Farmers will never again let climate policy be unilaterally imposed on agriculture and the bush. We've seen what happened when we're not at the table. The world is run by those who show up. This time farmers are at the table and we are shaping how things turn out and we are seeking a constructive and positive pathway forward.
Farmers are still smarting from carrying the load of Kyoto in the 1990s. Australia met its Kyoto targets at a gallop, but how we got there was less triumphant. Large tracts of prime farmland were locked up. The promised compensation never made it to farmers. It's an injustice that we haven't forgotten. Farmers had their property rights stolen. They were ripped off in what amounted to nothing short of statutory theft. We want the situation to be different this time and we think it can be.
Farmers across the length and breadth of this country, those who make up the broad church that is the NFF's membership, want farmers' interests front and centre in the climate policy debate. We don't want to be Australia or the world's carbon sink nor do we want to be carved out of the opportunities we know are on offer. It's more about the future now, and the costs of not acting, as it is about the painful lessons of the past and the challenges of change. We will do our share, but not everybody else's.
1. We need to sell what we grow
Australian farmers export more than 75 per cent of what we grow. We depend on open market access and operate in a highly competitive global marketplace. Increasingly, our trading partners require us to demonstrate our green credentials.
For some time, canola growers have needed to tick strict sustainability boxes to access the lucrative, and highly climate conscious EU market. And, just last month, the EU imposed what is essentially a tax on exporters who don't meet the EU's carbon thresholds. Agriculture is excluded .... for now.
The practices of our farmers were gone over with a fine-tooth comb in the lead up to the recently finalised UK-Australia FTA. If we can't meet the emerging expectations of our global customers, let's not kid ourselves, there is a line-up of countries producing comparable products, who will.
2. We need access to resources and we need investment
The sands are shifting (fast) when it comes to accessing cash. Banks have shareholders, mums and dads, who like farmers, care about leaving the planet in better shape for the next generation. In July, CBA became the first (and I can promise you not the last) bank to tie a farm's sustainability performance to interest rates. It's also about risk. The RBA and APRA both direct banks to look at climate risk when providing loans and setting interest rates. Farmers already have record debt levels and it's estimated agriculture's facing a capital shortfall of $8.7 billion a year.
We can try to beat up the banks to change these policies, but these policies are being dictated by global markets where most of their money comes from.
The world is moving. The structures and the institutions we rely on are changing. Going against the tide WILL limit our ability to do business.
3. Making hay
The good news is there are also opportunities. Agriculture is the only industry that both puts greenhouse gases (as methane and nitrous oxide) into the atmosphere (emits) and takes it out (sequesters) as carbon dioxide. Now mainstream farming practices such as rotational grazing; sowing crops without disrupting the soil & turning livestock effluent into renewable energy are seeing farms double as carbon sinks.
All other industries need to buy carbon credits to square their climate ledger. Agriculture is the first logical port of call. As new science and technologies become widespread, like feed additives to reduce a cow's methane output, agriculture is on track to take more carbon out of the atmosphere than it puts in.
Far from needing to lock up farmland, reducing carbon emissions and keeping more carbon in the soil is, and will continue to, deliver a triple benefit: productivity gains; a new income stream linked to carbon payments and importantly increased environmental and financial resilience in the face of the next inevitable drought.
4. Getting on with business
Farmers are on the frontline of the impacts of climate change and we're pragmatic about it. We're dealing with the cards we've been dealt, and this means making changes to adapt to a new climate and business reality. Some might call this 'climate action'. For our family, and for the majority of farmers I talk to, it's just common sense.
Just like at the farm level, the NFF is positioning Australian agriculture to be in the box seat to lead and prosper in this new world. We've set a clear goal, a plan and non-negotiable rules of play. We've backed in an economy wide net carbon zero by 2050 target, with clear caveats:
- There's a clear economic pathway for agriculture to contribute
- Farmers are not (again) the victims of unfair regulation.
This isn't about being fashionable. It's about being part of the discussion to ensure we can continue to do business - to access markets and the money we need to invest and grow. It's the only way to guard against blunt tools like land grabs and carbon taxes.
What drives us is not divisive rhetoric or ideological bents. It's about continuing to the produce the best milk for the lattes; the (smashed or not) avocados; and the crispy bacon many of us enjoy. It's about growing our businesses to support the jobs and rural communities that support us and to leave a legacy for the next generations. It's about looking after the land that makes what we do possible and that all Australians value.
* Fiona Simson is the President of the National Farmers' Federation and a Liverpool Plains farmer.
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