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Prof Richard Eckard talks – agriculture and climate change, carbon accounting, economics, policy, and farmers.

Dr Richard Eckard

By Ash Sweeting

Agriculture impacts climate change and climate change impacts agriculture. Prof Richard Eckard from the University of Melbourne has spent the last 20 years working on better understanding these interactions. In our conversation Richard discusses how today, changes in management practices can reduce livestock emissions by 10-15% and the potential for new products in development to reduce emissions by over 50%. Critical to enabling farmers to benefit from reduced emissions are the open source carbon accounting tools his team has developed, are maintaining, and deploying across industry. Richard also explores the nuances between emission reduction credit can be traded daily and a carbon sequestration credit can be traded once and then need to be maintained once it has been sold.

Richard brings a sharp dose of reality to the debate, reminding us climate remains highly political, that sustainable food policies will fail if they do not include the developing world, and that food sustainability is a long game. He points out that soil carbon is highly correlated with rainfall, multi functional animals in Africa could be considered more environmentally efficient than those in the developed world farming systems, and the potential for changes in diet to impact emissions are highly limited given that less than 10% of the world’s population has the privilege to choose what they eat.

Richard has been leading research to better understand these interactions across Australia and East Africa with a focus on carbon accounting, carbon neutral agriculture, and mitigation strategies. His background in ruminant nutrition, soil science and grazing systems gives Richard a unique view to the technical and scientific challenges facing our food systems. Richard is a Professor at the University of Melbourne School of Agriculture and Food and the Director of the Primary Industries Climate challenge Centre. His work bridges farming systems, carbon accounting, research, and policy.

I recently caught up with Richard to hear more about his work. You can listen to our conversation below

 

AS

Richard, thank you for joining me. If you could just start with a bit of a brief introduction about what you are doing and how you got there?

RE

Our work focuses on all aspects of how climate change will affect agriculture or agriculture affects climate change. My particular focus has been on carbon accounting, carbon neutral agriculture, and mitigation strategies. Most of the work I do sits between the summation of all the research, how policy can then take it forward or voluntary carbon markets can take it forward and how we can then communicate that back out to farmers.

I started working in the Rangeland systems of Africa, you can probably tell from the accent, in range land ecology, and nutrient cycling in grazing systems. My undergraduate is in the biochemistry of ruminant nutrition, my master’s in soil nutrition and my PhD in grazing systems. So, I found myself in a fairly unique position of being able to do the collective systems analysis because of the understanding of all aspects of the system. Right now, because the Australian Government has decreased investment in the methane side of the equation, most of my methane work is now being done in Central Africa with the International livestock Research Institute. They’ve got the same methane chambers as we used to have in Australia.

AS

From your research where do you see the greatest opportunities?

RE

You know, if you if you’re currently on the land, wanting to do something, there are the 10 to 15% reduction in methane options you’ve got just through herd efficiencies through weaning percentages through bringing legumes back into your system. Those are the do now things. What’s really transitioning is the opportunity to dramatically reduce methane through supplementation. We’ve done work on oils and tannins which gets you 20% reduction in methane. But there are other products coming on the market that scale up to 50% and some of the more recent products that we see coming through that can get up to the 80%. The big opportunity is how do we deliver those products into the extensive grazing industries. Because what we currently have is products from DSM nutrition, or seaweeds that that are claiming the sort of 80% but any inhibitor product has got to be in every microsite in the rumen at every second of the day to have maximum efficacy. So, in theory, in the laboratory, and in vitro system, you’ll get some 95% reduction in methane. But the moment you scale that to the grazing industries where you’re only putting in once a day or once every couple of days efficacy just crashes.

So that I see as the sort of big opportunity using these inhibitors in the confinement industries but in the extensive grazing industries, we might be using a product to train the next generation to be low methane. There’s a very good by Meale et al. ( https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-021-82084-9) that shows that you could use a product like 3NOP to feed to cows and calves for three weeks through the weaning phase and then the animals continued producing 20% 30% less methane for the next 50 days.

This gives us hope that you can actually rearrange the microbial composition of the rumen. It’s called Early life programming and it goes back to the understanding of human nutrition which suggests that our gut microflora is a product of our upbringings. It the same for ruminants. This can be used in mitigation strategies as the microbes in the rumen can readjust the populations very rapidly. Whereas methanogens tend to take three to four days to get back to numbers.

AS

How do you see that landscape with regards to the move toward carbon neutral production?

RE

There’s a very strong drive towards carbon neutrality and I think governments are playing games discussing targets as that train left the station after the Paris Agreement. What we know is that after the Paris Climate Agreement, a lot of the multinational agribusiness companies have set targets that are consistent with the Paris agreement. And you think of Australia, 70% of our produce is exported. So, governments debating targets for agriculture becomes an irrelevant discussion because we need to understand what the supply chain is saying to us, and suppliers have to match their customers target or they won’t be able to supply that customer.

I host most of the carbon accounting tools that are used in Australia. We’ve currently got a project with 100 producers, grain producers in Western Australia completing their carbon audits. We’ve got over 400 red meat producers on the Eastern Seaboard that have done carbon audits on their property using our tools. We’ve got the wine industry, the poultry industry, and even yesterday, the pig industry and the goat industry have been approaching us about carbon audits.

AS

How do you see the tools that have been developed in the West being appropriate for the developing world?

RE

In one of the projects in East Africa we looked at what if we treated all the sheep in East Africa for worms? How much methane would you save? And it’s actually a massive number. You could see an early win there, in greenhouse gas reduction and animal welfare. One of my PhD students in Nairobi is doing a multi-functional lifecycle assessment of some of these systems. Traditionally, we said our dairy system in Victoria is far more efficient than a dairy system in Africa producing three litres of milk above the calf. But when you when you do the analysis in a different way, and you say that animal has a multi-functional purpose. To grow crops in that village they need that animal to plow the field otherwise they would need a diesel tractor. So let’s contribute some of the greenhouse gas emissions to plowing the field. The animal is draft power. The next step is that animals a bank account, your symbol of wealth, so let’s attribute some of that to wealth. You could also say that to grow crops you need those animals to be corralled at night and the dung and urine to be collected as fertilizer. Otherwise, you need to buy fossil fuel generated fertilizer. The analysis showed that if you take the emissions per litre of milk and you divided the emissions between all the multi-functionality as a consequence of not consuming diesel, not consuming fossil fuel fertilizers, the emissions per litre of milk from a dairy cow in East Africa is far lower than the most efficient California and dairy or the most efficient, Australian dairy.

AS

What are your thoughts on the future of animal agriculture within the current debate?

RE

There’s been a number of publications suggesting how much global warming we could avoid by eliminating ruminant agriculture and I think those are extremely naive. They are nice theoretical studies, but they have no practical grounding. Why do I say that? The proportion of the world’s population that have the privilege of diet choice is less than about 8 percent. The rest of the world doesn’t get a choice over what they eat and just eat what’s in front of them. The proportion of the world’s population that even have the choice over whether they eat ruminants or not is very limited to the most wealthy. Most people in Africa don’t eat animals on a regular basis. They need them as part of food security and resilience. So, in the Sahel region of Africa, you can’t survive the frequency of droughts without having livestock to provide milk to buffer the crop failures. In terms of the developing world, which is where most of the livestock are, they are integral to food security, so we really don’t want to fiddle with that.

AS

How do you see the relative merits of soil carbon capture verses methane mitigation?

RE

There is a lot of misguided enthusiasm around soil carbon, and I suspect that the politicians have been captured by this notion that the soils can save the world and allow us to continue to use fossil fuels. Soil carbon in Australia is 80% correlated with the rainfall and we have 22% more rainfall variability than any other country in the world it’s playing Russian roulette to say soil carbon can save anything other than itself.

There’s a fundamental difference between a soil carbon credits, which is a finite bank account, and a methane reduction credit which is can happen every day and you don’t have to spend 100 years looking after it. A soil carbon credit is fundamentally different and dramatically higher risk because it’s a finite resource. And if you monetize it, well it could be gone tomorrow because of the drought.

Justin Webb from AgriWebb talks – Emissions reduction

Justin Webb AgriWebb

Agriwebb arguably has visibility over more head of livestock and acres of grazing and farmland than anyone else with over 20 million sheep and cattle and 125 million acres being managed through their systems.  Agriwebb is now working with their customers to reduce carbon emissions. A key aspect of Agriwebb’s success is that by becoming the trusted partner of farmers and ranchers, who are collecting large amounts of production data, they can create a digital paper trail that makes it easier to target value adding certifications such as carbon neutral beef or participate in carbon sequestration schemes.

AgriWebb strongly believes that livestock production systems can be productive, profitable, and sustainable all at the same time. However, whilst technologies already exist that can enable these improvements the issues of who pays for these technologies, who captures the premiums and how premiums are shared, and how risk is shared across the supply chain are still significant hurdles to change.

I recently caught up with Justin Webb, AgriWebb’s Co-Founder and Executive Chairman to discuss how AgriWebb is working to improve food sustainability globally. You can listen to our conversation here and an edited summary is below.

AS

Justin, thank you for joining me today. The impact of livestock on climate change I see that as an opportunity as well as a significant liability. What opportunities do you see in this space and where are your areas of concern?

JW

Well, firstly, thanks so much for having me on. I think that reexamining the sustainability and efficiency of our food production is frankly paramount. From my perspective, Agriwebb is trusted partner of farmers and ranchers. And just as we’ve helped tens of thousands of farmers, adopt digital tools to look after more than 20 million head of livestock, we are now working to develop a sustainable approaches to reduce those carbon emissions. AgriWebb users ultimately are seeking to measure their inventory, the grass they grow, and they want to optimize that conversion of that grass into beef or lamb. Pastures carbon sequestration enables those producers to create more resilient, more productive land with less synthetic input. The data also provides a digital paper trail that makes it easier to target value adding certifications, such as carbon neutral beef, or participate in carbon sequestration schemes. And I think the amazing thought here is the beef and lamb production industry, that the UN FAO cites is responsible for about 10 – 13% of global greenhouse emissions cannot just reduce its carbon footprint, but it can actually become net carbon negative. So we can leverage ag tech to turn one of our biggest social and ethical challenges into one of our greatest solutions. And to me, that’s pretty cool.

AS

What are the concerns in that space?

JW

Farmers should know that capitalizing on the carbon opportunity will demand accurate data and systematic reporting. However, there’s no kind of silver bullets just yet. The contention around soil testing methods, methodologies, the frequency of testing the location, the operational practices that exist on top of rotational grazing, all of that see really hot debate. So, I guess the point I’m trying to drive and where there’s the caveat is there’s lots of risk, and you wonder, well, who does carry that risk?

Probably not the Carbon Project manufacturers who purchase the carbon credits, it probably comes back to the people that sold it ie the farmers. And that to me is misplaced because if you’re trying to incentivize these producers to be engaged with offering their land for this carbon solution. You can’t just lump them as well with the risk on something that they have absolutely no control over. So to me, the whole thing is recording data empowers the farmer to be the owner of their own fate.

AS

Farmers are the ones who are taking the risk. That said, the place where the greatest potential to capture that risk is customer facing, it’s at the it’s in the grocery stores or the supermarkets. So, where risk is captured and where it’s valued is not the same place. Is there anything you can add to that?

JW

I think I think it’s a fascinating and clearly neither you nor I know if the two of us together are going to be able to solve this but I think we can start to chip away at the edges.  And one of the amazing transitions we’ve seen is that consumers are walking into supermarkets and making decisions about their protein purchases. Red meat is the most the most valuable product to the retailer in the retail store. Not necessarily because it cost per kilogram or pound. But because it’s what’s called a basket filler. And when a millennial purchaser walks in, and she is making the decision about what to put in their basket. There is a bit do I really want this leg lamb or this T bone with a side of guilt. Now that’s a really terrifying prospect for major retails, supermarkets, wholefoods, Walmart, Sainsbury’s, Tescos, Woolworths and Coles around the world. So how do these retailers backup claims that say this meat is not only representative of animal welfare but also environmental welfare and how do we assert that and how do we label it? How do we represent it because it is fundamentally critical to how purchases and making those decisions? So I think coming back to the only way you validate that labels is by going right back to the paddocks the fields and calculate it, measuring the growth of the animal itself, of the antibiotic treatments, of pasture growth rates, of the carbon sequestration or recapture of the farts and burps from that ruminant animal back into the plant regrowth of the grass and the soil. However, it does demand that the supermarkets and the retailers themselves step up to take responsibility through the supply chain. They have to be the ones making calls into the wedge of profitability, to start to pay for the software, the tools, the hardware on farm to be able to recall that information and pass it right the way through the supply chain.

AS

I’m completely agree that the two of us aren’t going to solve this ourselves. It’s a very complex problem and comes down to consumers being able to make the right choices for the right reasoning reasons and having the right information to be informed and be able to make those choices. And I think as you said the younger consumers are certainly much more active in that space than then people from older generations.

AS

I’m gathering from what you’re saying that you think it’s much more of a systems approach. Is that Is that where you see the answer, through collaboration and partnership?

JW

I said earlier, there’s no silver bullet. There’s no single solution. And I think that that is true. We’re talking about a massive industry of literally feeding the world. And so it’s not surprising that there isn’t a single path. This is true right down to the consumer. The solution is not just the growth of plant based proteins because of their huge ecological environmental footprint. So, I think that you’re coming back to the space that I’m working in to empower the livestock industry with the best tools to feed the world sustainably, profitably, and efficiently. And I couldn’t think of a more motivating mission. If we truly want to deliver on providing our food production industry with the best possible tools, then we need to be providing the same access to cutting edge intuitive, Insight driven tech that’s been already prioritized in other major business sectors for decades. And I think it’s our vision that it’s not only Agriwebb that it’ll bring these solutions to market that allow farmers to own their future but all the other innovators will join in this mission and we hope we can lead by example.

AS

Thank you very much, mate. Is there is there anything else you’d like to add that we haven’t already covered?

JW

My call to action is if anyone is listening to this and is you know, inspired, intrigued by the mission that Agriwebb is on. We are hiring. We’re looking for really good talent to come in and help drive our business forward. Whether that’s in in Colorado in the US in London in the UK or in Sydney here. We would we’d love to love to hear from you. So please reach out to Agriwebb.com and have a look at some of our job postings and come join the mission.