cattle, which collectively resulted in 416 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalents (CO2e) per year.

As a rule of thumb, mainstream science considers soil carbon sequestration potential in the more fertile, high-rainfall parts of eastern Australia to be around 500 kilograms per hectare per year.

The reality might be considerably less.

"You can't just sell the carbon," Prof. Grace said. "You have to look at the whole farming system and your profitability. A whole farming systems approach is essential—all gases have to be taken into account."

Carbon isn't just carbon, Dr Baldock told the conference, and the type of carbon a soil contains determines whether the carbon has a role in a trading scheme. At one end of the scale is the "labile" carbon pooled in plant residue and fragmented organic matter, which is quickly cycled and lost back to the atmosphere; at the other end is humus and charcoal, which lock away carbon and other nutrients. "We can induce big variations in the carbon across various pools by changing farm management," Dr Baldock said.

The challenge for farmers looking to rebuild their carbon is ensuring that it is rebuilt in the right pools.
In an modelling example shown by Dr Baldock, 18 years of soil carbon rundown under one farming practice was rebuilt in 10 years by another farming practice—but the carbon lost was largely humus, and the carbon that was rebuilt was in more labile pools. Dr Baldock also noted that building carbon requires nutrient, which comes at a cost.

While carbon has been run down on most Australian farms, in decomposing it released other nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus, which masked the detrimental effects of carbon loss. In an example, a soil that started with a carbon content of 3pc was progressively run down to 1pc carbon.
The nitrogen released as the carbon decomposed came to 2.8t/ha.

"I can turn this on its head," Dr Baldock said. "If I want to build carbon from 1pc to 3pc, I have to find nitrogen."

Soil organic matter has a consistent carbon-to-nitrogen ratio, which depends on the parent material. As the amount of carbon grows, so must the amount of nitrogen to ensure the ratio is maintained.
"That nitrogen can come from legumes, it doesn't have to come from bag fertiliser. "The important message to take away is that to build carbon, you have to supply nutrients. You can’t build one without the other."

Dr Baldock suggested that carbon trading would not be a natural fit for all farmers.

Deciding to build carbon, and keep it there under contract, would demand changes in production systems. Before making the change, farmers would have to consider their profitability, and their willingness to incur the liability of contracted carbon that might compromise their flexibility to change production systems in response to new circumstances.

"There's potential there, but there's a lot of bits and pieces we need to put together before we can decide whether it's appropriate for a given landowner."

However, Dr Baldock and Prof. Grace agreed that increased soil carbon was a highly desirable objective in itself for any farming system.

"Soil carbon is the key to long-term profitability," Prof. Grace said. "If you've got it, that's your superannuation."

So the options seem to be to add long term source materials - products such as agrichar and similar but in the short term cycling materials suxh as those from crop residues. This issue does have a lot to work through yet, although one message does seem very clear.........increase your soil carbon!

[partially sourced from Matt Cawood report - Queensland Country Life]

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The True Value of Soil Carbon

Carbon trading systems must be careful not to undervalue soil carbon, according to a leading soil scientist, because the true productivity value of soil carbon to farmers may be hundreds of dollars per tonne.

Dr Rattan Lal, a professor and director of the Carbon Management & Sequestration Center at Ohio State University, was a keynote speaker at last week's Carbon Farming Conference in Orange, NSW, hosted by the Carbon Coalition. He indicated that in order to commoditise carbon, a realistic value must be established that reflects its value to farmers and society.

When Dr Lal looked at humus, of which carbon is the main component, and teased out the nutrients and water typically held within a kilogram of humus, he arrived a value of US$250 a tonne on today’s prices. BUT…..initial estimates of carbon's starting value under the Australian Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme (CPRS) are around $20 per tonne. That is a big disparity!

Farmers, and society at large, also benefit from the fact that soils with high levels of organic carbon (humus, as shown in the photo) are resistant to erosion, deliver less pollution to waterways, biodegrade chemical pollutants and buffer climatic extremes.

"Whether the trading process can provide farmers with all of that value remains to be seen, but undervaluing a resource can lead to its abuse " Dr Lal told the conference via an internet video link.
If soil carbon ultimately earns a high price, it raises questions about the value and use of crop residues that contribute to soil carbon formation. Cellulosic ethanol plants that will draw on crop residues are being built in the United States, and the technology is under discussion in Australia.

However, Dr Lal observed that the world's estimated four billion tonnes of annual crop residues should play an important part on the farming process. In Dr Lal's estimation, those global residues contain 30 million tonnes of nitrogen, 3.5mt of phosphorus and 47mt of potassium—and crop residue contains about 40pc carbon.

His initial studies were mainly concerned with conservation tillage and use of crop residues for erosion management in the tropics. Attempting to increase the cover component of the Universal Soil Loss Equation, in effect, and improving establishment. It worked! But the use of residues also improved the soil carbon levels, in the medium and longer term. That improves soil quality.

With residue left in the field rather than removed, soil carbon levels were 0.2pc higher, soil pH was 5.1 under residue and 4.6 without, and that corn yields on a field sown into residue were 2.7t per hectare compared to 1.5t/ha in a bare field. This data is based on studies of crop residues in a Nigerian corn system. Soil quality is significantly influenced by residue retention. There are also additional studies from both temperate and tropical areas that draw the same conclusions.

Dr Lal has also extrapolated how improving soil carbon might affect food security for the 854 million people currently considered "food insecure". In 2000, the global food deficit was considered to be 13 million tonnes; by 2010, this will have risen to 22 mt, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. By increasing soil carbon levels in the 532 million hectares of agricultural soils in developing countries by a modest one tonne per hectare per year, Dr Lal calculated an extra 30-50mt of food could be produced per year.

This is a potent message and adds to increasing pressure to better use the millions of kilograms disposed of as recycled organic material in Australia each year. While there are some logistical issues in returning this material to rural areas for use, they need adressing to ensure the material is used effectively.

Soil carbon is vital.......ensure there is more of it!

Monday, November 24, 2008

Soil Erosion a Threat to Food Production in China

Soil erosion in Australia is a serious issue. The environmental brigade will tell you how dire it is, any where and every where. That is an gross over the top attention grabber, for erosion is a natural process closely associated with geological processes over countless millenia. What we need is a system to minimise that soil loss particularly in the most productive land around Australia, or anywhere else in the world too.

Many will argue that the National Landcare program and the myriad action programs at all levels, now operational for about 25 years, has made significant gains in managing the Australian landscape processes, and reducing erosion. At least we like to think so, but it is probably fair to say some good progress continues to be made. The program has been copied and developed in other countries too - notably The Phillipines and South Africa.

While we in Australia might feel good, it is a timely reminder to consider recent information emerging from China. Things are pretty grim in relation to erosion. Picture the giant erosional gullies of the loess plateau......most people have seen those. But it gets worse.

Over a third of China's land is being scoured by serious erosion that is putting its crops and water supply at risk, a three-year nationwide survey has found.

Soil is being washed and blown away not only in remote rural areas, but near mines, factories and even in cities, the official Xinhua agency cited the country's bio-environment security research team saying.

Each year some 4.5 billion tonnes of soil are lost, threatening the country's ability to feed itself.

If the loss continues at this rate, harvests in China's northeastern breadbasket could fall 40 percent in 50 years, adding to erosion costs estimated at 200 billion yuan ($29 billion) in this decade alone.
"China has a more dire situation than India, Japan, the United States, Australia and many other countries suffering from soil erosion," Xinhua quoted the research team saying.

Beijing has long been worried about the desertification of its northern grasslands, and scaled back logging after rain rushing down denuded mountainsides caused massive flooding along the Yangtze in the late 1990s. But around 1.6 million square km of land are still being degraded by water erosion, with almost every river basin affected. The photo shows erosion and bare soils on the loess plateau in China's North East.

Another 2.0 million square km are under attack from wind, the report said.

The survey was the largest on soil conservation since the Communist Party took control of China in 1949.

If you have been to Beijing, you will certainly have experienced the yellow skies from the soil blowing from the west, that irritates the eyes, common in the late winter and early spring periods. Or the steady soil clouds lifted from bare soils in Outer Mongolia, not even that far from Beijing itself. We most certainly could not get farmers to change their thinking and even consider conservation tillage in projects we worked on in China during the late 1990s.

The following two photos show some of the awesome erosion seen on the loess plateau of China. It can be staggering!

A China with food production problems is worth pondering. Also adds some pondering to be considered along with the analysis on "The Politics of Hunger" in a recent post.

[lower two photos used with permission. Thanks. Copyright- Cathy Dowd]

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Politics of Food [and Agriculture]

A recent article that was reproduced in The Australian Financial Review in the Review section last Friday [ November 14] makes for interesting reading for anyone involved with agriculture and food production.

It was written by an eminent professor of economics at Oxford, so one could expect a fair bit of credence.

In the article he literally takes apart the spurious arguments over current thinking about food production and modern agriculture, and makes a seriously compelling case to jolt western civilisation out of the current complacency over world food production. Intertwined with this is a demolition of the current false thinking about GM crops, organic production and in which he pushes hard for some serious effort at improving food production in especially Africa. And of course he also berates the false and distorting subsidies given to agriculture in both Europe and the US.

Not too much gets away free. is an excellent read and he makes some compelling issues.

The original full article is here -
and it is definitely worth a read if you are even remotely interested in a role for modern agriculture.

As he sees it, agriculture in a number of countries is the industry to be in. Being an agricultural scientist, I would agree.

Friday, November 14, 2008

FINALLY - GM cotton comes to the Ord

The Western Australian government has had a touch of reality, at last. With around 90% of Australia's cotton producers already using GM cotton, reality has come. These existing GM cotton growers have not had terrible issues, so the WA government has issued a media statement in which they accept the potential for GM cotton on the Ord.

There has been a lot of agronomic research to show that GM cotton can be grown successfully in the north west of Australia, it will not be a long term weed problem and that insects can be managed successfully and cheaper.

NOW........will the Northern Territoy government also accept reality and also lift their ban on GM cotton? That will be interesting.

Using GM cotton and restarting cotton production in the NW of Australia may just be the kick start needed to really push the development of the area. Combine cotton with other products already grown and the viability of the region may be significantly enhanced.

The media statement is reproduced below.

It is a GOOD day!

Fri 14 November, 2008

New potential for GM cotton production in the East Kimberley
Portfolio: Agriculture and Food
The State Government will lift the moratorium on the commercial production of genetically modified cotton at East Kimberley’s Ord River Irrigation Area.

Agriculture and Food Minister Terry Redman made the announcement in Kununurra today, breaking Western Australia’s moratorium on all large-scale growing of GM cotton.

Mr Redman said the decision had been taken after extensive GM cotton trials in the Ord River area during the last decade, under the supervision of the Office of the Gene Technology Regulator, Department of Agriculture and Food and CSIRO.

“The trial crops have been very successful from a production point of view, yielding almost 11.5 bales a hectare,” he said.

“Over the years, trials of GM cotton in the Ord have frequently out-yielded Australian production by about 10 per cent.

“These trials have shown that there are no agronomic problems, including the control of insects, in growing GM cotton in the Ord. Importantly, there have been no environmental concerns with the crops.”

The Minister said the issue of GM cotton had been widely canvassed by Governments with consultative processes within industry, the community and traditional owners of the land, the Miriuwung Gajerrong people.

“The go-ahead for GM cotton adds further impetus to the potential for an expanded Ord irrigation area. Irrigation and land planning issues have been very carefully considered,” he said.

“The Government is currently looking at the East Kimberley Development package which includes expanding the Ord irrigation area from 13,000ha to more than 50,000ha of cropped land in the long term.”

More than 90 per cent of Australia’s cotton production was already GM.

“In the 1970s, WA tried growing non-GM cotton and it was a disaster, with the plants infested with pests,” the Minister said.

“Growers had to spray pesticides up to 40 times each season. In comparison, our GM cotton trials have only required two spray applications with insecticides that are far more environmentally-friendly than the now banned DDT used in the 1970s.”

Mr Redman said GM cotton should become a major new profitable industry for WA.

“The previous State Government-appointed reference group on GM crops released a report last year which estimated that GM cotton could be worth more than $50million a year to the East Kimberley, generating more than 200 full-time jobs,” he said.

“GM cotton is an alternative crop option which could help secure the future of the Ord as a major agricultural region. Cotton growers facing severe water shortages in the Eastern States will also have an alternative site that is well supplied with water all year round and we may see some of their operations move to the Ord, providing relief to the Murray Darling system.

“Today’s decision to allow commercial production of GM cotton in the Ord provides growers with a new opportunity to re-launch the cotton industry for this State, this time with the likelihood of much better outcomes.

“I recognise the complexity of issues surrounding the introduction of GM crops and I believe in the delivery of market choice. The Government is continuing to look at the risk management issues surrounding GM canola, with no decision to allow trials as yet.

“Labelling is clearly one aspect of ensuring consumers are provided with adequate information to enable them to choose between GM and non-GM food products.

“Australia has a rigorous food safety system that stipulates labelling requirements for GM foods. However, I am keen to investigate whether there is opportunity for improvements to the current labelling laws and compliance of those laws to better assist in consumer choice.”

Friday, November 07, 2008

Bioplastics from Sugarcane

The Cooperative Research Centre for Sugar Industry Innovation through Biotechnology (CRC SIIB) today announced strong progress in providing new and diverse bioproduct opportunities for the Australian sugar industry in their 2007/08 Annual Report released in late October, 2008.

The CRC SIIB 2007/08 achievements include:
- together with its American-based member company Metabolix, the CRC SIIB reported the production of sugarcane containing 3.5% PHA (polyhydroxy alkanoate – a new class of biodegradable plastics). The CRC SIIB has made significant progress in producing bioplastics in sugarcane plants that can be used for a wide range of commercial applications and confirming that sugarcane is a preferred feedstock (over corn and sugar beet) for the production of bioproducts.

The chief executive of the CRC SIIB, Dr Peter Twine says he is now looking for investors to turn the research into a viable business venture. He hopes biodegradable plastic extracted from sugar cane will be used to produce a multitude of products in around five years time. "It could be used for any form of plastic where you want to get rid of it at the end of the day," he said. "Mulching in agriculture, mobile phone cases, beer keg tops. It can be injection-moulded or it can be created into sheet plastic."

Sugarcane has high biomass yields, significantly greater than competitive crops, which then offers a major cost advantage to sugarcane with high bioplastics yields. Combine that with other uses for sugarcane and maybe Australian biotechnology has a real winner. There is likely to be greater returns from this technology rather than the current simplistic process of producing ethanol from sugarcane.

Some additional detail is on the CRC website

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Agriculture, Australia and Obama

The US election is now done and dusted but the real hard yards for Australian agriculture are about to start. The US farm policies of the Republican and Democrat parties are different, very different.

McCain was considered to be very, very pro free market. He detested subsidies and mandates.
His disdain for farm and ethanol subsidies was well known.

Even so, the Obama campaign's 13-page document, 'Rural Leadership for Rural America', has been widely read in the US farm belt - traditional Republican territory.

Obama supports making sure that "(US) farm programs are strong and are targeted to support family farmers". This might extend to a better deal for US farm workers, currently usually poorly paid, rather than, or as part of a better deal for farm owners. And would an improved environmental focus on farms necessarily be a bad thing anyway? Surely a US type Landcare program might be a good, not bad development.

An Obama Administration would cap farm payments at $250,000, apparently, through regulations, since Congress has failed on that issues on several tries. "Every President since Ronald Regan has had the authority to close this loophole without additional action by Congress but has failed to act," according to Obama's campaign statement.

The Obama camp has close ties to the National Farmers Union, led by president Tom Buis, who is now one of the most influential agricultural lobbyists in Washington, DC. His name is often mentioned for the short list from which Obama will select the new US Agriculture Secretary. One of McCain's top advisers, former US Department of Agriculture deputy secretary Jim Moseley, points out that the Democrat House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid could advance extreme environmental agendas with no fear of a White House veto. Moseley worries that unchecked environmental regulations could put the brakes on some US-based rural investment.

Those investors might wait out the first Obama term, but not a second, before they move offshore, Moseley told US journal Feedstuffs. This is somewhat different to the actual investment already occurring in alternative energy systems in the US and planned. Recent US reports show that alternative energy investment has surged, even without the T Boone Pickens enormous wind farm planned for the western US.

With regard to flex fuel standards, Obama believes "all new vehicles sold in the US should be flexible-fuel vehicles" - according to his campaign statement.

Farm Progress, a Rural Press/Fairfax Media subsidiary in the United States, recently posed a series of agricultural policy questions to the Obama and McCain camps late in the long campaign.

Here is an extract from Obama's responses about farming, fertiliser and fuel for American farmers.
Q: In trade agreements, are there ways to level the playing field in regard to individual countries' regulations, such as employee wages and conditions and chemical use?
• Obama: "For too long, Washington has put the interests of free trade ahead of broader concerns about our economy and American workers.
"I will break from the failed trade policies of the last eight years. "As president, I will ensure that our trade agreements include strong, enforceable labour and environmental provisions in the core of the agreements."
Q: What would be your policy concerning greenhouse gases? How would it affect farmers? Would you pursue approving the Kyoto Treaty?
• Obama: "As a result of climate change… I support implementation of an economy-wide cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary: 80pc below 1990 levels by 2050.
"This market mechanism has worked before and will give all American consumers and businesses the incentives to use their ingenuity to develop economically effective solutions to climate change.
"This will transform the economy, especially in rural America, which is poised to produce more renewable energy than ever before, creating millions of new jobs across the country.
"I will also develop domestic incentives that reward forest owners, farmers and ranchers when they plant trees, restore grasslands or undertake farming practices that capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, creating new opportunities for rural America to help solve the climate crises."
Q: If you're elected president, the most recent US Farm Bill won't expire in your term. Would you do anything in the next four years to address any problems you see with the current legislation?
• Obama: "It's important to implement the 2008 Farm Bill in keeping with the intent of Congress."
Q: What are your views on the food vs. fuel debate?
• Obama: "Corn-based ethanol has been an important transitional technology in helping make America more energy independent.
"However, it has limitations, and that's why I am committed to accelerating the transition to advanced biofuels.
"I support an array of policies to speed the transition away from corn and toward low-carbon, sustainable alternatives that do not rely on food crops.
"There are many flavours of ethanol - different feed stocks, different production approaches, different carbon footprints.
"In contrast, there is only one flavor of oil - expensive, polluting and largely imported.
"As president, I will work to phase in at least 2 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol into the national fuel supply by 2013."
Q: What steps might you take as president to stabilise fertiliser prices, which have doubled and tripled?
• Obama: "A major key to stabilising fertiliser prices is addressing the skyrocketing costs of natural gas.
"Through my policies for continued domestic production combined with investments in efficiency, we will take some of the pressure off the resource and increase supply, bringing costs down."

There are some mixed messages, but it does sound as if diversfying rural America into incorporating environmental, energy related and new technology jobs [eg cellulosic ethanol] is part of the policy..........and that sounds promising. Democrats are somewhat protectionist, but don't we have a free trade deal with the US? That was supposed to be a useful piece of legislation. BUT....getting the Doha trade talks restarted, well, might be a different story, except that one of the winners would be LDCs, including African food producers. That might resonate with the new President elect.

US Farm Progress group, and Feedstuffs, divisions of Fairfax Media
partially sourced: and

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Compadre Zoysia at the Waterfront Project - Darwin

The first areas of the project and nearby areas have now been planted with Compadre Zoysia.

Outside of the Waterfront Project, areas around a roundabout as you enter the area, were planted, using subsurface drip irrigation as the irrigation system, with small under tree type sprinklers at establishment. This has had a few problems, including the odd large semi-trailer driving over the planted areas! But it seems that we have been able to overcome these issues, and now about 8 weeks after sowing, there is a good healthy grass cover of Compadre zoysia. Some areas do not yet have full cover - that is expected, but other areas have already a good, dense cover of zoysia.

The first few areas within the Waterfront Project proper have recently been sown. Seedlings are still small and immature, but cover is ok. This is now about 3 weeks after sowing. As expected, there are some grass weeds and these are being dealt with through a combination of use of glyphosate in wick wiping, and hand pulling. It is too soon to mow the areas, but mowing regularly will be part of the overall management program that ensures satisfactory cover in 14 - 16 weeks.