Instant expert

Instant Expert: Carbon farming

A growing solution to greenhouse gases.

Tree

Credit: iStockphoto

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What’s a carbon farm?

Any farm can become a carbon farm by working to prevent the release of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere.

“A carbon farm is a farm that is run with an objective of not only growing food and fibre, but of growing carbon [capture] and reducing emissions.

We like to think of it as a carbon positive business entity,” says Michael Kiely, farmer and director of Carbon Farmers of Australia (CFA), who has been campaigning for soil carbon trading since 2005.

To encourage carbon farming in Australia, the federal government has released a draft proposal for a voluntary trading scheme for foresters and farmers. The Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI) will link carbon farms together into ‘carbon estates’, which would allow farmers to pool resources and share profits.

Why would a farmer start carbon farming?

A price placed on carbon will give farmers access to another source of income, plus there’s the possibility of the lucrative international market for trading.

The federal government estimates carbon farming could be worth up to $500 million over 10 years. There won’t be a limit placed on the amount of carbon credits a farmer can claim. However, some groups, such as the National Farmers’ Federation, say that the carbon price might be too low, so it won’t provide enough of an incentive for farmers to engage in carbon farming.

How does a farmer do this?

There’s a range of proposed ways that farmers could potentially generate carbon credits; from tree-planting to increasing the amount of carbon in their soil to reducing fertiliser use and controlling emissions from waste.

Reforesting seems straightforward enough; plant trees, sequester carbon. However, too many trees means less land to use for production. According to CFA, a hectare of pasture has the potential to sequester more than double the amount of carbon compared with a hectare of forest. Effective ways to store large amounts of carbon are by looking after the soil through controlled grazing, reduced cropping, mulching, and fire and water management.

Methane, a gas produced by cows and other ruminants, is 25 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Reducing these emissions is another option available to farmers under the proposed CFI. Feeding linseed oil to cattle has been shown to reduce methane emissions, says Kiely.

When is the Carbon Farming Initiative likely to start?

The federal government is aiming to roll out the CFI from July 2011 but there is much to achieve before then. The legislation is to be debated in Parliament next week.

What the movers and shakers think

Jock Laurie, President of the National Farmers’ Federation
"Carbon farming is a positive recognition of the role of agriculture in mitigating carbon emissions through on-farm management practices. If methodologies make it simple to engage in reforestation practices but not so for other agriculture-based abatement (such as livestock methane abatement and soil carbon), then there is a risk of significant land use change towards forestation and away from agriculture."

Susan Orgill, Soil carbon researcher, EH Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation
"Farmers are already ‘farming’ carbon; the real issue is how to manage the system so that increases are maintained. As soil organisms decompose organic matter they respire like us and carbon is lost from the soil in the form of carbon dioxide. Some management practices, such as aggressive cultivation, accelerate this process by increasing the rate of decomposition."

Rod Holesgrove, Biodiversity Policy Adviser, Humane Society International
"Carbon farming will benefit land management in Australia through improvements to soil carbon, greater retention of native vegetation on farms and scope for appropriate tree planting. The Carbon Farming Initiative is a voluntary scheme. A compulsory emissions trading scheme should incorporate carbon farming elements – this will result in an increased carbon price and provide much more income for farmers."