Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Soil Carbon

One of the biggest arguments for excusing agriculture from New Zealand's emissions trading scheme (ETS) is that we farmers have no real prospect for mitigating these emissions. The EPA's chief scientist has recently argued that
"turning down agricultural emissions means altering biology - or getting rid of animals" 
Dr Rowarth indicates that both of these options are doomed by economic realities. I was puzzled because the biological farming methods we and others use are largely focused on fostering and cultivating (altering) soil biology, and here was the chief EPA scientist intimating we are mad.

Our working hypothesis goes like this:
  • we can use liquid foliar feeding (alongside dry ground-spread) to stimulate pasture growth
  • the diverse (salad bar) plants will share some of the nutrients with the soil through root exudates
  • the soil critters (worms, beneficial bateria & fungi) have symbiotic relationships with the plants, supplying them with macro and micro-nutrients.
There is a critical feedback loop here: we feed the soil biota & in return those beneficial critters scavenge around, scooping up nutrients and delivering them back to the plant in an available form.

Most farmers know that P gets locked-up in the soil. That's why the fert reps say we have to keep putting moron, even when the soil tests say we have plenty. We sacked these twits years ago. Since then we've been using small amounts of slow-release organic P and like to think that our soil biota are helping to unlock the abundant P reserves we see in our soil tests.

We reckon that farming can and should be regenerative: we are trying to build the soil rather than deplete it. Traditional agricultural systems have been terrible at conserving carbon but recent science suggests that alternative grassland management systems can indeed regenerate the soil and sequester atmospheric carbon.

If you thought these soil carbon prospects might be of interest to the chief scientist for NZ's EPA, you are sadly mistaken. When I asked Dr Rowarth recently why we don't care about monitoring soil carbon she had three reasons: NZ already has lots of soil carbon, it comes & goes with drought and its very hard to measure. I don't buy any of these reasons: they sound like excuses to me.
  • The current stock of soil carbon is irrelevant except as a baseline measure: farmers should be accountable for changes in soil carbon stocks. 
  • Droughts as a source of soil carbon volatility could be easily managed in a regulatory regime - for example with a rolling average over a few years.
  • And technology is rapidly cutting the cost of measurement.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that it is particularly easy to bring soil carbon into the ETS. Those opposing the idea have no shortage of roadblocks to promote. Instead, I am arguing that New Zealand should be working actively towards surmounting those roadblocks. Those controlling the relevant public funds are actively denying that this is warranted, but seem to have no science on their side - just blind faith in the status quo.

It is particularly distressing that our Environmental Protection Agency seems more interested in excuses than in pushing for (or even admitting there might be value in) scientific effort directed towards this particular form of "environmental protection" for which we pay our taxes.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Rowarth as Columnist

Here's the second paragraph of a column by the EPA's chief scientist, Jacqueline Rowarth, from the Rural News on 20/12/16.
Although farm animals aren't included in New Zealand's Emissions Trading Scheme (no country has put agriculture in to any sort of GHG scheme), many people still point fingers at 'polluters' and regard the animals and their owners as free-loaders.
The rest of Rowarth's article explains why this is "odd". Basically: farmers are the backbone of the economy, NZ's emissions are globally small, and there's really nothing farmers can do anyway.

Whatever our contribution to the nation's economic spine, we farmers are actually free-loaders in respect of emissions. We emit like mad and the taxpayer picks up the tab. This is the undeniable truth - regular payments are being made by the NZ government for our agricultural emissions.

Yet the chief EPA scientist supplied an opinion piece to the Rural News, on the topic of agricultural GHG emissions, that doesn't just avoid admitting the public subsidy of agricultural emissions, but is entirely framed as a counter-argument to the 'odd' people who are rude enough to mention it in public.

The EPA administers New Zealand's ETS. The EPA said they hired Rowarth to help "New Zealanders understand the science behind EPA decisions". That's a fine role, but it does not include spouting bollocks about ETS policy in the rural press.

Call me old-fashioned, but this seems like a no-no to me. Suppose for example that Electricity Authority hired Lew Evans or Geoff Bertram as its chief economist and let them keep spouting their views in the mainstream media. Or suppose that FSANZ hired Katherine Rich or Sue Kedgely on similar terms regarding food policy. Or suppose the police hired Garth McVicar or Dakta Green as a drugs policy advisor without constraints on how that role was parlayed in the news media.

I reckon that regulators should not be public advocates for or against the laws they enforce.

Update 5 Jan
Based on FB discussion I think the above post goes a bit too far, because it doesn't mention the fact that regulators should actually promote the things they're legally charged with promoting and we should applaud regulators when they do this.

I don't think this saves Dr Rowarth however. The objective of the EPA is "to undertake its functions in a way that contributes to the efficient, effective and transparent management of New Zealand's environment and natural and physical resources".

We might disagree about whether Dr Rowarth's column was contributing to the "efficient and effective" part of this objective, and I would argue it wasn't, but there was definitely no "transparent" contribution. On the contrary, the article opened with a deliberate attempt to obscure the fact that cleaners and truck drivers pay for farmers' emissions through their taxes.