Thursday, February 11, 2010

Soil Carbon Primer or Soil Carbon Economics 101

The following article is worth a read, as are the attached comments.

A touch of reality.

But it does not say do not build up soil carbon. More soil carbon is in the interests of the land owner, the farmer, the pastoralist as well as everyone. reality, do not expect to make anything from it in a trading sense, but look to improved soil performance and agricultural performance as the payoff.

That is very real, and there is much evidence to show it to be so. Across states, countries, horticulture and agriculture. South Australia has a very active core of producers into this right now. And carbon sources are scarce in the state, with demand for compost materials outstripping supply. Other states are tending that way.

The article highlights a few overarching problems, although a significant impediment is not mentioned - the logistical costs of getting carbon into soil. Products such as biochar / agrichar offer some hope, as does the develoment of high density organic fertilisers, based on organic residuals that will lower transport costs. As would locally based sources of these types of products.

There is progress.

When soil carbon is not in the national interest

In sporting parlance, the Coalition plan has soil carbon peaking too early.

By making soil carbon a foundation stone of its policy, and a commodity that all Australian taxpayers will be investing in whether they like it or not, the Coalition has invited rigorous scrutiny of the issue.

I’m not sure that soil carbon is ready for that scrutiny.

Taxpayer-funded soil carbon trading is a concept that needs some massaging and makeup before it is shoved into the glare of prime-time TV, and the demolition job that will now result.

That’s regrettable, because the ideal of tradeable soil carbon is something worth working on.

As a big picture concept, soil carbon is brilliant: improve farm soil and save the world.

Such crusty organisations as the United Nations agree that soil carbon is a possible panacea for many of the world’s ills, from climate change to food and water scarcity.

Dedicated individuals have shown that it is real; that soil carbon levels can be lifted, sometimes substantially, in many soils under many farming enterprises.

The Chicago Climate Exchange (CCX) has demonstrated that the market will pay for soil carbon credits—albeit not much under the CCX model.

But while many can see the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, the route to it remains hazy.
It’s one thing for a farmer to build soil carbon: it’s another to have all the nation’s farmers building soil carbon and have them each interface with an accounting system that will give them credit for their efforts.

As has been tirelessly pointed out, soil carbon levels differ from soil to soil, farm to farm, paddock to paddock, season to season. Seen as a whole, the nation’s soil carbon is a complex and ever-changing picture.

What do you measure, and when, and how? And what happens when the carbon disappears in drought or fire? These are questions that tax intelligence and science, but there is a process that will help work through them.

A carbon market

Given a framework to operate in, a market will decide how much risk it is prepared to take on, the level of accountability it needs to support that risk, and pay accordingly.

A market also provides a learn-as-you-go environment. Initially, like most free enterprise, a soil carbon market is likely to have its share of shonks and cowboys on both sides of the fence. But the more money poured into the market, the more rigour will be demanded of it. Farmers, traders and buyers have the ability to adapt to each incremental tightening of the trading framework.

The Coalition has now plunked soil carbon blinking into the spotlight, and there’s not a free market in sight.

In fact, there is very little in sight in the two lines that the Coalition dedicated to soil carbon in its press release, except for this statement: “The Coalition will use the Emissions Reduction Fund to deliver about 85 million tonnes per annum of CO2 abatement through soil carbons by 2020 with an initial purchase of 10 million tonnes of abatement through soil carbons by 2012-13”.
(The Emissions Reduction Fund is a government body, kick-started with government/taxpayer funds. Businesses that push their emissions above a “business-as-usual” level pay the Fund a penalty; businesses that go below business-as-usual emissions get rewarded from the same fund.)

Which suggests that the plan is for you and me, the taxpayer, to pay you, the farmer, for sequestering carbon.

There is no provision for a market to provide a learn-as-we-go environment: instead, we will have government laying down legislation and a bureacracy attempting to govern an unreliable and messy commodity.

Government dabbling in areas that are the natural realm of private enterprise has always ended in tears.

Soil carbon promises tears for anyone who tries to harness it, public or private, but the private sector doesn’t mind a few knocks. Especially if they are being delivered to someone else.

In the meantime, the Coalition’s plan for us all to share in the ownership of the nation’s rebuilding of soil carbon will see a long queue of critics lining up to point out flaws in the soil carbon concept.

Yes, we are shy of a few answers, but that doesn’t mean that the idea of tradeable soil carbon is wrong. It’s all in the execution. Better that we hand it over to the free market cowboys who will tinker with it, soup it up, prang it—and in the end, make it work, if it’s workable.

Only then should the Coalition consider making it part of the national interest; but by then it won’t matter.

[Posted By: MATT CAWOOD on 8/02/2010 4:00:00 AM



Market-based schemes are certainly neat in theory. In practice, organised crime has made $7.4 billion in the last 18 months on the European ETS, selling bogus credits.
Posted by morrgo, 9/02/2010 12:30:34 PM, on Farm Weekly

Inviting halfwits to trade with buckets full of mud does have a certain attraction.
Posted by Mud pie, 9/02/2010 1:34:04 PM, on The Land

There are a lot of points raised here but the basic factors that agriculture is subsidized in many countries and not in ours begs the question how do our farmers do it well a lot of them are not? People are constantly telling me how expensive food is here but really it is not it is just what it costs. We the taxpayer may have to pay for it as the consumer cannot confront the added cost. Adding carbon through improved soil management, whatever the incentive, will improve the nations' health through increased micro nutrients provided through increased microbe activity that the presence of increased carbon,which goes hand in hand indicates. Of course there are accounting issues... when are there not. Some will benefit and some will not as much but we will all benefit by better health. I have 3 books being launched today on soil carbon issues for children and lay people at the Trinity Grammar school in Kew Victoria. You are welcome to attend. Please visit my website to see the books online
Posted by jewel, 10/02/2010 6:56:17 AM, on The Land

Imagine what Australia would be like if all the farms and land holdings had been managed as carbon farms for the past 10 years. Carbon rich soil, good ground cover, well-established vegetation, moisture retained in the landscape for far longer, less erosion, heathier soil microbes hard at work manufacturing more carbon and making more nutrients available for plants to grow. The cooling influence of vegetation sees microclimates joining microclimates and expanding to include districts and regions, forging feedback loops that cascade through mineral and energy cycles, unleashing processes long hidden that have unanticipated impact on production and productivity. And all the while this same vegetation and soil are extracting vast amounts of 'the airborne fraction' - the Legacy Load, the CO2 and other greenhouse gases that are the real cause of the climate chaos battering our planet. Imagine your own version of that. Then think what the place will be like if we have to wait another 10 years for carbon farming to become widespread. If the doubters and delayers get their way. If it's 'too hard' to try. If the cynics and the deniers win. Then we lose hope. And we are left with despair.
Posted by Michael Kiely, 10/02/2010 10:24:24 AM, on The Land

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Australian Red Meat is Carbon Efficient - near Carbon Neutral

This story has been reported in various forms recently, but actually finding the source material has been elusive.

But it will now soon be published in a peer reviewed credible there is a bit of cred behind it.

There are many ways to skin a cat goes the old adage............reporting carbon figures is a lot like that! Depends on what is and is not counted, and where and how, and what might be excluded or where 'general" data is used as a substitue in the absence of any real world trial data.

However, this recent quite rigorous examination of pastoral land production of red meat shows that it is a carbon efficient means of production. Most of Australia's red meat is produced in this style, with smaller amounts on slightly higher productivity pastures that receive fertiliser.

It will not stop the counter arguments about cattle and sheep being land vandals, gross methane producers, etc etc. But is clearly shows the production is carbon efficient, and can be made even better......with considerable opportunities for being carbon positive, ie sequestering carbon. Further R and D is also being conducted into improving nett methane emissions from livestock through a range of advanced technologies. But lets not forget, that higher plant digestibility generally means lower methane emissions too. This can be a serious issue with lower inherent digestibility in many tropical forage plants, although most legumes are better.......yet tropical legumes seem a bit out of favour with grasses the now preferred plant type commonly.

Solid evidence and worth applause from all those in the pastoral industry.

And please note.........the pastoral industry has actually reduced greenhouse emisions since 1990. Hmmm......haven't sheep and cattle numbers also fallen since then too??


Red meat proved to be carbon efficient

AUSTRALIAN red meat production is much more carbon-efficient than often reported in the media, says an important study by the University of NSW.

The three-year Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) study of production systems in Victoria, NSW and WA showed carbon emissions from sheep and cattle meat production were among the lowest in the world.
It showed sheepmeat produced 7-8kg of CO2-equivalent per kg of meat (carcase weight) while for beef, values ranged from 8-11kg.

Based on figures from the research, eating red meat three times weekly results in 164kg to 258kg of CO2 emissions a year - vastly different to claims of emissions up to 1.5 tonnes.

The research will be published soon in the Environmental Science and Technology Journal.

Meat and Livestock Australia managing director, David Palmer said the "credible and reliable data" gave an accurate reflection of carbon emissions for Australia's meat production systems. "Most Australian cattle and sheep are raised in a natural environment feeding on pastures with little or no use of fertilisers and it is unfortunate that until now inaccurate and exaggerated figures have been used," he said.

LCA quantifies the important environmental impacts of all processes in a production system, but does not take into consideration the ability of soil and trees on farms to absorb carbon.

A recent Queensland Government report on total carbon balance on grazing lands in the state with 47pc of Australia's cattle production, found they were close to carbon-neutral and in the near future might be a net carbon sink. "Importantly the new figures give us a baseline from which to continue to improve the industry's performance in regards to emissions. However they do not paint a complete picture and should never be looked at in isolation from other environmental factors such as water and biodiversity," Mr Palmer said.

Most people were not aware that the livestock sector was the only production industry in Australia to have reduced greenhouse emissions since 1990. The Australian Greenhouse office said it had reduced emissions by 7.5pc, compared with increases in other industries such as transport and electricity, up 26.9pc and 54.1pc respectively, he said. "We now have a better basis to track improvement in the future."

The UNSW study shows that when assessed across the supply chain from paddock to processing, more than 80pc of carbon emissions come from the natural process of digestion of feed by the animal.

It was for this reason that MLA had co-invested with the Federal government and other partners in a $28 million program covering 18 research projects looking at how to reduce emissions from livestock.

The Australian Lot Feeders Association noted the UNSW report addressed the popular misconception that beef feedlots were energy intensive and worse for the environment than other forms of beef production. "The report concluded that beef from lotfed cattle had 50pc and 38pc lower methane emissions than organic and grassfed beef production respectively," ALFA president Jim Cudmore said.

This was because of superior nutrition and digestibility of feedlot rations and meant that cattle slaughter weights could be achieved at a younger age.

By improving the efficiency of beef production (through increasing the proportion of feed energy that is converted to beef) lower methane emissions per unit of product were obtained, he said. "Notably, this goal can be achieved by both grain and grassfed production systems. In addition, given that grainfed cattle spend the majority of their lives in a grassfed environment prior to feedlot entry, and consumers rarely differentiate between the two, the issue of improving the beef industry's overall emissions profile is something that the sector as a whole is looking to address."

[partially sourced Qld Country life]

Monday, February 08, 2010

North Australia Land and Water Taskforce Reports

Now available here -

There are additional reports on the main web site see -

It is not as gloomy as early media reports were indicating.

Mosaic development and some modest expansion are likely, but a more detailed examination of the report is still to come. Local commentators in the NT are mostly positive, especially those closely connected to industry. A few politicians are not positive, but I would suggest they are not being realists.

As a player in north Australia for 30+ years, I among many, realised a long time ago that broad sweep development was highly improbable. There would never be the broad expanse of a US or Canadian prairie type development for agriculture. Tyranny of distance will nearly always influence issues - smaller, dense, high priced commodities would drive agriculture, or the opposite - large areas of ultra low cost production - typically livestock production, were seen many years ago as the likely options. This report seems to confirm that, with a lot of options in between or influencing the structure of the business model. In this scenario, then may be little that may have changed.

However, indigenous participation will increase significantly in coming years, across a range of different models of involvement. That will be a positive thing. Yet the north will remain mostly lightly inhabited, and no doubt those open spaces may be inviting to outsiders.

There is more R and D to do if the vision is to realised.

No doubt the report will be debated across north Australia, at least in the near term.

BUT...........action to capitalise on the outcomes and actually implement development is still urgently needed. Not necessarily today.........but soon.

Large Scale Northern Rural Development to Be Damned - Not Dammed

Early media reports [ see below] seem to have really put the kybosh on large scale northern agricultural development.

No, the greenies did not seems the resources are just not adequate.

There will be many views about the report, and whether it will seriously curtail even limited development and the expenditure of further R and D funds in the region. Will the region be limited to few people and an extraction mentality forever? A place to visit and never live and work even? More fly in fly out operations in almost everything?

Unfortunately the report is not yet available..........we need to rely on advance media speculation and comments from inside players. Many who do have a vested interest in Australian temperate agriculture.

But see the tenor of the early media materials...........


NORTHERN Australia will never become an important food bowl to replace the drought-stricken Murray-Darling, despite massive irrigation plans and a billion litres of rain a year, a Rudd government taskforce has concluded.

The expert panel, comprising the Northern Australian Land and Water Taskforce, will today release a landmark report into economic opportunities for the northern parts of Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia that places new and strict limits on the region's potential for agricultural production.

There is some good news amid the gloomy outlook for Top End food production, with the report predicting that northern Australia's billion-dollar beef industry - in which cattle live on native grasses - will more than double production by 2030.

Committee member Stuart Blanch said yesterday: "Northern Australia can never be a food bowl for Southeast Asia or anywhere else because we just don't have enough water. But we can be world's best-practice environment managers and beef producers; there are thousands of indigenous jobs to be created."

Referring to a water study by the CSIRO, the taskforce concludes the growth of agricultural production in the north will be limited, despite rainfall of up to 2m a year in some areas. By 2030, there will be less water available in the north than there was in 2000, the taskforce predicts.

Though the north receives about a billion litres of rain a year, equivalent to eight-and-a-half times the annual runoff in the Murray-Darling Basin or 2000 times the capacity of Sydney Harbour, about 20 per cent of it enters the rivers and streams and about 15 per cent recharges groundwater resources. The remaining 65 per cent enters the soil and is absorbed by plants.
"Despite these huge volumes of water, the north can be described as being water-limited," the report states. The taskforce says this paradox arises because there is almost no rain for the remaining six months."Evaporation and plant transpiration is so high throughout the year that, on average, for 10 months of the year, there is very little water to be seen," it states.
"Most rainfall occurs near the coasts and on floodplains, so much of it runs quickly to the sea, making it hard to capture."

The CSIRO water study, presented to the taskforce last year, found there was not enough water to irrigate large swaths of land in the north without doing major damage to the rivers and the surrounding environment. The report rules out more dams on environmental grounds and finds the maximum area that can be irrigated from groundwater in the north is 60,000ha, about three times the area currently irrigated from groundwater.

It also estimates the portion of the population employed by the government in northern Australia will drop to 25 per cent in that time, compared with 40 per cent in 2000, as new oil and gas ventures emerge in the Kimberley and bauxite developments in Cape York contribute to export income.

Two out of three people in the north of Australia will be employed in either the oil and gas sector, mining, conservation, fisheries, agriculture, tourism and recreation or in the management of the land and sea within 20 years, the taskforce predicts.

This will reduce indigenous disadvantage through education, training and employment in regions where up to 50 per cent of the population will be Aboriginal.

Reaction to the taskforce's predictions about food production are likely to be watched closely in Western Australia, where the second stage of the Ord River irrigation scheme is under way near the Kimberley town of Kununurra. The Rudd government has promised $195 million towards the project to irrigate about 8000ha of land for agriculture, and the Barnett government will contribute $220m. There are 14,000ha of land from the first stage of the Ord River scheme producing fruits, vegetables, seeds and sugarcane.

Despite reporting considerable constraints, the taskforce predicts food production could still grow by 40 per cent within 20 years in northern Australia.

The taskforce suggests expanding agricultural production by developing small-scale mosaic agriculture. It also recommends intensifying production in the beef industry through the irrigated production of fodder crops across the north. An expanded beef industry also provides the potential for sustainable wealth creation in indigenous communities," the taskforce found.

[lower section partially sourced from several media reports early on 8 february 2010]