The Australian federal government provided $4 million to the National Farmers Federation to develop the framework in an industry where individual sectors have set some bold goals for becoming carbon neutral.
The dairy sector aims to have reduced greenhouse gases (GHG) by 30% by 2030 and the meat sector has a bold carbon neutral target by 2030.
This will mean by then Australian beef and lamb farmers and processors will have no net release of GHG to the atmosphere.
But carbon targets are only one sustainability goal within the industry and the framework aims to provide an overarching means of first defining “sustainability”, then for measuring it.
While early days, Heath says a natural next step once farmer and processor buy-in is gained could be to incorporate a certification scheme, not dissimilar from Ireland’s Origin Green system.
Like New Zealand, he laments Australia’s lack of a “whole of industry” food strategy, particularly as overseas markets start to require both countries to hit a higher mark than simply “clean green” claims around sustainability.
Carbon sequestration is a significant subset of sustainability and one the Australian farming sector is increasingly being asked to do to help the greater economy achieve its overall reductions.
In its push for net zero by 2050, the federal government has decreed in its latest emissions reduction plan that almost a fifth of Australia’s emissions, or 100m tonnes a year of carbon, will be sequestered through soil carbon accumulation.
It is a plan that has some claiming to grossly exaggerate soil’s carbon storage ability, and Heath shares a degree of this scepticism.
“There has not been much discussion on how realistic this is, particularly in context of maintaining farming systems profitably and productively,” Heath said.
Heath agrees Australia’s national targets have been weak and there is a growing sense of frustration from the agri-sector, which has been given the heavy lifting job to help achieve them.
“All agricultural sectors have recognised the need for climate action with a net zero pathway, knowing unless we do something the environment will be even worse in one of the most climate exposed farming countries in the world.”
His concern is the sector risks on-selling its carbon credits to offset those sectors putting less effort into genuine reductions.
“But at this early stage, it seems farmers are holding off participating in carbon unit sales, partly due to our low price ($A23/unit), and a desire to hold those credits to offset their own emissions first,” he said.
Classing himself as a “relentless optimist”, the Nuffield scholar says regardless of what carbon pricing system and apparatus evolves, any attention on carbon emissions within the farm gate has to be a positive for the sector.
In the meantime, it is beholden upon the rest of the Australian economy to lift its target game.
“If the rest of the world took our pathway, then we would see a lift in global temperatures of 3-4degC,” he said.