Understanding what has held back the uptake of explaining the "carbon flows" concept to rural producers

February 2014



If rural producers have a good understanding of the carbon flows concept, then they are in a better position to maximise their profit. The rest of society also has a vested interest in producers having a good understanding in this area, because their production systems have better environmental outcomes at the same time as they are increasing profit. With an understanding of carbon flows comes the understanding of how to maximise flows.

The natural world can't function without carbon flows. The carbon supplied by carbon flows is the main building block of all life and is responsible for keeping all life functioning. All rural producers sell something that has lived and all life, be it above or below ground, relies on the ongoing flow of carbon through the landscape. Their day job is recycling carbon. They set out to turn some of the carbon that is flowing through the paddock, into saleable carbon products, like grain, meat, fibre or hay. Selling cattle is harvesting the carbon that has entered the cattle part of the food chain. Agriculture produces and sells carbon compounds.

As an aside, humans are about 18 percent carbon. Grass is 45 percent carbon when dried.

The two problems 

The current unfortunate position we find ourselves in can be traced back to two separate problems.

The first problem relates to the two ideological positions taken on climate change. Governments take ideological positions just like individuals and organisations do.

One ideology is focused on greenhouse gas reduction and carbon trading, so is paying little attention to carbon flows. This is because carbon flows are not permanent and can't be traded. This position overlooks the reality that the long term carbon they are focused on has to start the journey as short term carbon in the first phase of carbon flows.

The other ideology is dismissive of man-made climate change and wants to keep carbon a negative word in society. Debate around the carbon tax has further fuelled negativity towards the word carbon. While carbon flows are about positive outcomes, they are caught up in the negativity that often surrounds carbon. Some have made the conscious decision not to talk about carbon in the hope it will go away.

The second problem relates to how land management has been taught at universities in the past.

The gap surrounding carbon flows exists because the approach taken in the past was reductionist science. Reductionist science sees carbon as simply another cycle. This approach down plays the importance of carbon, especially carbon flows, when considering the big picture, which is what a farm is. So most farm advisors who currently lead government and industry programs to assist farm businesses improve profitability and resilience, are unaware of the full role of carbon flows. They know about carbon stocks through the high profile Carbon Farming Initiative.

Overcoming outdated science from past education programs will simply rely on new knowledge being promoted until it is taken up.

The more serious of the two problems and the one that will be hardest to overcome, relates to the two main ideological positions taken on climate change. This is discussed further below. Ideologies become embedded and often lead to narrow and biased decisions outside logic and common sense. We would all recognise this aspect of ourselves.

Change is always occurring in society however it only occurs when the tipping point is reached following ongoing awareness and consideration. There are people in the scientific, farming and conservation communities who appreciate the importance of the role carbon flows in maintaining landscape productivity and health. At the moment we are only in the first phase of change with these early adopters.

It is unlikely that change will be driven by those currently responsible for providing extension to rural producers. If we are to overcome the current problem of 1980's thinking, it will require a champion to come forward. This can be either an individual or a corporate citizen. It will take a champion to ensure awareness and discussion is ongoing in the print and digital media long enough for the tipping point to occur. Governments don't lead, they follow public opinion. Industry organisations can also be slow to change.

The effect of drought can be reduced. Better managing carbon flows enhances the resilience of grazing systems, which is so important in times of low rainfall. While carbon flows are critical to commercial and environmental outcomes, we should not overlook their influence on human wellbeing. Stress is reduced if droughts and dry times impact less because of increased resilience in farm systems.

Financial reserves reduce the stress of drought. Landscape resilience also increases production in the good years. This builds financial reserves which are so critical for withstanding the lack of cash flows that occur during droughts, such as the one currently occurring in much of Eastern Australia.
Meat & Livestock Australia (MLA) supplies a good case study for why a champion needs to come forward to encourage change. In 2008, a presentation was given to MLA regarding the need for the grazing industry to have a better understanding of the important role of carbon in landscape function. At this point in time, the "workshop Notes" for MLA's "Grazing Land Management" (GLM) program, which directed presenters, did not have the word carbon once in the text. This is still the case today.

The carbon flows concept is mistakenly confused by many with discussion of the carbon cycle. The carbon flows concept explains feedback loops and the role of carbon flows for maintaining productive and healthy landscapes. Explaining the carbon cycle is a one dimensional discussion. 

A presentation at Mareeba explained how the ideology concentrating on carbon trading was too focused on carbon stocks only and was overlooking the importance of carbon flows. It also explained why leaving out discussion of carbon flows in extension programs, left rural producers with an incomplete understanding of how their production landscapes functioned. It explained why two paddocks can have equal long term carbon stocks but the one with the highest carbon flows has the highest level of production.

The first ideological position

The ideological position that is focused on reducing greenhouse gases has a fixation on long term stable carbon, be it in trees or the soil. It is long term carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas abatement that underpins carbon trading.  This ideological group is aware that carbon flows are predominately short term carbon and so fall outside carbon trading and the Carbon Farming Initiative (CFI) methodologies. Carbon flows has little appeal to this ideological position.

Carbon trading is more focused on "the slow moving stable forms of carbon", while rural producers set out to increase the volume of the faster moving short term carbon. If you want to increase production in the short term, it is the fast moving carbon that increases production, not slow moving carbon.

And this is where the irony starts. The management of carbon flows is central to the outcomes of the direct action policy of the current Federal Government, as it relates to agriculture. Unfortunately a lot the linkages are not fully understood because of past education processes. As an example, better management of carbon flows results in sheep and cattle producing less methane per kg of production. At the same time, producers are more profitable because their animals get to the meatworks quicker.

And the obvious has to be stated, any carbon that is in the stable long term pool has to start the journey as fast moving carbon.

It is the "long term" carbon sequestration methodologies area that has been attracting the majority of research grants (along with methane reduction for CO2 abatement methodologies). A lot of funding has also been allocated to better understanding how to measure carbon.  Recognition of carbon flows needs far more holistic criteria than exists under the CFI.

Putting aside trees, this ideological position is very focused below ground. The carbon flows approach is focused as much above ground as below ground.

It is because long term carbon is very stable and only moves very slowly that it makes up very little of carbon flows. Carbon flows involve mainly short term carbon (labile carbon) and some medium term carbon.

This ideological position concentrates on linking long term soil carbon to higher food production. It is true that soils with higher long term carbon levels are more productive. What they overlook is that in the very short term, improved management is reflected in changed levels of short term carbon, not long term carbon. This is the case simply because improving carbon flows immediately results in more short term carbon flowing through paddocks.

There is no long term soil carbon involved in hydroponics. However carbon flows are involved. It is only by starting with the basics (fundamental principles) that we are able to form a clear understanding of the big picture. The current Meat and Livestock Australia GLM course is a bit like engineers leaving gravity out of calculations, given the way the course does not discuss carbon flows.

The second ideological position

The ideological position that does not accept man-made climate is dismissive of any discussion that involves the word carbon.
The negativity around the word "carbon" has been further reinforced by the politics that have evolved around the carbon tax. 

The carbon flows concept is not part of the discussion on whether climate change is real or man-made and has absolutely nothing to do with the carbon tax.

Promoting discussion and understanding of Carbon flows is going to have no appeal to this ideology given the negativity they promote towards the word carbon. Carbon flows is a positive story that does not sit well beside a negative message. Carbon flows has little appeal to this ideological position.

It would appear that some State Governments have no intention of supporting the inclusion of carbon flows in extension programs to the grazing industry because of their generic approach to carbon. People involved in the Reef Program have admitted that they have been encouraged to not use the word carbon.

If there was a better understanding of the carbon flows concept in the rural sector, then society would see a reduction in greenhouse gases for no cost to the tax payer. This is perhaps the only case in the climate policy area where nobody has to lose to achieve the goals of other sectors of society. It is common knowledge to those who understand both greenhouse gas reduction and agricultural production systems, that the greenhouse outcomes of agriculture are a reflection of economic efficiency. This being the case, a very cost effective way to reduce greenhouse gases is to explain to rural producers how to make more money. Making more money has more appeal to producers than saving the planet.

Maintaining ground cover is important for many reasons. The carbon flows approach is a much more comprehensive approach to the management of ground cover than that taken by the "Grazing Land Management" (GLM) program utilised by extension agencies.

In summary, the two ideological positions on climate change are both responsible for sidelining a discussion we should be having. One ideology is too focused on long term carbon. The other ideology has made a conscious decision to muddy the waters and discourage any discussion on carbon, even the positive side of carbon.


How education institutions have not focused on carbon flows in the past

The second aspect that is holding back understanding of the role of carbon flows and how best to manage them, involves individuals wanting to communicate in the way they were taught decades ago. In the past, landscape function in educational institutions was explained via discussion of separate processes. This is reflected in the current GLM course which discusses the grazing ecosystem in terms of three key ecological processes. When talking to producers they explain energy flow, nutrient cycling and water cycling. GLM does not form a direct linkage in the minds of producers between these processes and the flow of carbon. This is a reductionist approach to science.
It is only when a big picture perspective is taken of the landscape and how it functions, that it is discovered that flowing carbon influences the other cycles. The more carbon that flows the better the other cycles function in both the short term and the long term. Some understandably think that water is the main driver however it is how well carbon flows were managed in the past that determines how effective water is in promoting current carbon flows. This is why we talk about water use efficiency. If water ends up in a gully instead of the soil, then it promotes no carbon flows.

Extension to the grazing industry has always been less complex than training given to students in higher educational institutions. While students were exposed to discussion of carbon processes, rural producers were not. This is still the case with some industry extension programs. Provided the right language is used, it is not hard for producers to gain a complete understanding of the carbon flows concept.

Rural producers and the politics of carbon

A lot of rural producers disengage when they hear the word carbon. This is because they feel they have been treated as a political football during the development of carbon policies. They have witnessed so much taxpayers money wasted on carbon and climate change adaptation programs in their industry. They are of the opinion that it is all about processes and not outcomes. Added to all this, they keep hearing the negative message to not trust anything to do with carbon.

They see anything to do with carbon as a threat to their financial wellbeing. The politics of carbon needs to be put aside in the case of carbon flows, so that rural producers can be put in a better position to make more money.

Like anybody, rural producers only listen to what they see as relevant. Analysis of producer questionnaire answers following presentations focused on linking better carbon management to higher production, demonstrates that they are prepared to listen, provided they are told the linkage between carbon management and their bottom line.

Explained properly, using language they can understand and relate to, producers will accept that their day job is managing carbon compounds. They get that their day job is in a sense converting water into carbon compounds. They can see why all food is a carbon compound. When they gain this understanding, they can see the linkage between increasing carbon flows and higher food production.

The energy we require out of food resides in the bonds carbon forms with other atoms. How all life sources energy during consumption, is to break these complex bonds and release the energy. To do this, we breathe in the oxygen needed to oxidise the carbon compounds and then we breathe out carbon dioxide. It is a case of converting the carbohydrates back to the simpler structure of carbon dioxide.


Why carbon flows?


Carbon Grazing   |