In stark contrast to vocal members of the National Party, fourth-generation farmer Cindy Stevens and her husband Simon Wallwork believe agriculture must be part of the global push to make the industry carbon neutral.
- Corrigin farmers Cindy Stevens and Simon Wallwork think they can make their farm carbon neutral by 2030
- The couple set up a group called AgZero 2030 in the wake of the last federal election
- CSIRO supply chain specialist Maartje Sevenster said overseas markets would soon demand emissions data from Australian farmers about their products
“I think it’s really frustrating when we have our national federal politicians talking about carving out agriculture from carbon neutrality because I feel that they are perhaps disconnected from the grassroots,” she said.
The couple farms on the property Cindy Stevens grew up on, in Corrigin, 250 kilometres east of Perth.
They aim to make it carbon neutral as soon as possible but believe 2030 is a realistic goal.
They are also on the board of AgZero 2030, a farming group Mr Wallwork said formed not long after the 2019 federal election.
“We formed AgZero, the movement, as a way of opening up the conversation on climate science but also [as] our response to climate solutions and climate action,” he said.
Could avoiding net zero goals disadvantage farmers?
Unlike many of Australia’s trading partners, including the world’s biggest carbon emitter China, Australia does not have a net zero emissions target.
Net zero is achieved when the emissions a country produces are balanced out by those they take out of the atmosphere.
China is aiming to achieve net zero by 2060.
Earlier this year, Nationals leader and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack suggested agriculture may need to be carved out of any net zero target Australia sets to protect regional communities.
Asked by the ABC whether he maintained that position, Mr McCormack did not answer directly.
“Agriculture — and the regions more broadly — will continue to be a crucial part of the solution as we take precise and pragmatic steps in order to work towards our emissions goals through technology, not taxes,” he said.
But Mr Wallwork feared a carve-out could actually cost Australian producers opportunities.
“Barley is the key crop that we grow on this property, and we know that many of the large breweries across the globe are carbon-neutral, or heading towards it, such as Heineken, Carlsberg, or Lion here in Australia.
“They’ll be looking to acquire carbon-neutral barley from producers to use in the brewing process.”
‘Greener’ products trending higher: CSIRO
CSIRO research scientist Maartje Sevenster is an agricultural supply chain specialist and agreed markets were looking for greener products.
“We can see these trends really ramping up very rapidly,” she said.
“They will want the evidence of what their agricultural inputs suppliers generate in terms of emissions.”
But asked whether she thought going carbon neutral would cost or save farmers money, Ms Sevenster said it depended on individual circumstances.
“This is a very nuanced field. It will depend on the specific situation that a farmer is in, what soils they have to work with, what weather they have to work with,” she said.
Calculating the cost-benefit ratio
Michael Wilkes, head of the research and development arm of agribusiness firm Elders, said the first step in assessing how much going carbon neutral could cost or save a farm business was finding out what its baseline emissions were.
“So it’s worth considering. It’s not as scary as it may seem.”
Since finding out their farm emits the equivalent of 1,500 tonnes of carbon dioxide a year, Mr Wallwork and Ms Stevens took practical steps to reduce their carbon footprint, including being more efficient with fertiliser.
Mr Wallwork was also researching the cost of converting diesel vehicles to electric.
“There’s an organisation over east doing a pilot at the moment converting prime mover trucks to electric and the cost of doing that is approximately $85,000,” he said.
“However the major cost is the batteries that are involved with that, which are $120,000 each, so a very large cost.
“But what they’re looking at doing is actually creating a battery exchange process where you, every 500 kilometres, can exchange the battery, which takes five to 10 minutes, and they’re looking at charging $140 to do that.
“So in terms of getting back those costs of the conversion, they believe that it will take about a year to do that, in terms of the savings from diesel and also less maintenance costs on the truck with a newer type of electric engine.”
Mr Wallwork said farmers would have to decide whether to sell carbon credits to resources companies or keep them to make their own farms carbon neutral.
The couple was also interested in feeding their cattle seaweed, which according to CSIRO research reduces methane emissions.
But Mr Wallwork said there was only so much individual farmers could do, and getting the industry to net zero would need to involve the entire supply chain.
“There’s been some work done on using renewable energy and green hydrogen to produce fertilisers, which is great,” he said.
In the long run, he believed going carbon neutral could save, or even make, the couple money.
“There might be premiums involved if we can demonstrate that we’re carbon neutral,” Mr Wallwork said.
“On saving money, it will be access to markets and not missing out on those opportunities.”
Mr Wallwork said while some farmers would sell carbon credits from things like tree planting on their properties to resources companies he did not plan to.
For Ms Stevens, reaching net zero was about creating a legacy she would be proud to leave behind.
“It’s actually, for me, very much looking out the window and seeing healthy livestock, healthy farming systems, and passing that on to your kids and the kids feeling the same.
“[That] they want to come back, they want to be part of this landscape.”