New research: nitrous oxide emissions 300 times more powerful than CO₂ are jeopardising Earth’s future



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Pep Canadell, CSIRO; Eric Davidson, University of Maryland, Baltimore; Glen Peters, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Hanqin Tian, Auburn University; Michael Prather, University of California, Irvine; Paul Krummel, CSIRO; Rob Jackson, Stanford University; Rona Thompson, Norwegian Institute for Air Research, and Wilfried Winiwarter, International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)

Nitrous oxide from agriculture and other sources is accumulating in the atmosphere so quickly it puts Earth on track for a dangerous 3℃ warming this century, our new research has found.

Each year, more than 100 million tonnes of nitrogen are spread on crops in the form of synthetic fertiliser. The same amount again is put onto pastures and crops in manure from livestock.

This colossal amount of nitrogen makes crops and pastures grow more abundantly. But it also releases nitrous oxide (N₂O), a greenhouse gas.

Agriculture is the main cause of the increasing concentrations, and is likely to remain so this century. N₂O emissions from agriculture and industry can be reduced, and we must take urgent action if we hope to stabilise Earth’s climate.

2000 years of atmospheric nitrous oxide concentrations. Observations taken from ice cores and atmosphere. Source: BoM/CSIRO/AAD.

Where does nitrous oxide come from?

We found that N₂O emissions from natural sources, such as soils and oceans, have not changed much in recent decades. But emissions from human sources have increased rapidly.

Atmospheric concentrations of N₂O reached 331 parts per billion in 2018, 22% above levels around the year 1750, before the industrial era began.

Agriculture caused almost 70% of global N₂O emissions in the decade to 2016. The emissions are created through microbial processes in soils. The use of nitrogen in synthetic fertilisers and manure is a key driver of this process.

Other human sources of N₂O include the chemical industry, waste water and the burning of fossil fuels.




Read more:
Intensive farming is eating up the Australian continent – but there’s another way


N₂O is destroyed in the upper atmosphere, primarily by solar radiation. But humans are emitting N₂O faster than it’s being destroyed, so it’s accumulating in the atmosphere.

N₂O both depletes the ozone layer and contributes to global warming.

As a greenhouse gas, N₂O has 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide (CO₂) and stays in the atmosphere for an average 116 years. It’s the third most important greenhouse gas after CO₂ (which lasts up to thousands of years in the atmosphere) and methane.

N₂O depletes the ozone layer when it interacts with ozone gas in the stratosphere. Other ozone-depleting substances, such as chemicals containing chlorine and bromine, have been banned under the United Nations Montreal Protocol. N₂O is not banned under the protocol, although the Paris Agreement seeks to reduce its concentrations.

A farmer emptying fertiliser into machinery
Reducing fertiliser use on farms is critical to reducing N₂O emissions.
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What we found

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has developed scenarios for the future, outlining the different pathways the world could take on emission reduction by 2100. Our research found N₂O concentrations have begun to exceed the levels predicted across all scenarios.

The current concentrations are in line with a global average temperature increase of well above 3℃ this century.

We found that global human-caused N₂O emissions have grown by 30% over the past three decades. Emissions from agriculture mostly came from synthetic nitrogen fertiliser used in East Asia, Europe, South Asia and North America. Emissions from Africa and South America are dominated by emissions from livestock manure.

In terms of emissions growth, the highest contributions come from emerging economies – particularly Brazil, China, and India – where crop production and livestock numbers have increased rapidly in recent decades.

N₂O emissions from Australia have been stable over the past decade. Increase in emissions from agriculture and waste have been offset by a decline in emissions from industry and fossil fuels.

Regional changes in N₂O emissions from human activities, from 1980 to 2016, in million tons of nitrogen per year. Data from: Tian et al. 2020, Nature. Source: Global Carbon Project & International Nitrogen Initiative.

What to do?

N₂O must be part of efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and there is already work being done. Since the late 1990s, for example, efforts to reduce emissions from the chemicals industry have been successful, particularly in the production of nylon, in the United States, Europe and Japan.

Reducing emissions from agriculture is more difficult – food production must be maintained and there is no simple alternative to nitrogen fertilisers. But some options do exist.




Read more:
Emissions of methane – a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide – are rising dangerously


In Europe over the past two decades, N₂O emissions have fallen as agricultural productivity increased. This was largely achieved through government policies to reduce pollution in waterways and drinking water, which encouraged more efficient fertiliser use.

Other ways to reduce N₂O emissions from agriculture include:

  • better management of animal manure

  • applying fertiliser in a way that better matches the needs of growing plants

  • alternating crops to include those that produce their own nitrogen, such as legumes, to reduce the need for fertiliser

  • enhanced efficiency fertilisers that lower N₂O production.

Global nitrous oxide budget 2007-16. Adopted from Tian et al. 2020. Nature. Source: Global Carbon Project & International Nitrogen Initiative.

Getting to net-zero emissions

Stopping the overuse of nitrogen fertilisers is not just good for the climate. It can also reduce water pollution and increase farm profitability.

Even with the right agricultural policies and actions, synthetic and manure fertilisers will be needed. To bring the sector to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, as needed to stabilise the climate, new technologies will be required.




Read more:
Earth may temporarily pass dangerous 1.5℃ warming limit by 2024, major new report says


The Conversation


Pep Canadell, Chief research scientist, Climate Science Centre, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere; and Executive Director, Global Carbon Project, CSIRO; Eric Davidson, Director, Appalachian Laboratory and Professor, University of Maryland, Baltimore; Glen Peters, Research Director, Center for International Climate and Environment Research – Oslo; Hanqin Tian, Director, International Center for Climate and Global Change Research, Auburn University; Michael Prather, Distinguished Professor of Earth System Science, University of California, Irvine; Paul Krummel, Research Group Leader, CSIRO; Rob Jackson, Professor, Department of Earth System Science, and Chair of the Global Carbon Project, Stanford University; Rona Thompson, Senior scientist, Norwegian Institute for Air Research, and Wilfried Winiwarter, , International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia’s farmers want more climate action – and they’re starting in their own (huge) backyards



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Richard Eckard, University of Melbourne

The National Farmer’s Federation says Australia needs a tougher policy on climate, today calling on the Morrison government to commit to an economy wide target of net-zero greenhouse gas emission by 2050.

It’s quite reasonable for the farming sector to call for stronger action on climate change. Agriculture is particularly vulnerable to a changing climate, and the sector is on its way to having the technologies to become “carbon neutral”, while maintaining profitability.

Agriculture is a big deal to Australia. Farms comprise 51% of land use in Australia and contributed 11% of all goods and services exports in 2018–19. However, the sector also contributed 14% of national greenhouse gas emissions.

A climate-ready and carbon neutral food production sector is vital to the future of Australia’s food security and economy.

A tractor plowing a field.
Agriculture comprises 51% of Australia’s land use.
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Paris Agreement is driving change

Under the 2015 Paris Agreement, 196 countries pledged to reduce their emissions, with the goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. Some 119 of these national commitments include cutting emissions from agriculture, and 61 specifically mentioned livestock emissions.

Emissions from agriculture largely comprise methane (from livestock production), nitrous oxide (from nitrogen in soils) and to a lesser extent, carbon dioxide (from machinery burning fossil fuel, and the use of lime and urea on soils).




Read more:
UN climate change report: land clearing and farming contribute a third of the world’s greenhouse gases


In Australia, emissions from the sector have fallen by 10.8% since 1990, partly as a result of drought and an increasingly variable climate affecting agricultural production (for example, wheat production).

But the National Farmers’ Federation wants the sector to grow to more than A$100 billion in farm gate output by 2030 – far higher than the current trajectory of $84 billion. This implies future growth in emissions if mitigation strategies are not deployed.

Farm machinery spreading fertiliser
Farm machinery spreading fertiliser, which is a major source of agriculture emissions.
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Runs on the board

Players in Australia’s agriculture sector are already showing how net-zero emissions can be achieved.

In 2017, the Australian red meat sector committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2030. A number of red-meat producers have claimed to have achieved net-zero emissions including Arcadian Organic & Natural’s Meat Company, Five Founders and Flinders + Co.

Our research has shown two livestock properties in Australia – Talaheni and Jigsaw farms – have also achieved carbon neutral production. In both cases, this was mainly achieved through regeneration of soil and tree carbon on their properties, which effectively draws down an equivalent amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to balance with their farm emissions.




Read more:
Intensive farming is eating up the Australian continent – but there’s another way


Other agricultural sectors including dairy, wool and cropping are actively considering their own emission reduction targets.

Carbon neutral wine is being produced, such as by Ross Hill, and Tulloch and Tahbilk.

Most of these examples are based on offsetting farm emissions – through buying carbon credits or regenerating soil and tree carbon – rather than direct reductions in emissions such as methane and nitrous oxide.

But significant options are available, or emerging, to reduce emissions of “enteric” methane – the result of fermentation in the foregut of ruminants such as cattle, sheep and goats.

Wine grapes growing on a vine
Some Australian wineries have gone carbon neutral.
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For example, livestock can be fed dietary supplements high in oils and tannins that restrict the microbes that generate methane in the animal’s stomach. Oil and tannins are also a byproduct of agricultural waste products such as grape marc (the solid waste left after grapes are pressed) and have been found to reduce methane emissions by around 20%.

Other promising technologies are about to enter the market. These include 3-NOP and Asparagopsis, which actively inhibit key enzymes in methane generation. Both technologies may reduce methane by up to 80%.

There are also active research programs exploring ways to breed animals that produce less methane, and raise animals that produce negligible methane later in life.

On farms, nitrous oxide is mainly lost through a process called “denitrification”. This is where bacteria convert soil nitrates into nitrogen gases, which then escape from the soil into the atmosphere. Options to significantly reduce these losses are emerging, including efficient nitrogen fertilisers, and balancing the diets of animals.

There is also significant interest in off-grid renewable energy in the agricultural sector. This is due to the falling price of renewable technology, increased retail prices for electricity and the rising cost to farms of getting connected to the grid.

What’s more, the first hydrogen-powered tractors are now available – meaning the days of diesel and petrol consumption on farms could end.

Wind turbine on a farm
Renewable energy on farms can be cheaper and easier than grid connection.
Yegor Aleyev/TASS/Sipa

More work is needed

In this race towards addressing climate change, we must ensure the integrity of carbon neutral claims. This is where standards or protocols are required.

Australian researchers have recently developed a standard for the red meat sector’s carbon neutral target, captured in simple calculators aligned with the Australian national greenhouse gas inventory. This allow farmers to audit their progress towards carbon neutral production.

Technology has moved a long way from the days when changing the diet of livestock was the only option to reduce farm emissions. However significant research is still required to achieve a 100% carbon neutral agriculture sector – and this requires the Australian government to co-invest with agriculture industries.

And in the long term, we must ensure measures to reduce emissions from farming also meet targets for productivity, biodiversity and climate resilience.




Read more:
IPCC’s land report shows the problem with farming based around oil, not soil


The Conversation


Richard Eckard, Professor & Director, Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate explained: what if we took all farm animals off the land and planted crops and trees instead?



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Sebastian Leuzinger, Auckland University of Technology


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Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz


I would like to know how much difference we could make to our commitment under the Paris Agreement and our total greenhouse gas emissions if we removed all cows and sheep from the country and grew plants in their place (hemp, wheat, oats etc). Surely we could easily become carbon neutral if we removed all livestock? How much more oxygen would be produced from plants growing instead? How would this offset our emissions? And what if we returned the land the animals were on to native forests or even pine plantations?

This is an interesting question and gives me the opportunity for some nice – albeit partly unrealistic – model calculations. Before I start, just two comments regarding the question itself.

Oxygen concentrations have been relatively stable at around 21% of the air we breathe for millions of years. This will not change markedly even if carbon dioxide emissions increase for years to come. Carbon dioxide concentrations, even in the most pessimistic emissions scenarios, will only get to around 0.1% of the atmosphere, hardly affecting the air’s oxygen content.

Secondly, grazing animals like cows and sheep emit methane — and that’s what harms the climate, not the grassland itself. Hemp or wheat plantations would have a similar capacity to take up carbon dioxide as grassland. But growing trees is what makes the difference.




Read more:
Climate explained: how different crops or trees help strip carbon dioxide from the air


Here’s a back-of-the-envelope calculation to work out how New Zealand’s carbon balance would change if all livestock were removed and all agricultural land converted to forest.

If New Zealand stopped farming cows and sheep, it would remove methane emissions.
Heath Johnson/Shutterstock

Converting pasture to trees

This would remove all methane emissions from grazing animals (about 40 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year).

New Zealand has about 10 million hectares of grassland. Let us assume that mature native bush or mature pine forests store the equivalent of roughly 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide per hectare.

If it takes 250 years to grow mature native forests on all former agricultural land, this would lock away 10 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide within that time span, offsetting our carbon dioxide emissions (energy, waste and other smaller sources) during the 250 years of regrowth. Because pine forest grows faster, we would overcompensate for our emissions until the forest matures (allow 50 years for this), creating a net carbon sink.

Note these calculations are based on extremely crude assumptions, such as linear growth, absence of fire and other disturbances, constant emissions (our population will increase, and so will emissions), ignorance of soil processes, and many more.

If agricultural land was used to grow crops, we would save the 40 megatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent emitted by livestock in the form of methane, but we would not store a substantial amount of carbon per hectare.




Read more:
Climate explained: how the climate impact of beef compares with plant-based alternatives


Steps towards a carbon-neutral New Zealand

How should we interpret this rough estimate? First, we must acknowledge even with our best intentions, we still need to eat, and converting all agricultural land to forest would leave us importing food from overseas — certainly not great for the global carbon budget.

Second, it shows if livestock numbers were at least reduced, and we all turned to a more plant-based diet, we could reduce our emissions substantially. The effect would be similar to reforesting large parts of the country.

Third, this example also shows that eventually, be it after 250 years in the case of growing native forests, or after about 50 years in the case of pine forests, our net carbon emissions would be positive again. As the forests mature, carbon stores are gradually replenished and our emissions would no longer be compensated. Mature forests eventually become carbon neutral.

Even though the above calculations are coarse, this shows that a realistic (and quick) way to a carbon-neutral New Zealand will likely involve three steps: reduction of emissions (both in the agricultural and energy sectors), reforestation (both native bush and fast growing exotics), and a move to a more plant-based diet.The Conversation

Sebastian Leuzinger, Professor, Auckland University of Technology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Illegal hunters are a bigger problem on farms than animal activists – so why aren’t we talking about that?



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Kyle J.D. Mulrooney, University of New England and Alistair Harkness, University of New England

This month, the Victorian government announced on-the-spot fines for trespassers on farms following an upper house inquiry into how animal activism affects agriculture.

It’s the latest in a string of new state and federal laws designed to crack down on activists who trespass on farms – often to gather video evidence of alleged animal cruelty, which is later distributed to the public.

But amid the flurry of attention on activists, another group of trespassers on farms has largely escaped attention: illegal hunters.

Unauthorised access to farm properties can create many problems – not least, it runs the risk spreading disease such as African swine fever that can devastate farming industries.

It’s important that laws to tackle farm trespass are evidence-based. So let’s look at the evidence.

Farm trespass is a major rural crime issue.
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Media and political focus

Media coverage of activists trespassing on farms has appeared regularly in recent years.

Over several months in 2018-19, activists targeted the Gippy Goat farm and cafe in Victoria – in one incident stealing three goats and a lamb. News reports covered the protests, claims by farmers that the fines issued to the activists was inadequate, and the eventual closure of the farm to the public.

In another example last year, the front page of rural newspaper the Weekly Times featured a family exiting the farming industry after alleged trespass and threats from animal activists.




Read more:
Not just activists, 9 out of 10 people are concerned about animal welfare in Australian farming


Activists did not escape the attention of politicians. Ahead of Victoria’s new legislation this month, federal parliament last year passed a bill criminalising the “incitement” of both trespass, and damage or theft of property, on agricultural land.

Speaking in support of the bill, Attorney-General Christian Porter said trespass onto agricultural land could contaminate food and breach biosecurity protocols. He specifically cited “activists” when describing how the laws would work.

The New South Wales government last year also introduced significant fines for trespass on farms in the Right to Farm Act. And in South Australia, the government wants those who trespass or disrupt farming activities to face tougher penalties.

But as lawmakers crack down on animal activists, the problem of trespass by illegal hunters gets little political attention.

Animal rights protesters have been the subject of intense media attention, but illegal hunters fly under the radar.
David Beniuk/AAP

The illegal hunting problem

Illegal hunting includes hunting without a required licence and accessing private property without permission.

In 2015 and 2016, this article’s co-author Alistair Harkness surveyed 56 Victoria farmers about their experiences and perceptions of farm crime. Farmers reported that in recent years, illegal hunters had caused them economic loss and emotional anguish by:

  • damaging fences
  • shooting at buildings, beehives and livestock
  • stealing from sheds
  • failing to extinguish campfires
  • destroying fields with their vehicles.

A follow-up mail survey of 906 Victorian farmers in 2017 and 2018 asked them to rate the seriousness of a range of issues. Farmers reported the following issues as either serious or very serious: illegal shooting on farms (34.4%), animal activism (30.9%), and trespass (44.2%).




Read more:
Animal activists v private landowners: what does the law say?


Lead author Kyle Mulrooney is conducting the NSW Farm Crime Survey 2020. The work is ongoing, but so far farmers have reported feeling victimised by trespassers generally, and fear about illegal hunters. Farmers were not specifically asked for their views on trespassing activists.

A submission to a NSW parliamentary inquiry last year underscored the distress felt by farmers when hunters trespass on their properties. Farmer John Payne recalled:

Recently we had a period over several nights, where unknown persons trespassed on our property and callously killed a substantial number of our goat kids, in one case trussing one up before killing them. All just for fun and sport! […] This is one of several events where people have trespassed and shot our animals for fun, or hunted for pigs or wildlife, with little fear of detection, arrest and prosecution.

Police follow the evidence

Figures supplied to us by NSW Police show in 2018, 513 incidents of criminal trespass on farms was recorded – up from 421 in 2014.

Giving evidence to the NSW parliamentary inquiry, Detective Inspector Cameron Whiteside, the State Rural Crime Coordinator, said illegal hunting was “the most cited factor associated with the trespass” on farms.

Police action appears to be following the evidence. In communication with the lead author, Whiteside has said enforcement and operations focused on illegal hunting and trespass are a primary and current focus of the Rural Crime Prevention Team.

Target all trespassers

As African swine fever sweeps Asia, Australian pork producers have been urged to ramp up biosecurity efforts on their own properties. This reportedly includes restricting visitor numbers and separating visitor and farm vehicles.

There are fears that if the disease hits Australia, it could could shut down Australia’s A$5.3 billion pork industry, leading to mass job losses.

Given these risks, it’s important that policies to crack down on farm trespassers are guided by evidence, and don’t unduly target a single group.

And importantly, more research into the issue is needed – including into the social and economic impacts of farm trespass, in all its forms.




Read more:
It isn’t clear how the new bill against animal rights activists will protect farmers


The Conversation


Kyle J.D. Mulrooney, Lecturer in Criminology, Co-director of the Centre for Rural Criminology, University of New England and Alistair Harkness, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Centre for Rural Criminology, University of New England

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Ban on toxic mercury looms in sugar cane farming, but Australia still has a way to go



Phil / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)

Larissa Schneider, Australian National University; Cameron Holley, UNSW; Darren Sinclair, University of Canberra, and Simon Haberle, Australian National University

This month, federal authorities finally announced an upcoming ban on mercury-containing pesticide in Australia. We are one of the last countries in the world to do so, despite overwhelming evidence over more than 60 years that mercury use as fungicide in agriculture is dangerous.

Mercury is a toxic element that damages human health and the environment, even in low concentrations. In humans, mercury exposure is associated with problems such as kidney damage, neurological impairment and delayed cognitive development in children.




Read more:
Australia emits mercury at double the global average


The ban will prevent about 5,280 kilograms of mercury entering the Australian environment each year.

But Australia is yet to ratify an international treaty to reduce mercury emissions from other sources, such as the dental industry and coal-fired power stations. This is our next challenge.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison visiting a sugar cane farm in 2019. Mercury-containing pesticides will be banned.
Cameron Laird/AAP

A mercury disaster

Mercury became a popular pesticide ingredient for agriculture in the early 1900s, and a number of poisoning events ensued throughout the world.

They include the Iraq grain disaster in 1971-72, when grain seed treated with mercury was imported from Mexico and the United States. The seed was not meant for human consumption, but rural communities used it to make bread, and 459 people died.

In the decades since, most countries have banned the production and/or use of mercury-based pesticides on crops. In 1995 Australia discontinued their use in most applications, such as turf farming.

Emissions of the element mercury are a threat to human health and the environment.
Wikimedia

Despite this, authorities exempted a fungicide containing mercury known as Shirtan. They restricted its use to sugar cane farming in Queensland, New South Wales, Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

According to the sugar cane industry, about 80% of growers use Shirtan to treat pineapple sett rot disease.

But this month, the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority cancelled the approval of the mercury-containing active ingredient in Shirtan, methoxyethylmercuric chloride. The decision was made at the request of the ingredient’s manufacturer, Alpha Chemicals.

Shirtan’s registration was cancelled last week. It will no longer be produced in Australia, but existing supplies can be sold to, and used by, sugar cane farmers for the next year until it is fully banned.

Workers and nature at risk

Over the past 25 years, Australia’s continued use of Shirtan allowed about 50,000 kilograms of mercury into the environment. The effect on river and reef ecosystems is largely unknown.

What is known is that mercury can be toxic even at very low concentrations, and research is needed to understand its ecological impacts.

The use of mercury-based pesticide has also created a high risk of exposure for sugar cane workers. At most risk are those not familiar with safety procedures for handling toxic materials, and who may have been poorly supervised. This risk has been exacerbated by the use itinerant workers, particularly those from a non-English speaking background.

South Sea Islanders hoeing a cane field in Queensland, 1902. Cane workers have long been exposed to mercury.
State Library of Queensland

Further, in the hot and humid conditions of Northern Australia, it has been reported that workers may have removed protective gloves to avoid sweating. Again, research is needed to determine the implication of these practices for human health.

To this end, Mercury Australia, a multi-disciplinary network of researchers, has formed to address the environmental, health and other issues surrounding mercury use, both contemporary and historical.

Australia is yet to ratify

The Minamata Convention on Mercury is a global treaty to control mercury use and release into the environment. Australia signed onto the convention in 2013 but is yet to ratify it.

Until the treaty is ratified, Australia is not legally bound to its obligations. It also places us at odds with more than 100 countries that have ratified it, including many of Australia’s developed-nation counterparts.

Australia’s outlier status in this area is shown in the below table:

Accession, acceptance or ratification have the same legal effect, where parties follow legal obligations under international law.

Mercury-based pesticide use was one of Australia’s largest sources of mercury emissions. But if Australia ratifies the convention, it would be required to control other sources of mercury emissions, such as dental amalgam and the burning of coal in power stations.

The three active power stations in the Latrobe Valley, for example, together emit about 1,200 kilograms of mercury each year.

The coal-burning Mount Piper Power station near Lithgow in NSW. Government efforts to reduce mercury emissions should focus on coal plants.
David Gray/Reuters

Time to look at coal

If Australia ratified the Minamata Convention, it would provide impetus for a timely review and, if necessary, update of mercury regulations across Australia.

Emissions from coal-fired power stations in Australia are regulated by the states through pollution control licences. Some states would likely have to amend these licences if Australia ratified the convention. For example, Victorian licences for coal-fired power stations currently do not include limits on mercury emissions.

Pollution control technologies were introduced at Australian coal plants in the early 1990s. But they do not match state-of-the-art technologies applied to coal plants in North America and Europe.




Read more:
Why won’t Australia ratify an international deal to cut mercury pollution?


Australian environment authorities have been examining the implications of ratifying the convention. But progress is slow.

The issue of mercury emissions does not attract significant public or political attention. But there is a global scientific consensus that coordinated international action is needed.

The pesticide phase-out and ban is an important step. But Australia still has a way to go.The Conversation

Larissa Schneider, DECRA fellow, Australian National University; Cameron Holley, Professor, UNSW; Darren Sinclair, Professor, University of Canberra, and Simon Haberle, Professor, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate explained: how the climate impact of beef compares with plant-based alternatives



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Alexandra Macmillan, University of Otago and Jono Drew, University of Otago

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

I am wondering about the climate impact of vegan meat versus beef. How does a highly processed patty compare to butchered beef? How does agriculture of soy (if this is the ingredient) compare to grazing of beef?

Both Impossible Foods and Beyond Meat, two of the biggest players in the rapidly expanding meat alternatives market, claim their vegan burger patties (made primarily from a variety of plant proteins and oils) are 90% less climate polluting than a typical beef patty produced in the United States.

The lifecycle assessments underpinning these findings were funded by the companies themselves, but the results make sense in the context of international research, which has repeatedly shown plant foods are significantly less environmentally damaging than animal foods.

It is worth asking what these findings would look like if the impacts of plant-based meats had been compared with a beef patty produced from a grass-fed
cattle farm, as is the case in New Zealand, instead of an industrialised feedlot operation that is commonplace in the United States.




Read more:
Climate explained: will we be less healthy because of climate change?


A New Zealand perspective

Building on international research mainly carried out in the Northern Hemisphere, we recently completed a full assessment of the greenhouse gas emissions associated with different foods and dietary patterns in New Zealand.

Despite dominant narratives about the efficiency of New Zealand’s livestock production systems, we found the stark contrast between climate impacts of plant and animal foods is as relevant in New Zealand as it is elsewhere.

For example, we found 1 kilogram of beef purchased at the supermarket produces 14 times the emissions of whole, protein-rich plant foods like lentils, beans and chickpeas. Even the most emissions-intensive plant foods, such as rice, are still more than four times more climate-friendly than beef.

The New Zealand food emissions database: comparing the climate impact of commonly consumed food items in New Zealand.
Drew et al., 2020

The climate impact of different foods is largely determined by the on-farm stage of production. Other lifecycle stages such as processing, packaging and transportation play a much smaller role.

Raising beef cattle, regardless of the production system, releases large quantities of methane as the animals belch the gas while they chew the cud. Nitrous oxide released from fertilisers and manure is another potent greenhouse gas that drives up beef’s overall climate footprint.

Climate impact of the New Zealand diet

Everyday food choices can make a difference to the overall climate impact of our diet. In our modelling of different eating patterns, we found every step New Zealand adults take towards eating a more plant-based diet results in lower emissions, better population health and reduced healthcare costs.

Climate impact of different dietary scenarios, as compared with the typical New Zealand diet.
Drew et al., 2020

The graph above shows a range of dietary changes, which gradually replace animal-based and highly processed foods with plant-based alternatives. If all New Zealand adults were to adopt a vegan diet with no food wastage, we estimated diet-related emissions could be reduced by 42% and healthcare costs could drop by NZ$20 billion over the lifetime of the current New Zealand population.




Read more:
A vegan meat revolution is coming to global fast food chains – and it could help save the planet


Redesigning the food system

The current global food system is wreaking havoc on both human and planetary health. Our work adds to an already strong body of international research that shows less harmful alternatives are possible.

As pressure mounts on governments around the world to help redesign our food systems, policymakers continue to show reluctance when it comes to supporting a transition toward plant-based diets.

Such inaction appears, in large part, to be driven by the propagation of deliberate misinformation by powerful food industry groups, which not only confuses consumers but undermines the development of healthy and sustainable public policy.

To address the multiple urgent environmental health issues we face, a shift towards a plant-based diet is something many individuals can do for their and the planet’s health, while also pressing for the organisational and policy changes needed to make such a shift affordable and accessible for everyone.The Conversation

Alexandra Macmillan, Associate Professor Environment and Health, University of Otago and Jono Drew, Medical Student, University of Otago

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate change is hurting farmers – even seeds are under threat



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Richard Ellis, University of Reading

Climate change is already affecting the amount of food that farmers can produce. Several recent extreme weather events, which are only likely to become more frequent as the world continues heating up, provide stark illustrations of what this impact can look like. Climate change is already affecting the amount of food that farmers can produce. For example, crop sowing in the UK was delayed in autumn 2019 and some emerging crops were damaged because of wet weather. Meanwhile in Australia, considerable drought has been immensely damaging.

But climate change can also have a knock-on impact on farming by affecting the quality of seeds, making it harder to establish seedlings that then grow into mature, food-producing plants. My research group has recently published a study showing that even brief periods of high temperature or drought can reduce seed quality in rice, depending on exactly when they occur in the seed’s development.

Nonetheless, it is possible to breed improved varieties to help crops adapt to the changing climate. And the resources needed to do this are being collected and conserved in “genebanks”, libraries of seeds conserving crop plant diversity for future use.

In much of the developing world in particular, the supply of affordable, good-quality seed limits farmers’ ability to establish crops. Seeds need to be stored between harvest and later sowing and poor-quality seeds don’t survive very long in storage. Once planted, low-quality seeds are less likely to emerge as seedlings and more likely to fail later on, producing a lower plant density in the field and a lower crop yield as a result.

For this reason, investigating seed quality is an important way of assessing such effects of climate on cereal crop production. We already know that climate change can reduce the quality of cereal seeds used for food, food ingredients and for planting future crops.

The main factor that affects seed quality in this way tends to be temperature, but the amount and timing of rainfall is also important. This impact can come from changes in average weather patterns, but short periods of extreme temperature or rainfall are just as important when they coincide with sensitive stages in crop development. For example, research in the 1990s revealed that brief high temperature periods during and immediately before a crop flowers reduces the number of seeds produced and therefore the resulting grain yield in many cereal crops.

Hot spells can make rice seeds less likely to become seedlings.
FenlioQ/Shutterstock

Our research has now confirmed that seed quality in rice is damaged most when brief hot spells coincide with early seed development. It also revealed that drought during the early development of the seeds also reduces their quality at maturity. And, unsurprisingly, the damage is even greater when both these things happen together.

In contrast, warmer temperatures later in the maturation process can benefit rice seed quality as the seeds dry out. But flooding that submerges the seed can also cause damage, which gets worse the later it occurs during maturation. This shows why we have to include the effects of changing rainfall as well as temperature and the precise timing of extreme weather when looking at how seed quality is affected.

Future seeds

Our research has also shown that different seed varieties have different levels of resilience to these environmental stresses. This means that farming in the future will depend on selecting and breeding the right varieties to respond to the changing climate.




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How gardeners are reclaiming agriculture from industry, one seed at a time


The world now has a global network of genebanks storing seeds from a wide variety of plants, which helps safeguard their genetic diversity. For example, the International Rice Genebank maintains more than 130,000 samples of cultivated species of rice, its wild relatives and closely-related species, while the AfricaRice genebank maintains 20,000 samples.

Our finding mean that, when scientists breed new crop varieties using genebank samples as “parents”, they should include the ability to produce high-quality seed in stressful environments in the variety’s selected traits. In this way, we should be able to produce new varieties of seeds that can withstand the increasingly extreme pressures of climate change.

This article was amended to make clear that climate change increases the likely frequency of extreme weather events rather than being demonstrably responsible for individual examples.


Click here to subscribe to our climate action newsletter. Climate change is inevitable. Our response to it isn’t.The Conversation

Richard Ellis, Professor of Crop Production, University of Reading

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New study: changes in climate since 2000 have cut Australian farm profits 22%



The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences farmpredict model finds that changes in climate conditions since 2000 have cut farm profits by 22% overall, and by 35% for cropping farms..
ABARES/Shutterstock

Neal Hughes, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) and Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

The current drought across much of eastern Australia has demonstrated the dramatic effects climate variability can have on farm businesses and households.

The drought has also renewed longstanding discussions around the emerging effects of climate change on agriculture, and how governments can best help farmers to manage drought risk.

A new study released this morning by the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences offers fresh insight on these issues by quantifying the impacts of recent climate variability on the profits of Australian broadacre farms.




Read more:
Droughts, extreme weather and empowered consumers mean tough choices for farmers


The results show that changes in temperature and rainfall over the past 20 years have had a negative effect on average farm profits while also increasing risk.

The findings demonstrate the importance of adaptation, innovation and adjustment to the agriculture sector, and the need for policy responses which promote – and don’t unnecessarily inhibit – such progress.

Measuring the effects of climate on farms

Measuring the effects of climate on farms is difficult given the many other factors that also influence farm performance, including commodity prices.

Further, the effects of rainfall and temperature on farm production and profit can be complex and highly location and farm specific.

To address this complexity, ABARES has developed a model based on more than 30 years of historical farm and climate data—farmpredict — which can identify effects of climate variability, input and output prices, and other factors on different types of farms.

Cropping farms most exposed

The model finds that cropping farms generally face greater climate risk than beef farms, but also generate higher average returns.

Cropping farm revenue and profits are lower in dry years, with large reductions in crop yields and only small savings in input costs.


Effect of climate variability on rate of return


Based on historical climate conditions (1950 to 2019), holding non-climate factors constant. See report for more detail. ABARES FarmPredict

In contrast, drought has a smaller immediate effect on beef farm revenue, because in dry years farmers can increase the quantity of livestock sold.

However, drought also lowers herd numbers, which lowers farm profit when herd value is accounted for.

Higher temperatures, lower winter rainfall

Australian average temperatures have increased by about 1°C since 1950.

Recent decades have also seen a trend towards lower average winter rainfall in the southwest and southeast.

This drying trend has been linked to atmospheric changes associated with global warming.

However, while global climate models generally predict a decline in winter season rainfall across southern Australia and more time spent in drought, there is still much uncertainty about what will happen in the long term, particularly to rainfall.

Climate shifts have cut farm profits

ABARES has assessed the effect of climate variability on farm profits over the period 1950 to 2019, holding all other factors constant including commodity prices and farm management practices.

We find that the shift in climate conditions since 2000 (from conditions in the period 1950-1999 to conditions in the period 2000-2019) has had a negative effect on the profits of both cropping and livestock farms.


Effect of 2000 – 2019 climate conditions on average farm profit


“Farm profit percentiles for the period 2000-2019 relative to 1950-1999, holding non-climate factors constant. See report for more detail. ABARES

We estimate that the shift in climate has cut average annual broadacre farm profits by around 22%, which is an average of $18,600 per farm per year, controlling for all other factors.

The effects have been most pronounced in the cropping sector, reducing average profits by 35%, or $70,900 a year for a typical cropping farm.

At a national level this amounts to an average loss in production of broadacre crops of around $1.1 billion a year.

Although beef farms have been less affected than cropping farms overall, some beef farming regions have been affected more than others, especially south-western Queensland.




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Drought is inevitable, Mr Joyce


Like previous ABARES research this study finds evidence of adaptation, with farmers reducing their sensitivity to dry conditions over time.

Our results suggest that without this adaptation the effects of the post-2000 climate shift would have been considerably larger, particularly for cropping farms.


Effect of post-2000 climate on average annual farm profits


Per cent change relative to 1950-1999 climate, holding non-climate factors constant. See report for more detail. ABARES FarmPredict

Risk and income volatility have also increased

The changed climate conditions since 2000 have also increased risk and income volatility.

This is particularly so for cropping farms, where we find the chance of low-profit years has more than doubled as a result of the change in climate conditions.


Effect of climate variability on typical cropping farm


Distribution of farm profits for 1950-1999 climate and 2000-2019 climate. See report for more detail. ABARES FarmPredict

Handle with care – the drought policy dilemma

Drought policy faces an almost unavoidable dilemma, that providing relief to farm businesses and households in times of drought risks slowing industry structural adjustment and innovation.

Adjustment, change and innovation are fundamental to improving agricultural productivity; maintaining Australia’s competitiveness in world markets; and providing attractive and financially sustainable opportunities for farm households.




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Helping farmers in distress doesn’t help them be the best: the drought relief dilemma


For these reasons, the strategic intent of drought policy has shifted away from seeking to protect and insulate farmers towards the promotion of drought preparedness and self‑reliance.

The best options for reconciling the drought policy dilemma focus on boosting the resilience of farm businesses and households to future droughts and climate variability, including through action and investment when farmers are not in drought.

The government’s Future Drought Fund, which will support research and innovation, is a good example of this approach.

Developing new insurance options is one worthwhile avenue of research which could provide farmers a way to self-manage risk. It would require investments in data and knowledge to support viable weather insurance markets: where farmers pay premiums sufficient to cover costs over time.




Read more:
Better data would help crack the drought insurance problem


Supporting farm households experiencing hardship is legitimate and important, but for the long term health of the farm sector this needs to be done in ways that promote resilience and improved productivity and allow for long term adjustment to change.The Conversation

Neal Hughes, Senior Economist, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES) and Steve Hatfield-Dodds, Executive Director, Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences (ABARES)

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Climate explained: regenerative farming can help grow food with less impact



Returning nutrients, including animal feces, to the land is important to maintain the soil’s capacity to sequester carbon.
from http://www.shutterstock.com, CC BY-ND

Troy Baisden, University of Waikato


CC BY-ND

Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.

If you have a question you’d like an expert to answer, please send it to climate.change@stuff.co.nz

I would like to know to what extent regenerative agriculture practices could play a role in reducing carbon emissions and producing food, including meat, in the future. From what I have read it seems to offer much, but I am curious about how much difference it would make if all of our farmers moved to this kind of land management practice. Or even most of them. – a question from Virginia

To identify and quantify the potential of regenerative agriculture to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we first have to define what it means. If regenerative practices maintain or improve production, and reduce wasteful losses on the farm, then the answer tends to be yes. But to what degree is it better, and can we verify this yet?

Let’s first define how regenerative farming differs from other ways of farming. For example, North Americans listening to environmentally conscious media would be likely to define most of New Zealand pastoral agriculture systems as regenerative, when compared to the tilled fields of crops they see across most of their continent.

If milk and meat-producing animals are not farmed on pasture, farmers have to grow grains to feed them and transport the fodder to the animals, often over long distances. It’s hard to miss that the transport is inefficient, but easier to miss that nutrients excreted by the animals as manure or urine can’t go back to the land that fed them.

Healthy soils

Returning nutrients to the land really matters because these build up soil, and grow more plants. We can’t sequester carbon in soil without returning nutrients to the soil.

New Zealand’s style of pastoral agricultural does this well, and we’re still improving as we focus on reducing nutrient losses to water.




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New Zealand launches plan to revive the health of lakes and rivers


Our pastoral soils tend to have as much carbon as they once did under forest, but concerns have been raised about carbon losses in some regions. Yet, we do still have two big problems.

First, the animals that efficiently digest tough plants – including cows, sheep, and goats – all belch the greenhouse gas methane. This is a direct result of their special stomachs, and chewing their cud. Therefore, farms will continue to have high greenhouse gas emissions per unit of meat and milk they produce. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report emphasised this, noting that changing diets can reduce emissions.

The second problem is worst in dairying. When a cow lifts its tail to urinate, litres of urine saturate a small area. The nitrogen content in this patch exceeds what plants and soil can retain, and the excess is lost to water as nitrate and to the air, partly as the powerful, long-lived greenhouse gas nitrous oxide.

Defining regenerative

Regenerative agriculture lacks a clear definition, but there is an opportunity for innovation around its core concept, which is a more circular economy. This means taking steps to reduce or recover losses, including those of nutrients and greenhouse gases.




Read more:
Regenerative agriculture can make farmers stewards of the land again


Organic agriculture, which prohibits the use of antibiotics and synthetic pesticides and fertilisers, could potentially include regenerative agriculture. Organics once had the same innovative status, but now has a clear business model and supply chain linked to a price premium achieved through certification.

The price premium and regulation linked to certification can limit the redesign of the organic agricultural systems to incremental improvements, limiting the inclusion of regenerative concepts. It also means that emission studies of organic agriculture may not reveal the potential benefits of regenerative agriculture.

Instead, the potential for a redesign of New Zealand’s style of pastoral dairy farming around regenerative principles provides a useful example of how progress might work. Pastures could shift from ryegrass and clover to a more diverse, more deeply rooted mix of alternate species such as chicory, plantains, lupins and other grasses. This system change would have three main benefits.

Win-win-win

The first big win in farming is always enhanced production, and this is possible by better matching the ideal diet for cows. High performance ryegrass-clover pastures contain too little energy and too much protein. Diverse pastures fix this, allowing potential increases in production.

A second benefit will result when protein content of pasture doesn’t exceed what cows need to produce milk, reducing or diluting the nitrogen concentrated in the urine patches that are a main source of nitrous oxide emissions and impacts on water.

A third set of gains can result if the new, more diverse pastures are better at capturing and storing nutrients in soil, usually through deeper and more vigorous root growth. These three gains interrelate and create options for redesign of the farm system. This is best done by farmers, although models may help put the three pieces together into a win-win-win.

Whether you’re interested in local beef in Virginia, or the future of New Zealand’s dairy industry, the principles that define regenerative agriculture look promising for redesigning farming to reduce emissions. They may prove simpler than agriculture’s wider search for new ways of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, including genetically engineering ryegrass.The Conversation

Troy Baisden, Professor and Chair in Lake and Freshwater Sciences, University of Waikato

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia urgently needs real sustainable agriculture policy



Australia must invest in sustainable agriculture.
Author provided

Jacqueline Williams, University of New England

Australia has made a global commitment to “sustainable agriculture”, an endeavour seen as increasingly crucial to ending world poverty, halting biodiversity loss, and combating climate change. A recent report from the UN found land use – including food production – is responsible for around one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately, Australia has something of a sustainable agriculture policy vacuum, after years of a fragmented, stop-start approach.




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To honour our international obligations and respond to growing sustainability markets, Australia urgently needs a contemporary definition of sustainable agriculture, including agreed on-farm metrics.

Good policy abandoned

Australia spent more than a decade developing promising policies that defined sustainable agriculture with broad indicators for measuring progress.

In 1997 Australia passed federal legislation defining “sustainable agriculture” as:

agricultural practices and systems that maintain or improve […] the economic viability of agricultural production; the social viability and well-being of rural communities; […] biodiversity; the natural resource base [and] ecosystems that are influenced by agricultural activities.

The following year, the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Resource Management published a broad set indicators.

During the early 2000s a national framework of Environmental Management Systems was developed, and national pilots were conducted across Australia up until 2006.

Between 2004 and 2006 the Australian Bureau of Statistics recorded farmers’ investment in natural resource management. However these surveys have not been replicated in more than a decade.

In 2005, the states and territories formed a joint working group to create a national approach to property management systems. This group met with industry representatives and regional land managers throughout 2006, and in 2007 the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry planned a pathway for a national policy. There was much hope and enthusiasm it would soon become a reality.

However, since 2008 there has been no progress and little, if any, explanation for why this important sustainable agriculture policy initiative was shelved.

Current policy vacuum

It is concerning that Australia’s first progress report on implementing the sustainable development goals contains the words “sustainable agriculture” only once in 130 pages, as part of the heading for the goal of ending hunger.

The definition arrived at in 1997 is far too broad and simplistic, and can’t be used at the farm level.

When contacted for comment, a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture reiterated their commitment to improving sustainable food production, and said:

Australia is involved in global discussions about how best to measure sustainable agriculture performance […] However a globally agreed methodology has not been set for [agricultural sustainability].

Australia’s only substantial sustainable agriculture policy mechanism at the moment appears to be grants available through the National Landcare Program. This is reiterated by searching through key Coalition policy documents and the recent budget.

The budget allocation to the overall National Landcare Program is around A$1 billion from 2017 to 2023. New programs announced in the 2019 budget that build on this commitment include:

  • A$100 million over four years for the environment restoration fund,
  • A$34 million over four years for a new biodiversity stewardship program,
  • A$28.3 million for a new communities environment program for 2019-20, and
  • A$2 billion over 15 years for the climate solutions fund.

These programs combined equate to some A$354 million per year. But a coherent sustainable agriculture policy cannot be delivered through grants alone.

And even though these grants are substantial, past ABS surveys found that farmers invest at least A$3 billion a year in natural resource management. The Indigenous on-country contribution is currently unknown, but likely to be substantial.

Caring for country fund

Around 10% of Australia’s population lives in rural or remote areas. These comparatively small communities – largely farmers and Indigenous land managers – currently steward most of the country.

A review released in late July on how conservation laws affect the agriculture sector has recommended the federal government create a A$1 billion fund for farmers who deliver environment benefits from their land.

This mirrors calls from farmers for an ecosystem services fund.

If our 13.9 million taxpayers contributed some A$60 each per year in a “caring for country” levy, urban and rural Australians could more fairly share the costs – as well as the advantages – of sustainable land management.

We could start with revisiting the good work undertaken more than a decade ago in developing a national framework for property management systems.

Underpinning such a system, we need an independent and trusted source of metrics for farmers, land managers and agricultural industries. To this end, the University of New England is establishing a research hub to help develop just such a harmonised approach.




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There are many good news stories of sustainable agriculture around Australia, however our ongoing biodiversity crisis requires transformative policy change and federal leadership.

One bold first step would be addressing the current paradox of sustainable agriculture in Australia.The Conversation

Jacqueline Williams, Senior Research Fellow & Lecturer, School of Environmental and Rural Science, University of New England

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.