Soil Carbon – New Zealand Slips Behind Australia
SOIL CARBON – NEW ZEALAND SLIPS BEHIND AUSTRALIA
Australia, unlike New Zealand, takes the issue of climate change seriously. By watering down the Emissions Trading Scheme below even homeopathic levels, the New Zealand Government subsidises agriculture and hands Australia a future competitive advantage.
Lobbying by the forestry sector, a heads in the sand approach from the pastoral sector, and the capture of science funding by agri-business have seen New Zealand slip further behind Australia and look set to miss the bus on the opportunities offered by managing soil carbon.
The science is simple enough, and that is a key part of the New Zealand problem. Crown Research Institutes, which do taxpayer funded science, are required by law to do science in the public good AND turn a commercial profit for the Government. The latter is easily measured, the former is not. Patents on scientific discoveries and new technology hold the promise of immediate commercial gain, but prevent public disclosure for years.
Small improvements in farm management practises are much less able to be captured and privatised. However, it is these incremental improvements in farm productivity, employment, and exports that have driven the NZ economy for over 100 years. Research farms and farmer field days have been replaced by high security GM facilities and “technology transfer” to farmers. CRIs such as Landcare are new and have no history of either running research farms or farmer field days.
The results of this agribusiness
approach are stark enough, with a rural NZ debt of about $48
billion and a hidden environmental impact cost estimated in
2010 at $0.41 of every $1 revenue earned for NZ business and
likely to be a lot higher in agriculture.
eCOGENT, a small Waikato based company, is pioneering the practicalities of auditing soil carbon and changing farming practices to create measurable and sustainable increases. The auditing method is based on a farmer friendly visual soil assessment method developed in NZ by Graham Shepherd while working for the DSIR, but which could not easily be commercialised or privatised.
Peter Floyd from eCOGENT points out that an increase in soil carbon on NZ dairy farms by 1.5% would be sufficient to offset our other greenhouse gas emissions. Even better news is that the farmers working with Peter Floyd and others are finding that increases in soil carbon are not only possible but also improve productivity.
Two conferences in Australia, a summit last year on soil carbon sequestration, and an international soil security symposium this year show that a much less commercially driven Australian science community is engaged in the debate on the importance of soil carbon. That debate is yet to happen in NZ.
Research and technology are not cash cows. They are long term investments. In the agricultural sector they have no value at all if they are not applied and exposed to the scrutiny of farmers. My experience of the old MAF days was that scientists generally respected and listened to farmers. The competitive nature of science funding and requirement for commercial outcomes has stopped that listening.
Soil carbon is something that farmers would understand. So too is a visual soil assessment method that allows farmers to see the benefits of increasing soil carbon first hand. Perhaps it is time to for politicians to re-engage with farmers and for farmers to see themselves as the front line in giving NZ not only a competitive advantage but see their farms as an international showcase for how pastoral farming, by sequestering carbon in the soil, can prevent sea-level rise.
Alfred Harris has a first class
honours degree in genetics, with experience as a scientist
in public good research. He currently works in the private
sector on a range of on-farm research projects, and spends
his spare time running a biocarbon research company.