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Carbon sink forests

CHAIR —Welcome, Dr Jones. Before we go to questions, do you wish to make a brief opening statement?

Dr Jones —I do. Carbon neutrality via soil carbon sequestration is an achievable target for Australia. Increasing soil carbon by half a per cent on two per cent of farmland will sequester more than our national emissions of carbon dioxide. The soil carbon solution will buy us time to make a permanent and relatively seamless transition to a low-carbon economy. Rather than imposing financial burdens on the economy, the soil carbon solution will provide a production boost to agriculture.

With the world’s population sitting on six billion and moving exponentially to nine billion, we need to improve the productivity of the available landmass. The only way to do this is to regenerate the natural resource base, and restoring soil carbon can achieve that goal.

Past farming practices have severely depleted soil carbon levels in Australia, such that most farmed soils now contain less than half the carbon of their perennial pasture counterparts. The restoration of this depleted carbon via changed management practices would easily render Australia carbon neutral. Note that we will not be completely carbon neutral until we cover our coal exports as well. This is achievable.

There are no embedded energy costs involved in restoring soil carbon. The infrastructure and the knowledge is already there. The soil carbon solution is powered by solar energy. The initial target would be the grains industry, currently facing massive input costs with rising fuel and fertiliser prices. The soil carbon solution would improve the productivity and resilience of broadacre farming while also conferring carbon neutral status on the nation.

CHAIR —Thank you, Dr Jones. We will go to questions.

Senator MILNE —Thank you, Dr Jones. I notice that you have made several recommendations about amendments to the legislation. Could you outline to us how you think that might work, because there are two issues here. One is the legislation as it currently stands and how it might be amended. The other issue is the guidelines that cover that legislation, and that is a disallowable instrument and we are also considering our options for that. So could you take us through how you think the act, as it currently stands, might be amended.

Dr Jones —In my submission I made notes on the amendment of the conditions, and that would basically be to place grasslands on an equal footing with forestry.

Senator MILNE —Run us through how you think it would work. You would be arguing that forestry is a voluntary opt-in to the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, so would you be suggesting that grasslands be treated in the same way? How do you think it might work?

Dr Jones —I would be looking at it being a project based soil carbon offset. Currently you could allocate a certain amount of land to be utilised for forestry as a carbon sink. We would say that you could allocate a certain amount of land to be under perennial pasture as a carbon sink. But that land under perennial pasture would be more productive than if it were not under perennial pasture—in other words, if you were comparing currently farmed land with land that was under perennial pasture, the land under perennial pasture would become more productive but it could also still be used to produce food. Having it as an allowable carbon sink or an allowable offset would improve the productivity of the soil and the health of the soil and improve the catchment management.

Everybody knows that healthy soils are going to be better, so this has natural resource management benefits as well as atmospheric benefits, because the only way you can improve soil is to increase its carbon content and that means you have to take that carbon out of the atmosphere. It is exactly the same as growing a tree. All that we are saying is that there would be defined areas. Under the Australian Soil Carbon Accreditation Scheme we call them defined sequestration areas. It might be, for example, an area of 20 hectares that you would say is going to be used as a carbon sink. We would hope that under the legislation that could be treated in the same way as an area designated for a plantation of trees. It would just say that that is designated to be perennial grasses.

Senator NASH —With respect to the direct drilling of crops into the perennial pasture—you were talking about this last time you were here—you were saying that the perennial pasture would be treated as a carbon sink and yet you could still direct drill a crop into it and get the crop off for food. That is what you were referring to before.

Dr Jones —Yes, that is exactly what I was referring to.

Senator NASH —Do you see any limitations? Could you have an entire farm sown down to perennial pasture that you then direct drill with crop, and the entire farm would then be a carbon sink to get the tax deduction?

Dr Jones —That would be the ultimate goal, because whenever the ground is not covered it is destructive because the soil erodes, you have weed problems and you have problems with water quality because you lose soil and it ends up in river systems. Every catchment management authority or NRM group in Australia would be looking at trying to improve ground cover.

Senator NASH —Can you supply for the committee—on notice is fine—a list of the perennial grasses you would see as being appropriate under that scenario?

Dr Jones —I can take that on notice but my answer would be that it has to be a grass that grows out of phase with the crop. Most of Australia’s cropping is winter cropping. We have something like, I think, 21.8 million hectares under winter crop this year, which is more than the area we have under summer crop, and we would therefore need to grow warm season perennial grasses—in other words, grasses with what is called a C4 photosynthetic pathway. It would be whichever of those grasses grows best in a region. Fortunately, in terms of technology and knowledge, we have 30 years experience of no-till cropping. Obviously we need to direct drill into pasture. If we were going straight from the technology we had in the sixties and seventies in relation to cultivation it would be very difficult but now we have the machinery and the equipment. We also have several decades of research into C4 perennial grasses. We just need to marry the two. All of the research into perennial grasses up to now has been for pasture ecosystems—for grazing—and all of the research into minimum-till technology has been for farming: for broadacre cropping. So we have the knowledge but it is in two camps. We just need to put those two things together—the knowledge we have of perennial pasture systems with the knowledge we have of minimum-till farming.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Is the pasture that you are talking about sown for feed or for carbon?

Dr Jones —We would be sowing it for carbon if it was for a carbon sink.

Senator HEFFERNAN —So you would not put stock on it?

Dr Jones —Not necessarily; for broadacre cropping we probably would not have fences—

Senator HEFFERNAN —Just name a couple of species for me.

Dr Jones —My species of choice would be Gatton panic. That would be my preferred species. It grows in most areas south of the Tropic of Capricorn, even in Victoria, even though it is a tropical grass.

Senator HEFFERNAN —So take, for instance, Cryon or somewhere where there is a black soil plain, no fences, no stock, no fertiliser. There is just dead-set farming there now and they are going to get a bum-buster of a season this year because they have just had 2½ inches. You would say that they should sow this under their crop.

Dr Jones —It could be sown under the crop.

Senator HEFFERNAN —There is no question that the black soil plains are deteriorating from annual cropping but because there is zero tillage they are holding together pretty well. But they do not have this carbon thing, so do you think that would affect the yield of the crop?

Dr Jones —Could I just make a comment on something you said. Zero till has stopped the deterioration of our farmlands but it has not, as a general rule, improved the quality of them.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes.

Dr Jones —So we have stopped carbon levels from falling but in most areas we have not been able to increase them significantly.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Chemical farming is locking things up a bit, as you know.

Dr Jones —Chemical farming is killing the microbes that we need to build the humus in the soil.

Senator MILNE —I would like to come back to this, Dr Jones. In terms of the work that you have done already—and I take your point about marrying those two research fields—have you sold any carbon in the voluntary carbon market from the areas that you have designated and measured for their improvement in soil carbon?

Dr Jones —We are not in the voluntary carbon market. We have soil carbon incentive payments that we pay to farmers in the Australian Soil Carbon Accreditation Scheme. They have been provided by a philanthropist. Farmers in the scheme will be receiving those incentive payments here in the Great Hall of Parliament House on 20 May, next year. We have that venue booked and that function is happening. They will be rewarded publicly for the carbon that they have sequestered. But the Australian Soil Carbon Accreditation Scheme is not part of any voluntary carbon trading scheme.

Senator MILNE —Do you see that as a stepping stone to actually getting into something like the tax deduction here? It almost requires an area to be designated, measured, managed for soil carbon and then the volume of carbon sold into the voluntary market, because people are going to come back and say: ‘What about permanence? How do we know these perennial grasses are going to survive some of the extreme summers that we know are coming down the track? How are you going to maintain your carbon levels?’

Dr Jones —There were several things in that question. I will just go back to the beginning. Under the Australian Soil Carbon Accreditation Scheme, we have designated sequestration areas, which are GPS mapped. We have measured baseline carbon and we go back and remeasure carbon. Then, rather than that being traded on the voluntary market, the farmers participating in that scheme are currently receiving a soil carbon incentive payment of $25 per tonne of carbon dioxide equivalent. So they are receiving a payment that is probably equal to or better than what they would receive in a voluntary market at the moment.

Senator MILNE —That is because a philanthropist has put up the money. Is that right?

Dr Jones —That is right, but the idea of the scheme was to show that they could build soil carbon, that we could measure it quite easily, and that they could be rewarded financially for doing that, as a stepping stone to moving into a carbon market in the future. It is a proof of concept. Can you just remind me what the last thing was that you asked about?

Senator MILNE —It is basically one of the issues to go to proof of concept, if you like. I totally accept what you are saying about the capacity to build soil carbon and that you can measure it, and it is great that you have got a philanthropist who is paying $25 a tonne, but to go from that scale to the scale we are talking about you are going to have to prove permanence. What experience have you had with the perennial grasses if we go to more extreme summers and less rainfall in your test areas?

Dr Jones —If I could put that into a geological timescale reference, at the time Australia was settled it was mostly grassland and grassy woodland vegetation. Those grasses had survived for millions of years under extremes of temperature. We could base it on native grasses, if that were necessary, but of the grasses that we are talking about planting, some are active grasses so they actually photosynthesise more efficiently at higher temperatures. They require a high temperature in order to function and they are very resilient if managed correctly. You have to remember that a lot of the pastures that have been planted in Australia have then been subjected to set stocking and just had stock graze them into the ground until there is not a leaf left. It is a little difficult to survive if you do not have any leaves.

If we were talking about a cropping system that would not necessarily have livestock, because grain is the thing that we really have to focus on to feed the world, then we have more than sufficient area under grain at the moment in Australia for that to be converted to perennial cover cropping to make Australia carbon neutral, which is basically what we are talking about.

I do not think there would be any doubt about the survivability of those grasses. In fact, there are massive areas of trees, as you would be aware, that have died—plantations that have died across Australia due to a lack of water. The grasses, because most of their carbon is stored below ground rather than above ground as in a tree, are far more resilient. That is assuming that you do not have an animal there eating the leaves off every time a green leaf pops up. But more than 90 per cent of the biomass in a grassland is actually underground, where you cannot see it, whereas in a forest 90 per cent of the biomass is above ground. If you have a fire come through, you will lose your stored carbon in a forest, and the probability of a forested area being burnt at least once in a hundred years is 100 per cent. If a grassland is burnt, you lose the leaves off the top, which is just like a whole mob of sheep coming through and eating them, basically. It will regenerate from the crowns and the underground storage, and most of your carbon is protected.

With perennial grasses we like to see whether the system is functioning properly—that the carbon is stored very deep in the soil—hence our reasons for measuring down to 110 centimetres. So we will see carbon at 30 centimetres, 60 centimetres and 90 centimetres down the soil profile. It is very resilient carbon. It is not the labile carbon that you see near the surface. It is not that crumbly stuff like compost—it does not look like that at all. It is like a crude oil, in fact. Humus is a gel-like substance. It is not what people often think humus is. It has a very high molecular weight. It is a strongly polymerised substance.

Senator HEFFERNAN —This would be a non-livestock operation.

Dr Jones —You could have livestock, but most broadacre cropping places in Australia now have moved away from livestock.

Senator HEFFERNAN —With great respect, you mean in the north. Most slopes properties run stock with their crop.

Senator NASH —Yes, they do.

Dr Jones —Yes, that would be true.

Senator HEFFERNAN —I declare an interest. I am one.

Dr Jones —Yes, if you were talking about mixed farming in New South Wales that would be true. I suppose I was thinking about the lower rainfall areas of Western Australia, for example—a committee recently visited there—and the low rainfall areas of Queensland and western New South Wales tend not to have stock.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Where there is an 18-inch to 22-inch rainfall you generally have a lucerne, phalaris and fescue based pasture sown in under a crop and then grazed for five or six years. Then it comes around again in another cycle, but that would not work under this plan.

Dr Jones —It actually works perfectly well with livestock. All I am saying is that you do not need to have livestock. It works with livestock or without livestock.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Righto.

Dr Jones —It is not necessary to have livestock.

Senator HEFFERNAN —So the typical slopes pastures like fescues—

Dr Jones —Phalaris, cocksfoot, rye grass.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Is that okay?

Dr Jones —No, because they are what we call C3 grasses. They grow in winter. They are low-temperature grasses rather than high-temperature grasses.

Senator HEFFERNAN —What about lucerne?

Dr Jones —That is not a grass.

Senator HEFFERNAN —So it does not put carbon in?

Dr Jones —It may, but I would like to focus on having a perennial groundcover of grasses, because of their persistence and because—

Senator HEFFERNAN —Okay, so that is a completely different operation.

Dr Jones —of the fact that we need to have mycorrhizal fungi in the soil to turn that carbon into humus to make sure that it stays in.

Senator HEFFERNAN —So generally this would lend itself to a single enterprise farmer that grows grain.

Dr Jones —Not necessarily.

Senator JOYCE —What about Flinders and Mitchell grasses? They are summer grasses.

CHAIR —Welcome, Senator Joyce. You just frightened the living daylights out of Dr Jones. I am sorry; we did not know you were on the line. Dr Jones, that was Senator Joyce from Queensland.

Dr Jones —Could you repeat the question please?

CHAIR —You should have seen the look on Dr Jones’s face, Senator Joyce.

Senator JOYCE —When you talk about summer grasses, would the Mitchell and Flinders grasses—the natural perennials—be in the scope of things?

Dr Jones —They would be perfect. The only thing is that Flinders grass is an annual grass, but that would still work very well with perennial cover cropping.

Senator HEFFERNAN —What about buffel?

Dr Jones —Buffel grass works perfectly.

Senator HEFFERNAN —You’ll be right, Barnaby!

Senator JOYCE —Yes, we are big on buffel.

Senator MILNE —It destroys the ecosystem, though.

Dr Jones —Well, put some wheat in it and make it diverse.

Senator JOYCE —Yes, you could do that.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Best of luck to the wheat crop!

Senator MILNE —Dr Jones, just to go back to this issue, if you plant out with perennial grasses you are going to get an improvement in the soil quality anyway, and your water retention is going to be better. If you choose to, you could designate some areas for soil carbon and other areas you could graze anyway, and just not have them as part of your soil carbon measurement, surely?

Dr Jones —In fact, if you do graze them the carbon increase would be greater. They would benefit from being grazed because grasses have co-evolved with grazing animals for 20 million years and they benefit from correct grazing management. If you have an area ungrazed compared to one correctly grazed, the one correctly grazed will actually sequester more carbon in the soil. So it would be of benefit if it were a mixed farm, but it is possible to have broadacre cropping without livestock. That is all I am saying.

Senator HEFFERNAN —So does this lend itself to summer rainfall?

Dr Jones —Not necessarily. It works very well in Victoria or in Mediterranean rainfall environments because they still receive something like 35 per cent of their annual rainfall in summer and that is sufficient to maintain the perennial grass. And the predictions are that summer rainfall is going to increase in the southern cropping zone, so there will be even more benefit from having a perennial groundcover there. The issue in the southern cropping zone at the moment is that there is generally no groundcover over summer, so with summer rainfall predicted to be more intensive we will have high-intensity rainfall events and if the soil is not covered we will lose more and more of our precious asset. Soil is Australia’s most important asset. If we do not have soil we can forget everything else. We will not have anything else without soil.

Senator HEFFERNAN —The most important after its children—they are Australia’s most important asset.

Dr Jones —What will they eat if we cannot grow anything?

Senator MILNE —Your association obviously has its trial plots; you have been measuring them and you have your data and so on. Are you working with CSIRO, the Bureau of Rural Sciences, the climate change office, any of the Commonwealth research agencies, to corroborate the work that you have done, to peer review it and get it into the discussion of where we go next on a post-2012 treaty and so on?

Dr Jones —We are currently working with the departments of agriculture in terms of doing our fieldwork, liaising with the networks they have with farmers, working with the equipment they have. I personally do not own a soil-coring rig and a Landcruiser to mount it on, and all of that sort of thing, so we are liaising at that level. If you look at another level, some of the organisations you mentioned are still publishing information saying it is not possible to store carbon in soil. In fact, a recent one—I think it has just come out—by CSIRO Plant Industry says it would actually be to the detriment of Australia to store carbon in soil, which I find very interesting. So, no, we are not collaborating with organisations that do not believe—

Senator HEFFERNAN —Who said that?

Dr Jones —CSIRO Plant Industry, in their spring newsletter.

Senator HEFFERNAN —They have the opposite view to you?

Dr Jones —They have a completely opposite view to me.

Senator JOYCE —Does the soil absorb carbon if it just left fallow? Soil absorbs a form of nitrogen if you leave it fallow—though probably not as much as if you have a lucerne crop or some other legume in it. But can the soil absorb nitrogen just like the ocean can absorb carbon?

Dr Jones —The answer to that question is no. It needs to be fixed in the process of photosynthesis, which requires green leaves. That is why you need to have your Mitchell grass or your Flinders grass or your wheat crop. The crops themselves do absorb large amounts of carbon. The problem is that the way we farm at the moment we have a crop which absorbs carbon, pumps it out into the soil from its roots and basically gets the soil engine fired up, and then we have maybe a six-month period with nothing there and we lose microbial activity in the soil. So the key to turning the carbon into a form where it can be stored in the soil for hundreds of years is to have the microbes there that change it into this magic stuff called humus. So we need groundcover to do that. Mitchell grass is fine and buffel grass is fine. If you have the common practice in Queensland of a summer fallow with no groundcover, you go back to ground zero, so to speak.

Senator JOYCE —I do not want to use the words ‘politically correct’, but I am interested in getting an argument just based on science if what you want to do is collect carbon and you had a choice between one hectare of dry sclerophyll forest or one hectare of buffel grass. I am not talking about the environment and the effect on species and the diversity of flora and fauna, but if your only goal is to collect carbon then you possibly may be collecting more with an acre of buffel than you would with an acre of sclerophyll forest.

Dr Jones —The data that we have from Queensland that has been collected by the Department of Natural Resources and Water, or whatever they call themselves now—I am sorry, I am not quite sure what the current name is—shows that the carbon level is about double under buffel than under an area of dry sclerophyll forest. An example would be somewhere like the desert uplands around Aramac or somewhere there. I was looking at some data from there the other day and I saw that carbon levels are double under the grassland there.

The other thing is that one of the farms that is in the Australian Soil Carbon Accreditation Scheme north-east of Clermont has over 500 tonnes per hectare of carbon in the soil. That is broadacre cropping, compared to about 140 tonnes under the brigalow.

Senator JOYCE —Acacia harpophylla, if I remember correctly from my botany days.

Senator HEFFERNAN —You’re a show-off!

Dr Jones —I remember the first time I went to Queensland and I had to get someone to point out what a brigalow was. I felt so embarrassed because everyone talks about them all the time up there.

Senator JOYCE —They are right down to places like Baradine too, for the record.

Dr Jones —Yes, I realise that. I do know what they look like now; I have seen lots of them. It is possible to store more carbon in farmed soil while it is productively producing grain or whatever it may be producing for—

Senator JOYCE —What about sugar cane, Dr Jones?

Dr Jones —I am sorry; that is outside my area of expertise. I cannot tell you the answer to that. I am not sure whether it has even been measured, to tell you the truth. But it has got lots of green leaves, so I imagine that it would be storing heaps of carbon.

Senator BOSWELL —Photosynthesis would be going on.

Dr Jones —Yes, there would be lots of photosynthesising happening.

Senator BOSWELL —Yes. It is the biggest and best one.

Dr Jones —I guess the thing with sugar cane is that it is there for most of the time; there are not long periods of time with bare soil. I think the issue would probably be the chemicals that are used—in particular, large amounts of nitrogen. There is research underway in North Queensland at the moment on using microbial methods for fixing that nitrogen and not having to use the massive inputs of nitrogen fertiliser, of which a large proportion ends up out on the Barrier Reef. So I think that the solution to the sugar cane is getting the microbial status of the soil right, and that could be very productive for carbon sequestration. That is an opinion.

Senator BOSWELL —You were saying that you would collect more tonnes of carbon per acre, and you mentioned a figure of 500 tonnes per acre.

Dr Jones —Hectare.

Senator BOSWELL —All right, hectare. And you are paying $25 a tonne at the moment.

Dr Jones —That is what is there at the minute. We are not paying $25 a tonne. That is his baseline level. That is what he has achieved by his method of farming in that environment.

Senator BOSWELL —It would a nice little earner. On top of that, you can grow a crop and graze.

Dr Jones —You could. In fact, the soil that has got 500 tonnes of carbon in it is going to be far more productive than the one that only has 100 tonnes of carbon. From neighbouring soils in the same environment, with the same rainfall and everything else the same but with one having 500 tonnes and one having 100 tonnes, you are going to get a lot more product from the one with 500.

Senator BOSWELL —So we can grow food, we can grow crops and we can collect carbon.

Dr Jones —Exactly.

Senator BOSWELL —That would then argue against growing trees that produce leaves which eat carbon but do not provide any food. If your paper is correct then it really says that this bill is obsolete; we should not have it.

Dr Jones —Not necessarily, because trees do have productive advantages in the environment. I would see maybe silvopastoral activities, where the trees were—

Senator BOSWELL —But if you can crop, graze and collect carbon then why would you turn hectares over to trees?

Senator NASH —Would it be a better use of that particular amount of land, in your view, than just trees?

Dr Jones —If you could grow more carbon on the same area under perennial pasture than you could under trees and if it was protected from burning, because it cannot be burnt and if it was stable for as long as you keep the grass—and most perennial grasses are actually longer-lived than trees. That may answer your question, Senator Milne. Our native grasses, such as Mitchell grass, which Senator Joyce mentioned earlier, can live for hundreds of years. They can live for longer than trees. So if it is more permanent, if it is less risky because it is not subject to burning, if it is more productive for the land, if it has advantages in terms of improving the water cycle and if there is less interception of water to rivers then I would put the question back to you, Senator Boswell: would you rather have one hectare of perennial grassland sequestering carbon, growing food and improving the water cycle?

Senator BOSWELL —Absolutely. Then you get the added bonus that you can graze off it too.

Dr Jones —Absolutely.

Senator JOYCE —You still have an economy in the town too.

Senator MILNE —I guess that is the issue here—that people invest in trees because they have nothing to do with the land and they can live in the city and just make the investment, it is out there and the management is minimal. You are proposing something which would facilitate people actually working the land as opposed to just investing in it.

Senator HEFFERNAN —And if they did not get the tax deduction they would not invest anyway.

Senator NASH —Can I just ask a technical question. If you planted an acre of perennial grass and an acre of trees, would they be equal or would one put carbon back into the soil more quickly than the other?

Dr Jones —The answer is that grasses put carbon into the soil much more quickly than trees, but it would depend on the environment that you were in as to what the total amount of carbon ended up being. For example, if you just looked after the first five years, you would find that the grasses sequestered carbon at probably twice the rate of the trees. But if you then looked after something like 20 years the amount of carbon that you had stored in the trees and the amount of carbon that you had stored in the ground under the grasses would probably be more equivalent. The point is that the carbon stored in the ground is less risky or has less risk associated with its loss.

Senator HEFFERNAN —So in the meantime you could be cropping it and—

Dr Jones —Yes. When little trees start to grow they do not sequester very much carbon, and then they have an exponential increase. It is like a sigmoidal curve. They say that trees between nine and 15 years, generally, sequester carbon most rapidly. Once the tree matures, it actually stops sequestering any new carbon. Eventually it gets to the point where it is dropping limbs and things and not sequestering any more carbon, but you do have a carbon store in that tree, assuming it does not die or get burnt. Looking at a perennial grassland, if you were to start with, let’s say, farmed soil that did not have any groundcover and you planted perennial grasses there, the sequestration rate under the perennial grasses would be very rapid. It would be much more rapid than it is with trees—you do not have that long lag time where you are waiting for, say, nine years for a tree to really get going. Grasses sequester most carbon in the early stages. It is a very rapid process. And you do not have issues with a grassland dying, because it is self-replacing. Grasslands have been around for millions of years and, if we did not come along and cultivate them or put stock on there and leave them there until they have eaten it completely into the ground through inappropriate grazing management, they would still be there. We have basically destroyed our grasslands and destroyed probably our largest carbon sink.

Senator MILNE —What was the CSIRO’s plant science person’s main argument contrary to what you are saying?

Dr Jones —I think it is in the CSIRO Plant Industry spring newsletter. I could provide that to the committee.

Senator MILNE —We can get it. I am just interested to know what they are saying.

Dr Jones —It said—relying on my memory—that storing carbon in the soil would be a negative for farming rather than a positive and that it should not be considered for carbon trading because humus contains high levels of nutrients—which it does. Humus is a very complicated molecule that is formed in the soil itself and it contains soil minerals as well as carbon and nitrogen. Their argument was that, because humus has a lot of minerals in it, farmers would have to replace that mineral by adding extra fertiliser to what they normally use, which is a strange argument. I think the figures are, just off the top of my head, that for every $44 worth of carbon you would get based on $20 a tonne CO2 it would cost $100 to add the nutrients that the soil would need.

I find it interesting that this is CSIRO Plant Industry. One would have thought that Plant Industry would have had some knowledge of what happens microbially in soil and that, by improving the microbial status of soil—which would happen under a perennial grassland—things like mycorrhizal fungi actually bring phosphorus to plants. You need that microbial bridge because nutrients in soil are not in an available form for plants and the only way that plants can access them is through microbial action. What you would be doing by having perennial ground cover is increasing microbial biological activity in the soil and improving nutrient cycles and making nutrients more available.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Are you are aware of what is happening under a voluntary similar scheme in the United States?

Dr Jones —Under the Chicago Climate Exchange?

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes.

Dr Jones —In which respect?

Senator HEFFERNAN —In soil—exactly what you are talking about. They have technology over there now whereby they can scan a paddock and tell you what is in the paddock.

Dr Jones —They do have mobile near infrared—

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes. Once this committee gets familiar with the technology, it will paint a whole new picture, for not only this committee but the parliament.

Dr Jones —That is another thing, I guess. If we are looking at what infrastructure we need and what technology is out there, we already have our direct drilling technology, we already have our knowledge of pasture grasses and we now have development of technology for mobile scanning of paddocks to determine soil carbon.

Senator JOYCE —With what Senator Heffernan just mentioned and what you have just raised, is it possible—I know we have vegetation management maps and vegetation laws here in abundance—that someone would be able to do a simple mapping exercise and say, ‘By reason of this facility, the most apparent way to store carbon in this area if you want to get a deduction for it would be to go to the optimum use, which would be perennial summer grasses’? Could you look at it and say what would be the most optimum use in an area? I do not know, but the most optimum storage of carbon could be sugar cane. With other vegetation laws, we say, ‘This is remnant vegetation of a certain quality and you can’t touch it, and this stuff is ubiquitous, so you can have a crack at that.’ Could we use satellite imagery, or whatever information you have or you have knowledge of, to basically map Australia and tell people the most apparent way to store carbon, if that is their ultimate goal? Could we tell them exactly what we consider would be the optimum usage in any sort of area, taking into account the soil, the temperature, the rainfall and whatever other considerations are required? Is that a possibility?

Dr Jones —The solution that I was proposing would not involve interfering with current remnant areas. I was suggesting that, of the current grain-growing area—and we have 21.8 million hectares sown down to winter crops this year—we would only need to change land management on a proportion of that in order for Australia to achieve carbon neutrality. We could neutralise all of our emissions from industry on only a portion of that area currently sown to winter crops. So it does not require changes to land management on any other areas of Australia.

Senator JOYCE —And you could still have a form of grazing on that land, and, if people got the tax deduction and had grazing on the farm, they would have some sort of parity in their income stream.

Dr Jones —I think that would be very important in the grains industry, because the only thing that is supporting it at the moment is high grain prices. If for some reason they were to fall, I think we would find that industry would be in dire straits. If we could have carbon farming as their main income source and grain production as a secondary income source, it would instil a great deal of financial security in that sector.

Senator JOYCE —So, if there were regrowth coming into an area that was formerly perennial pasture, you could say, ‘If you really want to store carbon, you should leave it as perennial pasture and stop the regrowth.’

Dr Jones —You could say that, but I probably would not say that because I would not like to get into the argument currently raging in Queensland about trees. But if it was originally perennial pasture, which we know that most of those areas were, then that would be something you would have to take up with the Queensland government.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Cobar too.

Senator MILNE —The issue here though, Barnaby, is that we are not just talking about carbon; we are also talking about biodiversity, ecosystem resilience, native species and so on.

Senator JOYCE —Yes, I know. I am just making sure the science on the carbon is truthful. I understand completely, Senator Milne, that there are other arguments such as biodiversity, but I am asking, on the issue of carbon sequestration, that we get the facts and figures on the table.

Senator MILNE —I agree, and that is why I think the focus should be on areas that are currently used for grain growing across the country—we are talking about such a vast area for a start. All you are going to do is complicate matters and lose the argument if you start talking about native vegetation and the biodiversity and ecosystem integrity benefits versus a pure argument on carbon. The country is big enough to have both, and so I think Dr Jones is quite wise to focus on areas that are already under productive—or we would like them to be under more productive agriculture than they currently are.

Senator JOYCE —Most farmers are sane people who have a pretty good balance between the lot until the government comes in with some ridiculous scheme that says they should not be sane, which this is.

CHAIR —On that note, Senator Joyce, it is three o’clock. Senator Heffernan, the last question.

Senator HEFFERNAN —In terms of the crop yield under these things, if it is a tight spring finish to a winter crop with a summer based pasture which is loading up, wouldn’t that impact on the yield dramatically?

Dr Jones —The interesting thing is that, on the data that we have, we have not yet seen what you call pinched grain, which often happens if there is a tight finish to the season. That has not occurred; even under extremely dry conditions we have not seen that.

Senator HEFFERNAN —The difficulty is if it is extremely dry, the plant figures that out. It is not like a tight finish to a good season will give you a pinched grain; a tight finish to a tight season, the plant sorts that out. I just wondered what would happen if a tight finish, if there was a massive—

Dr Jones —Do not forget that you have to vastly improve soil that has higher soil moisture holding capacity.

Senator HEFFERNAN —Yes, I am 100 per cent on board with that.

Dr Jones —And the water use efficiency is much higher when the soil has more carbon in it because there is a higher bioavailability of nutrients and trace elements that plants with—

Senator HEFFERNAN —Barnaby, I am just thinking how I am going to explain this to the O’Briens and Harrises and all those people up there.

Senator JOYCE —I am looking at a big storm out my window right now that should be heading down their way, so they will be happily engaged on their front verandas watching it.

Senator HEFFERNAN —They have already got enough. They are guaranteed a crop.

CHAIR —Okay, that is fantastic. I am absolutely rapt and I hope there is a good downpour up there for all Queensland growers. It is now past three o’clock, so Dr Jones, thank you very much for your submission.

Dr Jones —Thank you, Chair.

[3.03 pm]