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Wednesday, 17 March 2010
Page: 2896

Mr WINDSOR (11:39 AM) —It is with pleasure that I speak to the report of the House Standing Committee on Primary Industries and Resources entitled Farming the future: the role of government in assisting Australian farmers to adapt to the impacts of climate change. I thank the member for Hunter for his comments. This is a very well thought out report which identifies a whole range of issues in relation to agriculture, climate change, climate variability, drought and rain. Irrespective of what people think or do not think is happening in terms of the climate, I think this document is quite valuable as a policy document in a whole range of areas relating to things like landscape management through to various types of land use, right through to the sequestering of carbon in the soil and all the other issues that revolve around the climate change or global warming debate.

I would particularly like to congratulate the chairman of our committee, Mr Dick Adams, for the way in which he has chaired the committee. As the member for Barker mentioned, I have been a member of this committee for some years now and he was a previous member of the committee. Irrespective of who has been the chairman—the member for Hume, Alby Schultz, did an outstanding job—if an individual came in, they would not be able to pick the partisan politics in relation to the issues. That is to the committee’s great credit and I think that is reflected in this report. I notice the member for Barker was trying to score a few political points in relation to some of the things that are mentioned in this report, such as biochar and some of the technologies that farmers have adopted. He saw that as an endorsement of coalition policy. That may be the fact but I think it says more about the committee than about partisan politics in that the committee has taken evidence from the community and made certain recommendations in its report as a result of those findings. In no way has anybody—

Mr Laming —Madam Deputy Speaker, I seek to intervene.

The DEPUTY SPEAKER (Ms S Bird)—Is the member willing to give way?


Mr Laming —Firstly, is the complete absence of any reference to an ETS in this document the reason why it is bipartisan; and, secondly, does it reflect the fact that in the farming community there is almost no appetite whatsoever for an ETS?

Mr WINDSOR —As I was saying, the committee reflected on the evidence that was given to us. If the member would like to go back through the whole range of evidence that was given, he will see that the issues of carbon emissions and nitrous oxide emissions are in the document. There is quite a lot about the sequestering of carbon dioxide and the way in which agriculture can play a role in reducing its emissions. As to various market mechanisms or preferred market mechanisms taking care of those particular issues, the great bulk of evidence was around technologies and how agriculture can have a significant influence on reducing emissions. But it raises an interesting point. Irrespective of whether there is an emissions trading scheme or whether global warming, climate change—whatever you want to call it—were to go away tomorrow, many of the technologies that are talked about in this document should be looked at very closely by both sides of the parliament. I have my own personal views in relation to carbon pollution reduction schemes and emissions trading schemes. I believe that, eventually, if the globe does go down the path of some sort of emissions trading arrangement, there will have to be a price on carbon. I do not think you can really come to grips with that. I say that as one who raised the issue of soil carbon some three or four years ago before the buzzwords ‘carbon pollution reduction’ had actually entered the building.

The significant findings of this report as they relate to climate change, particularly in relation to carbon and the potential to sequester carbon in the soil as a way of ameliorating some of the issues in the atmosphere, should be looked at very closely, irrespective of what stage the emissions trading debate happens to be up to. It relates to the accumulation of humus and organic matter in the soil, and thinking farmers have been doing this for many years. If you accumulate humus and organic matter in the soil, which is in fact carbon, there is debate on whether, if there is a long dry spell or a drought and the soil cracks, that carbon is again released into the atmosphere—obviously part of the cycle. There are techniques, whether they be grazing or farming techniques, where the amount of soil carbon, which in most cases has been depleted over the years through various farming methods, can be increased. That may have a positive impact on global issues. Personally, I have some doubts as to how it will fit in a market mechanism. There are now some arrangements in various parts of the United States and in Australia where soil carbon is being traded in a voluntary market.

As a farmer, I believe that the great benefits of the carbon debate will not be in the carbon market but will be in the increased productivity that will come about by accumulating humus and organic matter in soils and with other practices, whether they be pasture technologies, no-till farming, conservation farming or a range of other things. The combination of technologies will allow more moisture to be retained at depth in soils, technologies such as GPS and practising controlled traffic where the movement of tractors and headers takes place over one portion of a paddock, time in and time out, rather than trampling down the top soil, as traditional methods have done.

There are other policy issues which start to come to the fore. The document addresses those and I am sure there are members of the committee who personally do not agree with some. It is to the credit of the committee that they have built what the community is saying into the document rather than trying to politicise the document itself with partisan political positions. This is a very valuable document in terms of drought policy because it identifies a lot of the technologies which farmers are using, can use, can modify and can adapt, which will ameliorate drought. By using some of those technologies, I have seen in my own electorate, and in others, where drought starts and finishes on the boundary. Drought is not necessarily about a total lack of rain; it is about how you manage the water when rain occurs.

Further down the track, there will be some policy issues which we will have to look at very closely. For instance, the terms ‘interception’ and ‘diversion’ are very much part of the 2007 Water Act and as we speak the Murray-Darling Basin Authority is putting in place the Murray-Darling Basin Plan. Could some of these technologies be interpreted or defined as being interceptions of water that would otherwise have run off into our river systems? For instance, because no-till farming is changing the nature of the topsoil and increasing the capacity of the soil to take in moisture when it is raining, that means, in effect, that there is additional storage in the better soils of up to six inches of available moisture—six inches of rainfall moisture, not six inches in depth.

Agroforestry is carbon positive and water run-off negative. Could that land use be interpreted as an interception? The Murray-Darling Basin Authority are currently looking at what is going to be the volume of water falling in valleys. How does groundwater relate to surface water? How much will there be at the end of it—how much for the environment, how much for farmers and how much for anybody else at the Murray mouth?

Could those very technologies that this document identifies that are carbon positive be in fact negatives in terms of water policy? There are a various number of collision courses that I can see happening throughout agriculture and the way it interfaces with policy making. Not the least is this issue of food security. There is this preoccupation that the world is running out of food and that we need all our agricultural land to go towards food production. That would be all right if you could make some money out of growing food, but we export 80 per cent of what we produce in this nation, so in a sense we produce too much of the stuff and occasionally we have to bribe an Arab or two to get rid of some wheat, as has happened in the past.

So the debate comes round to what is the best land use: is it necessarily agriculture? If we are talking about methane from animals as being a negative in terms of the carbon economy, and nitrous oxide, which is nitrogen fertiliser, and carbon emissions from heavy use of machinery, are we better off to look at other options for land use? What about agroforestry? It is carbon positive but it interferes with water policy. How do we reconcile those water budgets? What about third-generation biofuels where you actually plant a crop once and then annually harvest it? It has the capacity to sequester carbon at depth, which a lot of crops do not have. It is carbon positive with depth storage of carbon. It is soil erosion positive. It is a biofuel, so it ticks the boxes in terms of the carbon world again. If it was land that used to grow food, wheat for instance, all the negatives from Australia to our marketplaces are transport negatives, carbon negative, carbon negative—real costs.

This is what we should think about in terms of an emissions trading arrangement: how agriculture fits in that and where the interface of food from land use and energy from land use starts to collide. I do not think at the policy level we have really looked at that too closely. For instance, the major part of wheat, the starch in wheat, is carbon. If we are growing massive quantities of wheat using massive quantities of diesel and then massive quantities of transport fuels et cetera to create an export economy so that we can exchange that wheat for money and then buy fuel, carbon, and bring it back again to have the fellow going round in circles on his tractor again, would we not be better to consider the option of cutting the corner and saying, ‘Well, if we are only doing it to buy fuel, why not grow fuel?’ Why not grow a biofuel which sequesters carbon at depth? There are massive areas around Walgett through to Narrabri, vast areas of black soil in Australia that could be quite effective at sequestering carbon at depth, irrespective of whether there is a market for that or not.

I think this document raises a whole range of issues but it is very important in terms of the drought debate, it is very important in terms of the emissions debate and it is very important in terms of the water use efficiency debate and how that relates to the total system. What it does show very clearly, though, is that the farmers who have been at the cutting edge of technology are a long way in front of the researchers. I think government has got to start to take the leash off some of these researchers. Soil science has been ignored for 30 years, and here we are talking about the very basics of life: what makes up the soil, what makes it live, how that relates to carbon and what the interactions with the atmosphere are. We are starting to look at that again because of the climate change and global warming debate. It is a debate that we should have had years ago, irrespective of climate change, and it is something that government should take account of now. (Time expired)