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.
Shutterstock

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.
Shutterstock

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.
Shutterstock

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.

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



Sukree Sukplang/Reuters

Pep Canadell, CSIRO; Ann Stavert; Ben Poulter, NASA; Marielle Saunois, Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (UVSQ) – Université Paris-Saclay ; Paul Krummel, CSIRO, and Rob Jackson, Stanford University

Fossil fuels and agriculture are driving a dangerous acceleration in methane emissions, at a rate consistent with a 3-4℃ rise in global temperatures this century.

Our two papers published today provide a troubling report card on the global methane budget, and explore what it means for achieving the Paris Agreement target of limiting warming to well below 2℃.

Methane concentration in the atmosphere reached 1,875 parts per billion at the end of 2019 – more than two and a half times higher than pre-industrial levels.

Once emitted, methane stays in the atmosphere for about nine years – a far shorter period than carbon dioxide. However its global warming potential is 86 times higher than carbon dioxide when averaged over 20 years and 28 times higher over 100 years.

In Australia, methane emissions from fossil fuels are rising due to expansion of the natural gas industry, while agriculture emissions are falling.

Agriculture and fossil fuels are driving the rise in methane emissions.
EPA

Balancing the global methane budget

We produced a methane “budget” in which we tracked both methane sources and sinks. Methane sources include human activities such as agriculture and burning fossil fuels, as well as natural sources such as wetlands. Sinks refer to the destruction of methane in the atmosphere and soils.

Our data show methane emissions grew almost 10% from the decade of 2000-2006 to the most recent year of the study, 2017.




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Atmospheric methane is increasing by around 12 parts per billion each year – a rate consistent with a scenario modelled by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change under which Earth warms by 3-4℃ by 2100.

From 2008-2017, 60% of methane emissions were man-made. These include, in order of contribution:

  • agriculture and waste, particularly emissions from ruminant animals (livestock), manure, landfills, and rice farming
  • the production and use of fossil fuels, mainly from the oil and gas industry, followed by coal mining
  • biomass burning, from wood burning for heating, bushfires and burning biofuels.
2000 years of atmospheric methane concentrations. Observations taken from ice cores and atmosphere. Source: BoM/CSIRO/AAD.

The remaining emissions (40%) come from natural sources. In order of contribution, these include:

  • wetlands, mostly in tropical regions and cold parts of the planet such as Siberia and Canada
  • lakes and rivers
  • natural geological sources on land and oceans such as gas–oil seeps and mud volcanoes
  • smaller sources such as tiny termites in the savannas of Africa and Australia.

So what about the sinks? Some 90% of methane is ultimately destroyed, or oxidised, in the lower atmosphere when it reacts with hydroxyl radicals. The rest is destroyed in the higher atmosphere and in soils.

Increasing methane concentrations in the atmosphere could, in part, be due to a decreasing rate of methane destruction as well as rising emissions. However, our findings don’t suggest this is the case.

Measurements show that methane is accumulating in the atmosphere because human activity is producing it at a much faster rate than it’s being destroyed.

NASA video showing sources of global methane.

Source of the problem

The biggest contributors to the methane increase were regions at tropical latitudes, such as Brazil, South Asia and Southeast Asia, followed by those at the northern-mid latitude such as the US, Europe and China.

In Australia, agriculture is the biggest source of methane. Livestock are the predominant cause of emissions in this sector, which have declined slowly over time.

The fossil fuel industry is the next biggest contributor in Australia. Over the past six years, methane emissions from this sector have increased due to expansion of the natural gas industry, and associated “fugitive” emissions – those that escape or are released during gas production and transport.




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


Tropical emissions were dominated by increases in the agriculture and waste sector, whereas northern-mid latitude emissions came mostly from burning fossil fuels. When comparing global emissions in 2000-2006 to those in 2017, both agriculture and fossil fuels use contributed equally to the emissions growth.

Since 2000, coal mining has contributed most to rising methane emissions from the fossil fuel sector. But the natural gas industry’s rapid growth means its contribution is growing.

Some scientists fear global warming will cause carbon-rich permafrost (ground in the Arctic that is frozen year-round) to thaw, releasing large amounts of methane.

But in the northern high latitudes, we found no increase in methane emissions between the last two decades. There are several possible explanations for this. Improved ground, aerial and satellite surveys are needed to ensure emissions in this vast region are not being missed.

More surveys are needed into thawing permafrost in the high northern latitudes.
Pikist

Fixing our methane leaks

Around the world, considerable research and development efforts are seeking ways to reduce methane emissions. Methods to remove methane from the atmosphere are also being explored.

Europe shows what’s possible. There, our research shows methane emissions have declined over the past two decades – largely due to agriculture and waste policies which led to better managing of livestock, manure and landfill.

Livestock produce methane as part of their digestive process. Feed additives and supplements can reduce these emissions from ruminant livestock. There is also research taking place into selective breeding for low emissions livestock.




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The extraction, processing and transport of fossil fuels contributes to substantial methane emissions. But “super-emitters” – oil and gas sites that release a large volume of methane – contribute disproportionately to the problem.

This skewed distribution presents opportunities. Technology is available that would enable super-emitters to significantly reduce emissions in a very cost effective way.

Clearly, current upward trends in methane emissions are incompatible with meeting the goals of the Paris climate agreement. But methane’s short lifetime in the atmosphere means any action taken today would bring results in just nine years. That provides a huge opportunity for rapid climate change mitigation.The Conversation

Pep Canadell, Chief research scientist, CSIRO Oceans and Atmosphere; and Executive Director, Global Carbon Project, CSIRO; Ann Stavert, Project Scientist; Ben Poulter, Research scientist, NASA; Marielle Saunois, Enseignant-chercheur, Laboratoire des sciences du climat et de l’environnement (LSCE), Université de Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines (UVSQ) – Université Paris-Saclay ; Paul Krummel, Research Group Leader, CSIRO, and Rob Jackson, Chair, Department of Earth System Science, and Chair of the Global Carbon Project, globalcarbonproject.org, Stanford University

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?



Kira Volkov/Shutterstock

Sebastian Leuzinger, Auckland University of Technology


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 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.




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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.

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



Sue McIntyre, Author provided

Sue McIntyre, Australian National University

Last week we learned woody vegetation in New South Wales is being cleared at more than double the rate of the previous decade – and agriculture was responsible for more than half the destruction.

Farming now covers 58% of Australia, or 385 million hectares, and accounts for 59% of water extracted.

It’s painfully clear nature is buckling under the weight of farming’s demands. In the past decade, the federal government has listed ten ecological communities as endangered, or critically endangered, as a result of farming development and practices.

So how can we accommodate the needs of both farming and nature? Research shows us how – but it means accepting land as a finite resource, and operating within its limits. In doing so, farmers will also reap benefits.

Grassy eucalypt woodlands used for cattle farming in subtropical Queensland.
Tara Martin. Author provided.

Healthy grazing landscapes

In the 1990s, I worked as a research ecologist in the cattle country of sub-tropical Queensland. The prevailing culture valued agricultural development over conservation. Yet many of these producers lived on viable farms that supported a wealth of native plants and animals.

They made a living from the native grassy eucalypt woodlands, an ecosystem that extends from Cape York to Tasmania. In these healthy landscapes, vigorous pastures of tall perennial grasses protected the soil, enriched it with carbon and fed the cattle.




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


NSW and Victoria have similar eucalypt grassy vegetation, but farming here has taken a very different path.

Fertilised legumes and grasses grown for livestock fodder have replaced hundreds of native grassland plants. Over time, native trees and shrubs stopped regenerating and remaining trees became unhealthy, destroying wildlife habitat. The transformation was hastened by aerial applications of fertiliser and herbicide.

By 2006, 4.5 million hectares of box-gum grassy woodland – or 90% – in temperate Australia had been destroyed.

Aerial delivery of fertiliser, seed and herbicide transformed grassy woodlands in NSW.
F. G. Swain. Author provided.

A template for sustainability

Back in Queensland in the 1990s, my colleagues and I devised a template for sustainable land use. Funded by the livestock industry and a now-defunct federal corporation, we worked with producers and government agencies to find the right balance between farm production and conserving natural resources.

Our research concluded that for farming to be sustainable, intensive land uses must be limited. Such intensive uses include crops and non-native pastures. They are “high input”, typically requiring fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides, and some form of cultivation. They return greater yields but kill native plants, and are prone to soil and nutrient runoff into waterways.

But our template was not adopted as conventional farming practice. In the past 20 years, Australia’s cropping area has increased by 18,200 square kilometres.

By 2019, 38,000 square kilometres of poplar box grassy woodland in Australia had been cleared – more than half the size of Tasmania. The ecosystem was listed as endangered in 2019. Until that point, it had been considered invasive native scrub in NSW – exempting it from clearing regulations – and was systematically cleared for agriculture in Queensland.

Farmers should conserve sufficient areas of landscape to support native plants and animals.
Sue McIntyre, Author provided

Regenerating the land

Hearteningly, our research was recently revived in a multidisciplinary study of regenerative grazing on the grassy woodlands of NSW. The template was used to assess the ecological condition of participating farms.

The study examined differences in profitability between graziers who had adopted regenerative techniques such as low-input pasture management, and all other sheep, sheep-beef and mixed cropping-grazing farmers in their region.




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Three ways farms of the future can feed the planet and heal it too


It found regenerative grazing was often more profitable than other types of farming, especially in dry years. Regenerative farmers also experienced significantly higher than average well-being compared with other NSW farmers.

So what does our template involve? First, it identifies four types of land use relevant to farmed grassy woodland regions.

Second, it specifies the proportion of land that should be allocated to each use, in order to achieve landscape health (see pie chart below). The proportions can be applied to single farm, or entire districts or regions.

How to sustain production, natural resources and native flora and fauna on a landscape or farm.
Sue McIntyre

Intensive land use involves activities that replace nearly all native species. If these activities occupy more than 30% of the landscape, there’s insufficient habitat to maintain many native species, especially plants.

At least 10% of land must be devoted to nature conservation. The remaining 60% of the land should involve low-intensity activity such as grazed native pasture and timber production. If managed well, these land uses can support human livelihoods and a diversity of native species.

Within that split of land use, total native woodland should be no less than 30%. This guarantees connected habitats for native plants and animals, enabling movement and breeding opportunities.

Retaining grassy woodland ensures habitat for native animals.
Duncan McCaskill/Flickr

Respect the land’s limits

Australians ask a lot of our land. It must make space for our houses, businesses, and roads. It should support all species to prevent extinctions. And it must produce our food and fibre.

Global population growth demands a rapid rise in food production. But relying on intensive agriculture to achieve this is unsustainable. Aside from damaging the land, it increases greenhouse gas emissions though mechanisation, fertilisation, chemical use and tree clearing.




Read more:
Australian farmers are adapting to climate change


To meet the challenges of the future we must ensure farmed landscapes retain their ecological functions. In particular, maintaining biodiversity is key to climate adaptation. And as many of Australia’s plants and animals march towards extinction, the need to reverse biodiversity loss has never been greater.

Farmers can be profitable while maintaining and improving the ecological health of their land. It’s time to look harder at farming models that respect the limits of nature, and recognise that less can be more.The Conversation

Sue McIntyre, Honorary Professor, Australian National University

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 change is hurting farmers – even seeds are under threat



kram9/Shutterstock

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.




Read more:
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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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.




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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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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.




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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.

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



Farming emits greenhouse gases, but the land can also store them.
Johny Goerend/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

Mark Howden, Australian National University

We can’t achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement without managing emissions from land use, according to a special report released today by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

Emissions from land use, largely agriculture, forestry and land clearing, make up some 22% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. Counting the entire food chain (including fertiliser, transport, processing, and sale) takes this contribution up to 29%.




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The report, which synthesises information from some 7,000 scientific papers, found there is no way to keep global warming under 2℃ without significant reductions in land sector emissions.

Land puts out emissions – and absorbs them

The land plays a vital role in the carbon cycle, both by absorbing greenhouse gases and by releasing them into the atmosphere. This means our land resources are both part of the climate change problem and potentially part of the solution.

Improving how we manage the land could reduce climate change at the same time as it improves agricultural sustainability, supports biodiversity, and increases food security.

While the food system emits nearly a third of the world’s greenhouse gases – a situation also reflected in Australia – land-based ecosystems absorb the equivalent of about 22% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This happens through natural processes that store carbon in soil and plants, in both farmed lands and managed forests as well as in natural “carbon sinks” such as forests, seagrass and wetlands.




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There are opportunities to reduce the emissions related to land use, especially food production, while at the same time protecting and expanding these greenhouse gas sinks.

But it is also immediately obvious that the land sector cannot achieve these goals by itself. It will require substantial reductions in fossil fuel emissions from our energy, transport, industrial, and infrastructure sectors.

Overburdened land

So, what is the current state of our land resources? Not that great.

The report shows there are unprecedented rates of global land and freshwater used to provide food and other products for the record global population levels and consumption rates.

For example, consumption of food calories per person worldwide has increased by about one-third since 1961, and the average person’s consumption of meat and vegetable oils has more than doubled.

The pressure to increase agricultural production has helped push about a quarter of the Earth’s ice-free land area into various states of degradation via loss of soil, nutrients and vegetation.

Simultaneously, biodiversity has declined globally, largely because of deforestation, cropland expansion and unsustainable land-use intensification. Australia has experienced much the same trends.




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Climate change exacerbates land degradation

Climate change is already having a major impact on the land. Temperatures over land are rising at almost twice the rate of global average temperatures.

Linked to this, the frequency and intensity of extreme events such as heatwaves and flooding rainfall has increased. The global area of drylands in drought has increased by over 40% since 1961.

These and other changes have reduced agricultural productivity in many regions – including Australia. Further climate changes will likely spur soil degradation, loss of vegetation, biodiversity and permafrost, and increases in fire damage and coastal degradation.




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We desperately need to store more carbon – seagrass could be the answer


Water will become more scarce, and our food supply will become less stable. Exactly how these risks will evolve will depend on population growth, consumption patterns and also how the global community responds.

Overall, proactive and informed management of our land (for food, water and biodiversity) will become increasingly important.

Stopping land degradation helps everyone

Tackling the interlinked problems of land degradation, climate change adaptation and mitigation, and food security can deliver win-wins for farmers, communities, governments, and ecosystems.

The report provides many examples of on-ground and policy options that could improve the management of agriculture and forests, to enhance production, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and make these areas more robust to climate change. Leading Australian farmers are already heading down these paths, and we have a lot to teach the world about how to do this.

We may also need to reassess what we demand from the land. Farmed animals are a major contributor to these emissions, so plant-based diets are increasingly being adopted.

Similarly, the report found about 25-30% of food globally is lost or wasted. Reducing this can significantly lower emissions, and ease pressure on agricultural systems.

How do we make this happen?

Many people around the world are doing impressive work in addressing some of these problems. But the solutions they generate are not necessarily widely used or applied comprehensively.

To be successful, coordinated policy packages and land management approaches are pivotal. Inevitably, all solutions are highly location-specific and contextual, and it is vital to bring together local communities and industry, as well as governments at all levels.




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Given the mounting impacts of climate change on food security and land condition, there is no time to lose.


The author acknowledges the contributions to authorship of this article by Clare de Castella, Communications Manager, ANU Climate Change Institute.The Conversation

Mark Howden, Director, Climate Change Institute, Australian National University

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

Why is everyone talking about natural sequence farming?


Ian Rutherfurd, University of Melbourne

On the eve of the recent National Drought Summit, prime minister Scott Morrison and deputy prime minister Michael McCormack visited Mulloon Creek near Canberra, shown recently on the ABC’s Australian Story. They were there to see a creek that was still flowing, and green with vegetation, despite seven months of drought.

Mulloon Creek was the legacy of a long collaboration between prominent agriculturalist Peter Andrews, and Tony Coote, the owner of the property who died in August. For decades they have implemented Andrews’ “natural sequence farming” system at Mulloon Creek.




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Central to the system is slowing flow in the creek with “leaky weirs”. These force water back into the bed and banks of the creek, which rehydrates the floodplain. This rehydrated floodplain is then said to be more productive and sustainable.

McCormack, who is also the minister for infrastructure, transport and regional development, was impressed and declared the success of Mulloon as a “model for everyone … this needs to be replicated right around our nation”. The ABC program suggested this form of farming could reduce the impact of drought across Australia. So, what is the evidence?

The promise of natural sequence farming

There are plenty of anecdotes but little published science around the effectiveness of natural sequence farming. What there is describes some modest floodplain rehydration, little change to stream flows, some trapping of sediment and some improvements in soil condition. These results are encouraging but not miraculous.

How much each of the different components of natural sequence farming contributes is not always clear, and the economic arguments for widespread adoption are modest. At present, there is not the standard of evidence to support this farming method as a panacea for drought relief, as proposed by the deputy prime minister.




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


But if the evidence does emerge, why wouldn’t farmers simply adopt the methods as part of a sensible business model? Don’t all farmers want to do better in drought?

In the ABC show, and elsewhere, supporters of natural sequence farming argue that it is hard for farmers to adopt the methods because government regulations restrict use of willows, blackberries and other weeds, that they claim, are particularly effective in restoring streams.

Governments are correct to be wary of this call to use weeds, and some research suggests that native plants can do a similar job. This restriction on use of weeds might be galling for proponents of natural sequence farming but it should not be a fundamental impediment to adoption.

A more important frustration for natural sequence farming practitioners is how widely the approach can be applied. In Australian Story, John Ryan, a rural journalist, says:

I am sick of politicians, farmers groups, and government departments telling me that Peter Andrews only works where you’ve got little creeks in a mountain valley … I’ve seen it work on flat-lands, steep lands, anywhere.

Natural sequence farming arose in the attempt to restore upland valleys and creeks in southern NSW that were once environmentally valuable chains of ponds or swampy meadows. But these waterways have become deeply incised, degraded, and disconnected from their floodplains. Not only does this incision produce a great deal of sediment pollution, but it produces many agricultural problems.




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In reality, small and medium-sized stream systems across much of Australia have deepened after European settlement. If the leaky weirs of natural sequence farming are effective, then they could be applied across many gullied and incised streams across the country.

We’ve already been doing it

The good news is that landholders and governments have already been using aspects of natural sequence farming in those very gullies for decades to control erosion.

Since the 1970s, across the world, one useful method for controlling erosion has been grade-control structures. They were once made of concrete but are now usually made of dumped rock (called rock-chutes), and also logs.

Rock chutes in Barwidgee Creek, 1992, Ovens River catchment, Victoria. Source: T McCormack NE Catchment Management Authority.
T McCormack NE Catchment Management Authority
The same creek in 2002. It is now heavily vegetated and has pools of water, just like Mulloon Park.
T McCormack NE Catchment Management Authority

These structures reduce the speed of water flow, trap sediment, encourage vegetation, and stop gullies from deepening. These are all goals of natural sequence farming using leaky weirs.

There are thousands of such structures, supported by government initiatives, across the Australian landscape acting as an unrecognised experiment in rehydration and drought protection.




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Perhaps governments should already have evaluated these structures, but the rehydration potential of these works has not been recognised in the past. It is time that this public investment was scientifically evaluated.

We may find that natural sequence farming and the routine government construction of grade-control structures have similar effects on farmland and the environment.

But whatever the outcome, gully management is not likely to mark the end of drought in the Australian landscape.The Conversation

Ian Rutherfurd, Associate Professor in Geography, University of Melbourne

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