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Carbon, beef and the underground economy

Oct 9, 2019 • 16m57s

The latest IPCC report says current farming practices are unsustainable. But there are solutions, if farmers want to change.

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Carbon, beef and the underground economy

96 • Oct 9, 2019

Carbon, beef and the underground economy

[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Elizabeth Kulas, this is 7am

The latest IPCC says current farming practices are unsustainable. But there are solutions, if farmers want to change. Matthew Evans on how the way we grow food could change the world.

[Theme music ends]

Archival tape -- [Sound of pig squeals]

ELIZABETH:

Hi Matthew, what have you been up to this morning?

MATTHEW:

I was just out checking out my pigs. So we've got three mother pigs and hoping one of them will give birth fairly soon, but she's looking like she's holding off, and we had to go past a couple of dairy cows.

ELIZABETH:

Matthew Evans is a farmer, chef and former restaurant critic. He wrote about the latest IPCC report for The Saturday Paper.

MATTHEW:

So I've got Bessie with her one week old calf, and I just put it on to a new strip.

Archival tape -- [Sound of cow eating grass]

MATTHEW:

The sounds of cattle eating long grass is one of the great joys of my very small life.

ELIZABETH:

So Matthew, the IPCC published its latest report late last year, which lays out the scientific effects of climate change. Where were you when you sat down to read it?

MATTHEW:

I mostly read it in my office at home overlooking the paddocks outside my window. I want to see what the report actually said rather than just sort of, you know, the 100-200 word media reports.

ELIZABETH:

Because the report itself is quite big and unwieldy, isn't it?

MATTHEW:

Yeah it's ridiculous. Like, fourteen hundred pages, over 100 scholars from 52 nations and it all got pretty much simplified to: all meat is bad but beef is the worst and dairy are terrible because cows burp out methane.

[Music begins]

Archival tape -- Unidentified Man 1:

“Half a pound of beef causes as much greenhouse gas to be emitted as driving 55 of these cars for 1 mile.”

Archival tape -- Unidentified Woman 1:

“They’re recommending shifting, we’ve heard this before, to a more plant based diet.”

Archival tape -- Unidentified Man 2:

“If we move towards vegan lifestyles, if we change how we are using the land, we might be able to reverse that damage, but the clock is ticking…”

MATTHEW:

… and that's only a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of what the report was trying to say.

ELIZABETH:

So what did you find that it said, in its entirety?

MATTHEW:

Really complex reports, in particular around the climate change space, get simplified and I think this report in particular said, farming the way we've done it, in particular the last 100-200 years, where we're burning lots of fossil fuels, where we're plowing lots of land, adding lots of artificial fertiliser - that's not sustainable. Where they condemned meat, I guess, was when they looked at intensive farming. So where you grow grains that could be fed to people and instead fed them to animals, and where you do that in an intensive situation, you create all sorts of knock-on effects.

So what they're saying, really, is; use the resources we've got, use them better, do it in a sustainable way that you think considers the ecology and geography of your particular part of the world, and try to do it in a way that, you know, either doesn't deplete topsoil or even can regenerate topsoil.

ELIZABETH:

And why is topsoil so important?

MATTHEW:

Topsoil is the magic bit that grows everything that we eat on earth, and plants have this amazing ability to trap the sun's energy and turn it into sugars and those sugars are then, you know, stored in soil as carbohydrates, but they can be released from soil. You know, some people say two thirds to three quarters of the amount of carbon that was stored in soil in our agricultural lands 200 years ago has been released through our modern farming methods. What that means is, we've released carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through our farming methods. And what I was interested in is, are there ideas that they encompass where we can grow food and not bugger up the world?

ELIZABETH:

So what are the farming methods that have caused all that methane to be released from the topsoil, and what's wrong with those methods?

MATTHEW:

If you come to a pristine environment, the worst thing you can do for soil is to chop down trees because trees protect the Earth from heavy winds and heavy rains and erosion and they lock up nutrients and store nutrients in the soil. The second worst thing you can do is plow the land, and plowing the earth, tilling it, turning it over, is what we've done for the last 50 to 100 years because now we have the tractor. What that does is release nutrients really quickly so the plants that you grow the next year grow really quickly, but you ruined topsoil 100 times faster than it can be made. We want to grow food forever and we can't do it the way we've been doing it for the last 200 years. And so we have to rethink farming.

ELIZABETH:

So is this about plowing, rather than things like cow methane?

MATTHEW:

We've consistently turned arable land into desert since biblical times and before, right. That's really well documented. But we've just sped up that pace over the last 200 years. And carbon emissions from cattle are an issue, but they're not the driver of increased carbon in the system. The only thing that can increase carbon in the system is stuff that's been locked away for 300 million years. Coal, oil, natural gas.

ELIZABETH:

Okay, but now that those emissions have been released, should we not be looking for ways to limit other emissions, and animal products is one of those?

MATTHEW:

Yes look that's that's probably quite valid because once you've released that carbon, then we have to look at ways of storing it and what we can do to mitigate the effects of that carbon that has been released.

ELIZABETH:

Matthew, you're also a chef. The IPCC report had some pretty intense statistics about food wastage, too.

MATTHEW:

Yeah, one of the most telling things in the IPCC report on land was that a third of the food that we grow, we waste. So, if food waste was a country, in terms of greenhouse gas emissions from that country, they would be the third highest emitter in the world after China, the USA first, and then China. So food waste is a massive greenhouse gas emitter. We can already feed 11 billion people with the food we grow, it's just we don't manage that food well enough. You know, we don’t have to deforest, we don't have to change land use, we already grow that food. We just have to stop wasting it and we could feed people or feed people better or far more sustainably just by tackling that one issue.

ELIZABETH:

We’ll be right back.

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ELIZABETH:

Matthew, you've read the IPCC’s report, which has some damning things to say about farming and about food and wastage. What are some of the solutions that it puts forward?

MATTHEW:

We can definitely feed ourselves. We don't have to change land use and we can do it in a sustainable way but we have to rethink farming, we have to work with the environment that gifts us this land, and gifts us this soil, and gifts gives us this rainfall.

So, there are ways to do that. So they recognise that intensive animal production is not sustainable. They think that monoculture crops, where there's lots of pesticide use and lots of artificial fertiliser added, is unsustainable. And what they suggest is a model where mixed farming systems that have lots of different species that might include animals as part of their rotations or part of the land use would be a much better use of the land.

They also say that we can store carbon in soil and that might involve planting trees, it definitely involves not cutting down more trees. If you can graze your animals in a way that allows your grass to grow more vigorously, you can actually store carbon in your soil. So take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and store it in your soil simply by the way you manage your livestock.

In a tablespoon of living soil, you've got as many microbes as there are people on earth. In a tablespoon of healthy soil, there's 8 to 9 billion living microbes. They are all animals. They can't create their own energy like a plant can. The only way they get energy is when the plant gives it to them. But, but -- this is the beautiful thing -- there’s this underground economy where the microbes want sugars and the plants want all the nutrients from the soil.

All those sugars are carbon based, so if you have something that grazes the top of a paddock, a cow or a sheep or a goat that eats the top of your grass, some of the roots die into the soil -- that's carbon sitting in the soil, rotting into the soil that becomes food for microbes. So you can store lots more carbon in the soil. And there's lots of examples of these things happening around the world, but it's not the norm. They're very much the exception to the rule and the IPCC report was suggesting we have to look more closely at all these people doing all these different cool little things, work out which ones do really a good job at storing carbon, that do a good job of growing food sustainably, and follow those models and forget the model that we followed for the last 200 years.

ELIZABETH:

Matthew, tell me about some of those farmers. In your piece you mention Niels Olsen…

MATTHEW:

Yeah, Niels Olson. He actually had a tax problem, he got into this... he actually was a farmer that was making too much money. What he did is he went and bought lots of fertiliser, artificial fertiliser created by burning natural gas. And he put that all over his paddocks, but his paddocks was to go really brown in winter and really brown at the end of summer. So it wasn't getting the result from his land that he wanted, even though he was getting rid of some of the extra money he'd earned and he thought he was making his soil more healthy. So he started thinking of other ways to improve his soil.

He came up with this system, he actually plants into his pasture, so grasslands, he plants lots of different seeds into the pasture. So, he doesn't dig it up, he doesn't plow it up, but he cuts these little furrows, tiny little furrows, and he has this machine that plants all these different plants in there and they all grow so you've got things like peas, which are storing nitrogen in the soil, you’ve got corn, you’ve got this tillage radish, it looks like a daikon, seven or eight different things along with the grass.

He then puts his cattle through when all those things have grown, and what happens is all of the roots from those plants, they're fertilising his soil. He doesn't harvest any of this, by the way. None of these are for humans to eat. He just plants these seeds and leaves them in the middle of his grasses, and all the roots from those things die into the soil and he grows this amazing grass.

Now, what's really beautiful about it, is he has increased his carbon in his soil from 3 per cent to 10.7 per cent in five years. Now, that's unheard of. He's getting paid, the world's first farmer to get paid to store carbon in his soil.

ELIZABETH:

So he’s getting carbon credits for that process?

MATTHEW:

He's getting carbon credits for that. Now, normally, most farmers in Australia who are getting carbon credits, they would plant trees. So there’s this beautiful thing, there's a synergy. He's getting much healthier soil. He's drawing vast amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere while producing really, really high quality nutrient-dense food in the process.

ELIZABETH:

So this is the way that farmers can change their practices at a commercial scale. Do you think that they will?

MATTHEW:

He's got 100 hectares, something like that, which is pretty big. This is not something that's being done on a 10 by 10 meter plot in, in some university somewhere. This is a real farmer making a real living in Australia which we know is some of the most impoverished and oldest soils on Earth.

Even farmers who reckon humans aren't affecting the climate could look at Niels and go, my God. How many more cattle can he grow per hectare? How much more carbon is he got in his soil? How much less is he paying for artificial fertilisers? And he's getting paid by the government to do it. Bugger the climate change debate, if you’re a sensible farmer, you’d look at that and go, “Well that just makes sense from a financial point of view and a lifestyle point of view. I can grow more per hectare. My ground is better. My animals are healthier. My soil retains moisture better and I don't have to buy any fertiliser”.

ELIZABETH:

Do you think that farmers see themselves as part of the solution?

MATTHEW:

I think farmers generally know that climate change is happening. I don't think all of them realise the impact that they could have and that they certainly can be part of the solution. Criticising a farmer is like criticising a parent. Everybody's child is different. You don't want to ever criticise someone else's parenting because you haven't lived with that child and the nuances of that individual and it's the same with farming. I don't know what the person's dealing with on the other side of the country or even the other side of the valley from me in terms of their land. And farmers don't necessarily take criticism very well. But the reality is that they can do better and I think most of them know in their hearts they can do better. It's just that it has to be maybe delivered in a way where they don't feel that they're the enemy.

The IPCC report came out and I was invited on the ABC to talk about it...

Archival tape -- Unidentified Man 1:

“Do you think lots of vegans know that stuff, that a lot of animals do die in the production of things like peas or wheat…?”

MATTHEW:

… and I didn't write the report, you know? I just thought I'd describe a bit of what I'd read which is that, you know, farming is a bit screwed. You know, we haven’t been doing it very well.

Archival tape -- Matthew Evans:

“So it’s how we, as a society, choose which animals are raised and die in our name, and how crops are grown and prepared in our name.”

MATTHEW:

And yeah, I was dropped from a farmers forum for saying that. Like, I found it really interesting because, these are the very people who need to hear this message and it's not my message, it’s just what the report said and yet I still got dropped as a speaker and I thought that was quite telling and actually incredibly sad, because they're the ones that can affect change, they're the ones that if they don't affect change are going to be demonised by the general community.

ELIZABETH:

Okay, so what can the rest of us do?

MATTHEW:

Really, what's happening in Australia, people feel paralysed because of a lack of leadership in this space. So, people think that they want to be able to do something with their everyday life, and what can I do to have less impact on the globe. And yeah sure, diet is one of those things where you can look at your diet and make a change, and really the IPCC report points this out; If you buy local and you buy seasonal and you buy from people who don't run intensive farms who are doing sustainable agriculture, you'll be doing the world a favour. Your fridge is not a hospital. Nothing gets better in there, so you know, don't put things in the fridge thinking that they're going to improve. So, just buy what you're going to eat.

But let's face it, that's just one of the things in our lives, really what most of us need to do is stop buying stuff, and stop driving as far, and stop flying as much because that's the thing that's releasing fossil fuels into the environment that are causing the greatest change.

If we support farmers, they can actually have this impact and then in drawing down carbon, and I think that will involve individual decisions but I think, more to the point, it will involve governments getting involved as well and farmers themselves putting their hand up and saying, you know, I think this is an issue that I can take control of.

ELIZABETH:

Matthew, thank you so much for speaking to us.

MATTHEW:

Pleasure. Thanks for having me.

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[Theme music starts]

ELIZABETH:

Elsewhere in the news:

ANZ has announced that it will repay more than $680 million to customers that it’s erroneously charged over the last ten years. More than half of those remediation costs related to retail banking fees charged to customers. With that, and a similar announcement from NAB last week, overall compensation costs paid by the banks this year is likely to be more than $10 billion. The major banks are due to announce their 2019 profits this month.

And the Australian Electoral Commission yesterday asked the Federal Court to throw out the challenges against the elections of Josh Frydenberg and Gladys Liu, based on Chinese language signs that were displayed on election day. The signs were printed in the AEC's colours and urged that people vote the "correct" way by putting a 1 beside the Liberal party candidates. The AEC argued that there was insufficient evidence to prove that the signs had altered voter behaviour in Kooyong and Chisolm. The case will continue later this week.

This is 7am, I’m Elizabeth Kulas. See you Thursday.

[Theme music ends]

MATTHEW:

… We used to have obese pigs, we’d call our farm the fat pig farm. We’re very strict now, because we used to believe them when they squealed; “Aw, I’m hungry, I’m hungry!”, you know, the squealing noise. And they can put that noise on even when they are as full as Mr. Creosote, even when they’re about to explode, they will still squeal pretending they are hungry.

The latest IPCC report says current farming practices are unsustainable. But there are solutions, if farmers want to change. Matthew Evans on how the way we grow food could change the world.

Guest: Farmer, chef and former restaurant critic Matthew Evans.

Background reading:

The need for sustainable farming in The Saturday Paper
The Monthly
The Saturday Paper

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7am is hosted by Elizabeth Kulas. The show is produced by Emile Klein, Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow and Elle Marsh. Our editor is Erik Jensen. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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food climate farming ipcc environment climatechange




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96: Carbon, beef and the underground economy