Opinion

Matthew Evans
The need for sustainable farming

“Don’t eat beef,” screamed the headlines when the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its latest report on climate change and land. At least that’s what most of the media suggested.

A damning report, it quickly did the rounds. The 1400 pages – compiled by 107 scholars from 52 nations – mark the best attempt yet to predict the impacts of our actions on land. It covers wetlands, tundra, deforestation, agriculture, urban sprawl and more. But as tends to happen, the message was simplified beyond recognition. And, as usual, cattle ended up as the press’s punching bag with the claims that beef and dairy are to blame.

As I looked outside my window, though, and watched my Jersey cow Myrtle graze on grass, I did wonder what the report actually said. Could it be that by growing grass, a renewable resource that captures carbon, getting my cow to eat that grass (something I can’t digest) and turn it into nutritionally dense milk (which I can digest), I was contributing more than my share to the climate collapse?

My cow doesn’t dig up coal. My cow doesn’t drill for oil. And unless she’s doing things very sneakily, I don’t think my cow is fracking either. How could a cow, using a renewable resource as her fodder, be compared to digging up and releasing carbon that has been stored underground for 300 million years, as burning coal, oil and natural gas all do?

So, I went not to the 10-second news grabs or lazy headlines but to the IPCC report itself, and it’s no easy reading. Criticisms are couched, references extensive. What it did not say was that meat is the only culprit. In fact, it says that farming – the way we’ve done it for the past 100 years in particular – is unsustainable. It also points out, awkwardly, that we waste a third of the food we grow. Think about that for a moment. If global food waste were a country, it would be the third-highest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, after the United States and China.

Perhaps harder to fix is farming itself. And after I went on ABC’s The Drum to discuss the report, I was summarily dropped from speaking at a farmers’ forum. What’s clear is that the message isn’t getting through to those who can make a difference – the farmers themselves. Criticising a farmer, it seems, is akin to criticising a parent.

If they are honest, farmers know the climate is changing. They notice drier years, tougher years, warmer temperatures and more evaporation of the rain that does fall. Despite knowing things are shifting, a sizeable number of farmers still question human impacts on climate.

I admire farmers. I think the alchemy of producing food using sunlight, air, soil and water should be celebrated. But I’d rather get my science from a scientist.

And what the science says that should interest farmers most is that the magic bit of earth that does all of the growing, the topsoil, is quickly diminishing.

There’s three times more carbon, even today, in the top metre of the world’s soil than there is in the atmosphere – stored in decaying plants and humus, as well as microbes, such as bacteria and fungi. Cut down trees and you deplete soil. And plough the earth? You ruin soil more than 100 times faster than new topsoil can be created, according to the IPCC. Even if you don’t till the earth when growing crops, you ruin it about 20 times faster than it can be replaced. And what is modern farming all about? Growing grains, for humans and livestock, and annual crops such as vegetables.

At least a quarter of the increased carbon in the atmosphere since the industrial revolution has been released from soil. That’s a lot of carbon if you think about how much coal, oil and gas we’ve churned through. According to the IPCC, “Cropland soils have lost 20-60 per cent of their organic carbon content.”

In simple terms, we’re in the process of buggering up the priceless bit of earth, the part that feeds us. Australian farmland soil carbon has dropped to only a quarter of its original since white settlement. In many places, a lot more.

So, what does the IPCC report on land actually say?

It says we should stop cutting down trees. We need to plant more trees. It says farming, where monoculture crops and pesticide use are rampant, is ruining the land. It says, and this is the key, that we can feed the world, and store carbon, by being more clever about the way we use the land we have.

It says there are sustainable animal production systems, but industrial livestock production isn’t one. That eating local and seasonal is, in many cases, a valuable environmental choice – not just a trendy thing for rich urbanites carrying wicker baskets. The carbon footprint for airfreighted food is 100 times greater than if it were transported by boat. And that’s fossil fuel carbon, not cow burps.

In fact, when you look at ways to store carbon, Australian agriculture has a world first: the only farmer to get paid by the government after increasing the amount of carbon in his soil. Niels Olsen, a Gippsland cattle farmer – that’s right, a beef producer – has come up with a system of sowing crops including oats, radish and peas into pasture, then grazing the area with livestock in a way that increases his productivity per acre. This method also stores carbon, in a time frame previously thought unimaginable.

Testing shows carbon in Olsen’s soil rose from about 3 per cent to 10.7 per cent in just five years. Using an ingenious machine he’s invented – a sort of combined slasher, seeder and hoe – he has increased his productivity. This is because there’s more carbon and higher fungal activity in his soil, and these fundamental changes allow plants to grow more efficiently.

It’s a complex process, but essentially there’s more phosphorus, nitrogen, and even more water available – partly because Olsen’s worm and microbe populations are now six times bigger than they were. Carbon storage on the farm has been independently verified and attracted carbon credits through the federal government’s Emissions Reduction Fund.

Farmers would be hard pressed to access the system themselves, though, with all the methodology and red tape. It was Matthew Warnken from AgriProve, a company set up to help farmers improve soil and trade in carbon credits, who navigated the complex carbon accounting and verification for Olsen. “A lot of Australian land is in a poor state of repair,” Warnken admits. “But that means there’s just so much potential.”

Is Olsen’s property a one-off? “We’ve got 70 farmers signed up looking to do the same thing,” Warnken says. “We’re only really scratching the surface.” Farmers can plant trees to get carbon credits, but this isn’t meaningful work for many, and it doesn’t feed the world. Warnken’s mission is to make carbon accounting in farmland standard practice. To find out whether all farms are improving, or depleting, the land we rely on.

Turns out, all livestock farmers aren’t devils. And vegetable and grain growers aren’t automatically saviours of our soils. The most sustainable farming systems come up with an ecological model, often including animals, that suits their geography. Diversity is key. According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, 70 per cent of the world’s food is grown by smallholders on 10 hectares or fewer. Many of these are mixed farms, where land not suitable for crops is used for livestock, and things that humans can’t, don’t or won’t eat is fed to animals.

The IPCC report recognises meat as a nutrient-dense food. It does, however, recommend against energy-intensive animal agriculture, and suggests some people, in richer countries, could eat less meat.

The thing is that farmers have been – mostly inadvertently – creating a problem. Yet they can also be part of the solution. Through proper leadership, good science, enforceable legislation on land clearing – yes, you, Queensland and New South Wales state governments – and local action, we can make a change. Eating less animal products might make sense for some, depending on their location, belief system, genetic make-up and access to truly sustainable meat. But it’s not livestock that is the problem; it’s humans and the way we farm all things.

It’s easy to blurt “don’t eat meat” when a report such as this comes out. But saying farming is screwed and we need to fix it leaves individuals feeling needlessly anxious about eating at all. A lack of leadership in the climate change space means everybody wants to be personally empowered. Buying less stuff is a great start. Using less fuel, flying less, driving less, burning less gas, these are real ways to have an impact. Avoiding energy-intensive grain-fed animals is where the report lands on eating meat. If you can, buy local, seasonal, unprocessed ingredients from integrated, ecological farmers. But when it comes to food, the biggest change has to come from farmers themselves.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 5, 2019 as "Climate beef". Subscribe here.

Matthew Evans
is a farmer, a chef by trade and the author of a dozen books on food.