By the Hon. Niall Blair, Professor of Food Sustainability at Charles Sturt University.
The recent announcement by federal Labor to target net zero emissions by 2050 provides a great opportunity for the agricultural sector in Australia to diversify and thrive. I’ve watched with interest as some suggest this policy will wipe out Australian agriculture, just as they hypothesised the same for the fossil fuel industry.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I see there is a huge opportunity for both farmers and brand Australia. However, we need to compare apples with apples – not apples to coal, as some are trying to do.
Although agricultural production contributes around 15 per cent of emissions, it also provides the greatest opportunity to reverse the current trajectory and get a two-for-one benefit in the process.
You see, investing in research and helping farmers change some agricultural practices will not only reduce CO2 and greenhouse gas emissions, but sequestering carbon can actually reverse some of the damage. Additionally it makes farmers more resilient to climate change.
The fossil fuel and energy sectors can’t offer the same solution. They can only stop or reduce their emissions without a ready-to-be-deployed reversal mechanism, unlike our primary industries.
This will be a challenge and a major disruption to our food and fibre sectors, but no one can seriously tell me that it can’t be done, because it is already happening.
Most of the major corporate players in the food sector have already set such a target and are advancing it through their supply chains, right down to the farm level. For example, Meat and Livestock Australia has already reported that a net zero red meat sector by 2030 is achievable – 20 years ahead of the proposed Labor policy. The means include changing feed sources for cattle and offsetting emissions by planting trees and pastures/crops on farm that sequester carbon.
For the so-called "agrarian socialists", who, for as long as I have been around politics and agriculture, have been crying out for government to increase subsidies for farmers, as they do in other parts of the world, this is your chance.
We could unlock billions of dollars from government and industry funds, paid directly to farmers to help improve their natural capital, their soil, vegetation and farming practices – not to mention innovation and research – which, in turn, will reverse the effects of climate change. This will also ensure our commodities are acceptable to eco-wise consumers in a competitive market where already 70 countries have committed to the net zero target.
While we are at it, let’s start with the low hanging fruit – food waste. One-third of all food produced in Australia ends up being wasted, rotting in landfills and emitting greenhouse gases.
Remarkably, if global good waste was a country, it would be the third largest emitter after the US and China. If we repurposed this waste or even gave it back to farmers as compost, we would go a long way to reducing our emissions without hurting any sector in the process.
Farming is hard enough and becoming harder with more droughts, severe storms and unreliable weather patterns. Ultimately, this will have an impact on the food security of this nation. That impacts you, me, our farmers and our future.
A net zero emissions future in Australia provides nothing but opportunities for our farmers. And, with 30 years to get there, they are ready, willing and able. It’s also the right thing to do.
Granted we need details, innovation, research and costings but, if we get it right, we can capitalise on the opportunities and leave behind those who are doing the scaremongering. The future awaits us and we shouldn’t fear it.
This article was originally published in The Sydney Morning Herald on Tuesday 25 February 2020.