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
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?
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.
From your research where do you see the greatest opportunities?
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.
How do you see that landscape with regards to the move toward carbon neutral production?
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.
How do you see the tools that have been developed in the West being appropriate for the developing world?
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.
What are your thoughts on the future of animal agriculture within the current debate?
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.
How do you see the relative merits of soil carbon capture verses methane mitigation?
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.