Sharing information on innovative leading performance in managing Australia’s natural environment to encourage the wide adoption of regenerative landscape management techniques by our farmers and land managers - and why this is essential.

ALAN LAUDER ON WHY CARBON FLOWS? Plant energy reserves are built by carbon flows

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

This perennial grass plant is struggling to come out of dormancy after good rain. The reason is because it is short of stored energy. The dead plants around it probably looked like this before they died. This is a landscape and a business that is in trouble because the role of flowing carbon is not understood.

In the first column it was discussed how all life can’t exist without energy. The fifth column explained how carbon flows carry energy for all life to call on.

The energy story from a plant’s perspective

At the end of dry times, perennial grasses are dry old butts that have no green leaves to promote

photosynthesis. Yet they grow with the arrival of rain, so obviously they have a mechanism to start

growth after rain. We know that plant growth requires energy, so it is obvious that they must be

sourcing energy from somewhere.

It is the roots that hold reserves of plant carbohydrates (starches/energy) needed to stimulate growth when suitable growing conditions arrive. Some reserves are also held in the crown of perennial grasses. Apart from instigating growth after dormancy, these root reserves are also important for maintaining the plant’s tissue during drought, when photosynthesis is not occurring.

When perennial grasses have enough leaf area, they become self-sufficient in energy through

photosynthesis, and no longer rely on the energy supplied by the roots. With more growth, they start putting energy back into storage in the roots. When animals maintain leaf biomass at a low volume after rain, the root reserves used for initial growth are not replenished. If this happens on a regular basis then the energy reserves will eventually be depleted.

Plants have to eat too

Photosynthesis is plants sitting down to a meal. If we try to maintain our body function without

eating, we become anorexic. Any living thing that keeps drawing on energy reserves, without eating,

eventually dies. As a living thing, plants are no different. Root reserves should be thought of as reserve food, like the fat in our body. The horror images that come from Africa of emaciated people are no different to degraded pastures, in terms of the root cause.

Running energy reserves down in a plant is like letting a car battery go flat. The car won’t start.

Because perennial grasses produce less foliage from rain as they become unhealthy, this increases the grazing pressure on the rest of the plants in the pasture. The flow-on effect is that the health of the other plants will also drop, and so the pasture continues to decline at an increasing rate, all else being equal. Unhealthy plants are also more likely to suffer insect attacks.

Energy reserves in plants are short term carbon brought in by carbon flows

Next week's discussion: Why we make the decisions we do

Alan Lauder

ALAN LAUDER ON WHY CARBON FLOWS? Think carbon before nitrogen

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

What is the one thing you can’t afford to run out of? The answer is carbon. Look at the cartoon and you will see that only the right hand side of the fence has carbon available for livestock to consume.

A person running a grazing operation can afford to supplement nitrogen (protein) when it is in short supply. However, it is not commercial to supplement carbon when it is short. Hay is expensive.

A bare paddock has no carbon while a paddock of frosted or rank grass has carbon but little nitrogen.

It is often stated that nitrogen (protein) is the limiting factor. However, this is only true when you are assessing what has grown.

Correctly manage carbon flows from the atmosphere to your paddock and you will still have options when it has  not rained for a while.  

It has been suggested that with average pastures, removing animals for three to eight weeks after rain increases pasture production by 50-80%. Given pasture is 45% carbon on a dry basis, this is a lot of extra carbon coming into the paddock for future use.    

For anyone who doubts the importance of allowing plants to grow after rain and build up the supply of carbon, try feeding lick blocks to sheep or cattle in a totally bare paddock.

How much carbon is in your pasture?

Getting back to basics, carbon is the main building block of grass and everything else that grows in a pasture, so the reality is that nitrogen will not be present if carbon is not present.

With grasses, there are approximately 20 to 25 parts of carbon for every part of nitrogen.

The ratio will vary depending on the species of grass, the stage of growth, or whether there has been a frost.

With wheat/oats stubble, the ratio is 90 to 160 parts of carbon to each part of nitrogen.

When grass is analysed to assess feed value, the figure for nitrogen is multiplied by 6.25 to arrive at the protein level. The first thing to understand about pasture plants is that carbon remains fairly constant from one plant to the next or between leaves and stems.

It is the nitrogen content that varies.

After a frost, it is the nitrogen, not the carbon that is lost.

The atmosphere is 0.03 percent carbon dioxide and 78 percent nitrogen.

However, this is reversed when we look at pastures, with carbon being the main component.

Alan Lauder

ALAN LAUDER ON WHY CARBON FLOWS? How moving carbon carries energy

Wednesday, October 04, 2017

When you sit in front of the fireplace does it occur to you that the heat coming out of the fireplace is stored energy from the sun? Likewise, the heat that is given off by burning grass.  

The energy of the sun is stored in carbon compounds and then transported around the landscape by these carbon compounds.

Grasses which are 45% carbon, store the energy of the sun in their structure as they grow, then pass it on to life above and below ground.

The warmth of our body and our ability to move is totally reliant on the energy stored in our carbon based food.

How it works

The process of how energy is stored in plants is that during photosynthesis, the carbon in carbon dioxide forms new, and more complex, carbon bonds with other atoms.

What happens is explained in the photosynthesis equation above. The energy of the sun is required for the chemical reaction to remove the carbon from carbon dioxide. The energy of the sun is also used to split water molecules into hydrogen ions and oxygen.

The hydrogen ions then combine with carbon as part of the new molecular structure of carbohydrates contained in plants.

The energy of the sun is stored in the new molecular structures that carbon forms.

More specifically, the energy is stored in the more complex bonds that carbon forms during photosynthesis.

The carbon hydrogen bonds in C6H12O6 contain more energy than the carbon oxygen bonds in CO2.

This is what scientists refer to as construction of energy.

During photosynthesis, light energy from the sun is converted into chemical energy. 

It is important to remember that energy can't be created or destroyed, it simply changes from one form to another.

How all life (including soil 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 breathe out carbon dioxide. It is a case of reversing photosynthesis and converting the carbohydrates back to the more simple structure of carbon dioxide.

If you want to know how actively soil life (including microbes) is consuming organic matter, measure how much carbon dioxide is coming out of the soil.

The more carbon that management allows to come into the paddock, the more energy that is available for rural production and maintenance of paddock health.

The purpose of having this energy debate is to fully appreciate the value of better pasture management i.e. letting plants maximise energy collection through photosynthesis and then making it available to livestock and soil life.

Next week's discussion: "Think carbon before nitrogen"

Alan Lauder

ALAN LAUDER ON WHY CARBON FLOWS? Why carbon suddenly turned up in extension

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Did you know that carbon was not discussed in extension until recent times?

For the thirty years that I was a grazier up until 2000, not once was the word carbon mentioned to me. Land management was never explained in terms of carbon management, or more specifically, management of carbon flows. Nobody suggested to me that my day job was recycling carbon. It was never explained to me that the meat and wool I sold were actually carbon compounds.

Dr David Freudenberger, a former CSIRO rangelands scientist and now lecturer at ANU, says my claim is true. He said land management simply wasn’t discussed in terms of carbon. Dr Allan Wilson, another former CSIRO rangelands scientist said the same thing. Allan said that they only got as far as discussing organic matter but did not couch it in terms of carbon. A Queensland Country Life journalist said that if carbon was seen as relevant back then, they would have been writing about it.

Reductionist science

The reason carbon was originally left out of extension can be traced back to reductionist science in education institutions. Reductionist science is sometimes referred to as putting information in silos. Reductionist science breaks up landscape function into separate processes and is a focus on isolated processes within a system.

Those who take a reductionist science approach place a lower importance on carbon than those who take a systems approach. This is because there are always more important things than carbon when you look at isolated processes in a paddock.

It is only when you step back and look at the whole paddock and everything in it, that the importance of carbon becomes more obvious. This is because carbon is a part player in so many processes.

When a big picture perspective of the landscape and how it functions is taken, it quickly becomes obvious that flowing carbon influences the other cycles. The more carbon that flows the better the other cycles function. Some understandably think that water is the main driver however it is how well carbon flows have been managed over time that determines how effective water is in promoting current carbon flows. If water ends up in a gully instead of the soil, then it promotes no carbon flows.

Extension is more successful when it takes a systems approach i.e. starts with the big picture and then looks at the finer detail second. This is because producers manage paddocks, not a collection of isolated processes. 

Climate change policy  

It was climate change policy that introduced the word carbon into extension. This explains the current incomplete discussion around carbon. Current extension is focused on carbon stocks because funding is being directed towards carbon stocks projects and not carbon flows projects.

Institutional processes are always slow to change, so if carbon wasn’t part of the debate in 2000, then it is unreasonable to expect that current extension would have fully matured in the area of carbon.

In 2008, Dr Greg McKeon wrote - Future graziers will see themselves as “managers of carbon”. This is a different view of the world to what Dr David Freudenberger said existed in 2000. Today I am sure Greg would write – Future graziers will see themselves as “managers of carbon flows”.

Next week's discussion: "How moving carbon carries energy"

Alan Lauder

ALAN LAUDER ON WHY CARBON FLOWS? Restarting carbon flows to repair a degraded claypan

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

We all know that poor management degrades paddocks, BUT, have you ever considered what is going on with the degradation process? The answer: slowly less and less life exists in the paddock, both above and below ground.

Getting back to the basics, because all life relies on flowing carbon to exist, it is the reduction of flowing carbon, with poor management, that degrades paddocks. Look at the first photo of the long-term claypan. Prior to the saltbush being planted, the claypan had become bare and lifeless. 

Photo 1: Planting saltbush in degraded country

This series of photos will demonstrate how increasing the amount of carbon flowing through the claypan turned it into productive country. The images will help you understand the important processes that moving (flowing) carbon activates. You will note I used the word moving, not sequestration. A leading soil scientist estimated that there would be 15-25 t/ha (0-30 cm) of long term soil carbon in the claypan pictured here. Yet this type of carbon, on its own, was not able to make the claypan respond to rain. It took the arrival of short-term carbon, after planting hardy saltbush, to complete the mix of carbon required for production.

These photos are about restarting carbon flows. It is an extreme example to highlight that functional landscapes rely on carbon flowing through them.

Old man saltbush

Saltbush seedlings, that can establish in degraded country were planted to provide a source of carbon flows, when nothing could establish naturally from seed to do the job.

The top left hand image is Old Man Saltbush 12 months after the seedlings were planted. The second photo is another year later. Sheep are responsible for the lack of leaves on the saltbush. They were chasing a bit of protein to go with dry grass elsewhere in the paddock before the rain.

In the bottom right hand image you will notice carbon is now flowing into the area around the shrubs. In other words, the landscape is slowly building resilience. The carbon flows introduced by the planted saltbush provided a food source for soil life, with the resultant soil life improving the soil. As the soil improved, grass and other plants were able to germinate and further expand the area that carbon is flowing through.

All this happened over a two year period at Yelarbon, when rainfall was well below average. 

Photo 2: Clover adding more nitrogen and carbon to the system (3 years after the saltbush was planted)

Three and five years after planting

Photo 2 was taken 3 years after the saltbush was planted. The clover is now adding nitrogen to the system as it further contributes to carbon flows.

Photo 3 was taken 5 years after the saltbush was planted. Again the sheep are eating the saltbush to compliment the dry grass.

Photo 3: 5 years after the saltbush was planted

Photo 4: Prolific grass growing 5 years after the saltbush was planted

After carbon started flowing again, energy, nutrients and water all followed. All producers appreciate the importance of energy, nutrients and water, so this puts flowing carbon in a new perspective for them. Plants are now growing, which is introducing energy. The build-up of organic matter in the soil is increasing nutrient supply. Looking at the prolific grass, water is obviously getting in now. It wasn’t before, as photo 5 shows.

Photo 5 was taken immediately after a few millimetres of rain. This photo also highlights the linkage between management of carbon flows and keeping sediment and nutrients off the Reef.

Photo 5: Rain pooling on the soil surface before carbon flows were restored.

Carbon flows determine resilience

The wet decade of the 1970’s, with all the rain that arrived, couldn’t repair this claypan. Nor the big rain in the early 1990’s. However, during a period of below average rainfall, the claypan repaired because of carbon flows introduced by the planted saltbush. 

The point I am alluding to is that many producers form too close a linkage between rainfall, rural production and healthy landscapes. This linkage is only true up to a point.

Producers have no control over how much rain arrives but they do have control over the level of carbon flows generated by what rain does arrive. The level of flows generated by rain depends on how well their management allows plants to grow following rain. Rain is obviously a major driver of production but it is not the final determinant, it is the level of flowing carbon that determines the level of rural production and landscape health.

After seeing the positive outcomes in these pictures, I tell producers to think in reverse to appreciate how management that reduces the flow of carbon into paddocks, also reduces production and degrades paddocks. As paddocks become less resilient, droughts turn up sooner. This claypan was in a state of drought during normal years. 

Next week's discussion: “Why carbon suddenly turned up in extension.”

Alan Lauder

ALAN LAUDER ON WHY CARBON FLOWS? Has extension focused on the wrong aspect of carbon when discussing decision making?

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

A grazing paddock is a dynamic system, not a static one.

Thinking carbon flows is to take a dynamic approach while thinking carbon stocks is to take a static approach.

The carbon flows concept

The carbon flows concept, discusses the role of carbon as it keeps moving through the paddock, above and below ground, including through livestock. The concept explains what carbon does as it moves and the processes it activates, before returning to the atmosphere. It highlights that carbon is the organiser as it flows through the landscape. It discusses the different speeds of carbon to help producers focus on the things that matter the most.

The carbon flows concept should not be confused with discussion of the carbon cycle diagram. The carbon cycle diagram is a one dimensional discussion. It goes no further than saying that carbon cycles. It simply discusses the different pools carbon moves between.   

The easiest way to grasp the carbon flows concept is to think of individual carbon atoms entering the paddock from the atmosphere and heading off in all different directions before finding their way back to the atmosphere. Some quickly, some slowly.

Talking about carbon stocks is to look at an outcome. Talking about carbon flows is to understand what caused the outcome.

If extension started with a discussion of “carbon flows” to set the scene and then discussed “carbon stocks” in terms of them being a resource, then extension would lead to a better understanding of how a paddock functions and needs to be managed.

Last week’s column highlighted that carbon flowing through the paddock is the main building block of all life and responsible for carrying energy that all life needs. Hence the need for management to concentrate on maximising the carbon flows from what rain falls.

The carbon flows concept discusses management that increases or decreases the flow of carbon through paddocks. It identifies feedback loops, such as why the level of current flows is influenced by the management of previous flows.  

Short-term carbon is the bulk of carbon flows

Short-term carbon (the fastest moving carbon) which accounts for the bulk of carbon flows, moves through the landscape by an ongoing interchange between plants, animals, and the soil. This exchange powers the health of the paddock generally and pastoral productivity in particular. The volume of flowing carbon in a paddock reflects recent land management decisions.

On the other hand, the level of long-term carbon is a consequence of past decision-making. Long-term soil carbon is important for paddock health, even though it moves at an extremely slow speed and its level is slow to change. However, it is not responsible for short-term changes in paddock health or productivity. Short-term improvements in paddock health and productivity are driven by the short-term carbon introduced in the first phase of carbon flows. Also, the carbon in long-term soil carbon has to start the journey as short-term carbon in the first phase of carbon flows. 

This highlights that the “management decisions” graziers make, relate to short-term carbon and carbon flows.

Long-term carbon is an outcome and reflects the management of carbon flows over time.     

With carbon flows, once you visualise the flows, you see the dynamics of the whole system and how it functions.

Next week's discussion: "Restarting carbon flows to repair a degraded clay pan"

Alan Lauder

ALAN LAUDER ON WHY CARBON FLOWS? What is the most fundamental thing a producer has to get right?

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Did you know that cattle are 18% carbon? This is the first of a weekly column titled, 'WHY CARBON FLOWS?'. I am going to take a more expansive look at carbon to the way it is currently treated in extension. 

Carbon is the main building block of cattle, grass and soil life and carries the energy that all three require.

When producers sell cattle, they are selling a carbon compound. The reason I use the term carbon compound, is because carbon is the main building block of all life on this planet, including cattle. Carbon is one of the most successful atoms at bonding with other atoms.

In fact, all rural production sells something that has lived, be it meat, fibre, grain, hay or vegetables. The best way to understand what life includes is to think of what dies. Grass dies, cows die, soil microbes die, crops die and worms die.

Not only is carbon the main building block of all life, but it is also responsible for carrying the energy that all life relies on, as it flows through the paddock above and below ground. Nutrients and water also follow the path carbon takes. Put simply, the natural world can’t function without “flowing carbon”.

Producers are managing more than just the carbon based products they sell. They also have to ensure their management supports the other carbon based life that maintains the productive capacity and health of their production systems. Soil life that is responsible for keeping the soil well-structured and fertile, will not exist if carbon does not keep flowing through the soil to allow them to construct their little bodies. In a grazing system, grass that is 45% carbon when dried, supplies the carbon that cattle require to construct themselves.

Carbon flows versus carbon stocks

Current extension has a focus on carbon stocks and measurement whereas this column will focus on the management of carbon flows because this is the most fundamental of the basics a producer has to get right. Get the basics wrong and nothing else will fall into place the way they should.

There is a reason why current extension is focused on carbon stocks and measurement. The focus of climate change policy is on carbon stocks and measurement. Hence this is where funding is directed, including extension.

Carbon stocks are a snap shot of how much carbon is in a paddock at one point in time, noting that not all the carbon present is measured. But, it is thinking carbon flows that allows us to better understand how a paddock, and everything in it functions and needs to be managed. Follow the path of carbon and what happens in a paddock will be a lot clearer. Next week, I’ll write more about the difference between carbon flows and stocks.

More flow = More meat and grain

A producer’s day job is recycling carbon i.e. managing carbon flows. They set out to turn a portion of the carbon that is flowing through the paddock into saleable carbon products, like meat and grain. The more carbon that flows, the more cattle and grain are produced for sale. 

Carbon is always moving (sometimes quickly and sometimes slowly).

Carbon moves from one life form to another via consumption. Above ground, when cattle eat grass, the carbon in grass moves into them. Selling cattle is harvesting carbon when it has entered the cattle part of the food chain. Then the carbon moves into us when we eat meat.

Carbon also moves into us when we eat vegetables. It just happens that humans are also 18% carbon.

When we breathe out carbon dioxide, this is simply some of the carbon that has entered our bodies (via food) moving on. In this case, the carbon is flowing back to the atmosphere.

Below ground, carbon also keeps moving to maintain soil life.  

Without the ongoing flow of carbon and all the compounds it forms, as it keeps moving, the landscape would become bare and lifeless.

All else being equal, the grazing paddock that has the most carbon flowing through it will be the most productive and resilient.

Plants rely on carbon inflows to construct themselves. It is plants that make carbon available to the food chains that underpin commercial production and positive environmental outcomes.

How successfully pastures are able to introduce carbon into the landscape in the first phase of carbon flows is determined by animal management. Plants and animals have evolved together and rely on each other. However, if animals dominate plants, then carbon flows are reduced. In the absence of animals, pastures become moribund and again have a lower capacity to introduce carbon into the paddock. 

For those interested in long-term soil carbon, this carbon has to start the  journey as short-term carbon in the first phase of carbon flows.

Everything discussed to this point makes management of carbon flows the cornerstone of food production, rural profit, reducing the effect of dry times, improved water quality and meeting the expectations of the broader community for better environmental outcomes. 

Next week’s discussion: “Has extension focused on the wrong aspect of carbon when discussing decision making?
Alan Lauder

Efficient water plan may help prevent chaos

Tuesday, October 06, 2015


Article by Michael Jeffery as published in The Australian October 3, 2015

Michael Jeffrey is a senior Australian Army officer and former Governor-General of Australia.

A world water crisis for drinking and agricultural purposes is the gravest threat facing our civilisation. This warning isn’t mine — it’s the sober, consensus view of international business leaders, expressed through the World Economic Forum this year.

The forum cautioned that water crises easily could deteriorate into famines, failed states, wars, disease pandemics, refugee floods and bigger climate impacts. It was underscored by a UN report predicting that by 2030 world water demand might outrun supply by as much as 40 per cent. These are focal issues for Australia to consider urgently as we look to our future physical security and plan how to improve our own water management as a key component of maintaining a healthy landscape.

Every Australian knows we live in a dry continent, subject to droughts and flooding rains, a land where every single drop should be deemed precious and managed accordingly.

So what do experts say happens to every 100 drops of rain to fall on our continent?

  • Two end up in dams and water storages.
  • Two are lost as city run-off.
  • Ten end up in our rivers.
  • Thirty-six soak into the soil.
  • Fifty drops are evaporated into the atmosphere, including from run-off, largely because they can’t filtrate a carbon-deficient, compacted soil.

And what do we control and redistribute? You’re right: the 14 per cent we can see. We largely ignore the other 86 per cent.

Thus, our big problem is not so much a lack of rain or even its distribution, it’s the enormous losses that occur from excessive evaporation, losses that will only increase as temperatures rise.

Put simply, we must ensure more of the 50 drops soak into the soil to the root zone of the plants, not only to help them grow but to be transpired by these plants through their leaves back into the atmosphere, where about two-thirds of them fall again as mostly local rain.

Award-winning Slovakian hydrologist Michal Kravcik calls this the “small water cycle” and says that maximising coverage of our landscape (including our cities) with green will increase it; conversely, bare landscapes will unhappily reduce it.

A biodiversity of green ground cover also increases essential soil carbon, every gram of which can help facilitate the retention of up to 8g of water and vice versa.

In summary, a healthy, carbon-rich soil enhances the small water cycle, which in turn retains more water in a cooler soil, generates greater local rainfall, reduces fire intensity and, importantly, helps to create essential cloud cover.

Without getting technical, there are many ways to restore the small water cycle, including slowing the movement of water, riparian zone repair (the interface between river and land), wetland and flood plain restoration, revegetation, managed grazing and limited till and pasture cropping.

The art and science of bringing these components together as a co-ordinated whole form the basis of visionary Upper Hunter Valley grazier Peter Andrews’s “natural sequence farming” philosophy.

Pleasingly, wise farmers and Landcare groups are implementing many of these measures — but, unfortunately, they face the lack of a nationally co-ordinated water and evaporation management plan, something our new Water Minister, Barnaby Joyce, may care to examine.

Our cities experienced water shortages during the millennium drought, but these are nothing to the scarcities likely to come as populations swell, demand soars and accessible sources of water dwindle.

One answer is to recycle our urban water: all our storm water, our domestic waste water, even the effluent from our sewerage systems. With modern technology this can all be cleansed to a standard even higher than it was originally.

Another reason to recycle water, rather than expensively desalinate seawater, is to recapture all the nutrients that are being lost to the bottom of the oceans, so we can reuse them in food production. Earlier civilisations did this for thousands of years. There is a huge but manageable challenge for urban planners and architects along with tremendous commercial opportunities to design advanced, hygienic, low-cost systems that recapture and recycle water and nutrients.

A further way to manage our water is through the use of underground dams — also known as water banking or managed aquifer recharge — where excess water is pumped down into a convenient aquifer in the wet season, then pumped up again for agricultural use or to water a city in the dry. Presently, we inject about 50 gigalitres of water a year in trial schemes in places such as the Burdekin, Adelaide, Perth and the Namoi Valley.

Storing our water underground, where it can’t evaporate and is naturally cleansed, is a thoroughly Australian solution to a classically Australian problem. Let’s do more of it.

By storing more water in our landscapes and soils, and in aquifers beneath our farms and cities, by recycling and wise conjunctive management of all water sources, we can ensure a water-safe future in a world becoming less water-secure by the day. The knowledge embodied in this “blue revolution” will become one of our greatest exports — potentially worth billions — as well as our humanitarian contribution to nations facing acute water scarcity.

This, in turn, will help lessen the risks of conflicts, famines, state failures, refugee floods and pandemics that may imperil our own security in future. Water and its proper management could be Australia’s special contribution to a safer, more sustainable world.

Michael Jeffery is the national soils advocate. He is a former army deputy chief of staff, state governor and governor-general.

If you agree with General Jeffery on the need to more effectively manage our water, please consider writing to The Australian and expressing your support.

Learn more:

graphic of the 100 drops model

Australia cannot remain secure in a food and water insecure world

Monday, August 31, 2015


Article by Michael Jeffery as published in The Australian August 29, 2015

Michael Jeffrey is a senior Australian Army officer and former Governor-General of Australia.

The great crises of this century are predicted to involve water, soil and food. While financial failures and political and religious disputes claim the headlines, the reality is that we need to feed up to 10 billion people by the 2060s in a world where the resources to do so are becoming scarce.

History has shown on many occasions that when food supplies fail, governments fall and people fight. The opposite is also true: a well-fed world is a more peaceful world. Most of the instability today is in those regions where soils and water are scarce and food supplies unreliable: well-fed places such as North America, Europe and Australasia are far more peaceable. Hunger is one of the underlying triggers for division and conflict.

It is time for Australia to demonstrate leadership and expertise in restoring the health of our landscapes and, in so doing, to assist others in critically vulnerable regions to do the same — because if we don’t, the refugees fleeing famines and wars across land and water borders may be in the millions. We have two white papers on the policy table — agriculture and defence — and it is time to connect the two.

When we shop for our food in the supermarket, few of us spare a thought for the soil that produces it. Yet without that 15cm of precious topsoil we wouldn’t be here today. The trouble is, the soil is vanishing, degrading. You can see its drivers in our incised creeklines and the impact of bushfires. You can see it in the big dust storms that sometimes grip our continent, you can see it in our turbid rivers and streams. You can see it in the loss of coastal corals, including the Great Barrier Reef.

Worldwide, according to estimates by American scientists Bruce Wilkinson and Brendan McElroy, humans dislodge about 75 gigatonnes of topsoil from cropland every year. To make that huge number more comprehensible, it means that every meal we eat costs about 10kg of soil. As author Julian Cribb puts it: ‘‘We’re devouring our planet.”

At the same time the world’s cities are expanding so rapidly that by mid-century it is estimated that together they may cover an area of land the size of Australia.

Meanwhile the energy sector and cities are competing for farmers’ water. All this makes the future of the world food supply highly problematic, even with better redistribution and a concerted effort to reduce waste.

While Australians manage their landscapes a good deal better than many nations and are supported by some excellent science, about 60 per cent of our continent is degraded and in need of restoration. We know from the experiences of our best farmers that the damage is repairable, that with the right knowledge, technology and investment on the part of governments and the community we can reverse the cycle of degradation to produce positive economic and environmental outcomes.

This is know-how we can share with the world that it desperately needs.

Unfortunately, we Australians also have a love affair with cheap food. Few realise that our tiny economic signal — paying farmers minimally for what they do for us — ends up as increased stress on the landscape, as lost or degraded soil, lost water, lost native species.

We need to rethink the destructive economics that externalise the true cost of food, and not only pay our farmers a fair price for what they produce but also reward them as stewards of the agricultural and pastoral landscape on behalf of urban Australia. This is a job they now perform for free and under considerable limitations.

It’s not just about protecting soil but water too. The proposed solution is to build more dams — but useful as some may be, dams lose water through evaporation. What we need most is to store more water in the root zones of our soil by managing it better and increasing soil carbon.

Again, good farmers across the continent have already proved this is possible but their wisdom is not yet a national wisdom. Of every 100 drops of rain that fall on this continent we store just two drops in our dams and 10 in our rivers. Half the rain that lands on Australia evaporates wastefully.

If we could store just a few of those lost raindrops in our soils by re-greening our continent, it markedly would improve our food and water security in a world becoming less and less secure in those commodities.

In recent decades Australia has made what I regard as poorly thought-through cuts to the science that underpins our soils and water. To me, as a soldier, it’s like disarming as conflict looms. Without that knowledge it is going to be very hard to sustain our food supply into the future.

It is therefore pleasing to see the federal government’s recent agricultural research, development and extension strategy moving to correct this. As national soils advocate I am proposing we formally measure long term the economic and environmental outcomes (including soil carbon) from 100 of our best farmers across Australia, and share their knowledge where appropriate nationally and globally. This concept is already attracting substantial overseas interest, including from the US.

People sometimes ask me why, among all the great issues that surround us, I’m so focused on soil and water. Well, as a soldier I know that when people starve they usually fight; that having sufficient food and water is fundamental to world peace.

As governor-general I was privileged to visit farms and rural communities across this great nation and overseas to see first-hand the impact of poor management of our landscapes and — much more hearteningly — that the damage could be reversed by wise conservation farming.

But the thing that really concentrated my mind was being a grandparent. It forced me to ask myself: what can I do to help ensure a safer, healthier and more sustainable world for my grandchildren and their future children? A secure supply of healthy, nutritious food and clean water is the basis of a better world for everyone.

Australians are learning from our aged, demanding and arid continent how to better manage drought, fragile soils, scarce water, climatic shocks, floods, bushfires and native landscapes.

We are becoming quite good at it — but with the right investment we can be better still. And we can take that knowledge to a world in increasingly desperate need, both as an export and as a humanitarian gift.

Australia cannot remain physically secure in a food and water insecure world. We are not isolated from the stream of history. But we can play our part in shaping a tomorrow where the risks of hunger, famine, crisis and conflict are lower than they are today.

Michael Jeffery is the national soils advocate. He is a former army deputy chief of staff, state governor and governor-general.

To Save the Planet, We Must Save the Soil

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Major General The Honourable Michael Jeffery, AC, AO (Mil), CVO, MC (Retd), is Australia's National Advocate for Soil Health, and the Chairman of Soils for Life. He has written this guest blog post as part of the 2015 International Year of Soils.

image of Michael Jeffery speaking with land managers

I have been appointed by the Federal Government as Australia’s first Advocate for Soil Health. As the Advocate, I raise public awareness of the critical role soil plays in underpinning sustainable productivity, delivering high quality ecosystem services and helping to meet global challenges, including food security and climate change.

2015 has been declared the International Year of Soils by the United Nations General Assembly, and I hope that by the end of 2015 we can establish a simple message in the minds of the broader Australian public. That is –

  • that soil underpins life as we know it
  • that at home and abroad our soils are under threat from degradation, competing land uses and the demands of a booming world population
  • that we have the knowledge and means to change the way soils are managed and in so doing to reverse degradation, boost productivity and build a sustainable future
  • that now is the time for action.

The world has to almost double its sustainable food production by 2050 to meet a projected population increase from 7 billion to perhaps 10 billion, and it has to do this when the globe is losing around 1 percent of its arable land annually. Soils are becoming less fertile through run-down of nutrients and carbon, eroded through overgrazing and ground cover removal, and wildfires are burning the equivalent of the continent of India every year. Critical aquifer water supply for irrigated agriculture in China, India, Africa, the Middle East and even California is running out, and most of the great rivers passing through populated areas of the undeveloped countries are heavily polluted.

image of Michael Jeffery with soil

These are indeed very serious and complex challenges. But what I am excited about is that we can equip ourselves to better deal with these impending challenges. By managing our soil, water, vegetation and biodiversity in an integrated way – in our vast agricultural landscapes and even in our own backyards – we can reverse land degradation and support sustainable production.

Fundamentally, we need to ensure that our soils have a healthy structural, mineral and biological balance. An important step in achieving this is to increase the amount of organic matter and carbon in the soil. The carbon content of soil is one of the key indicators of its health and is a master variable that controls numerous processes. It is the carbon content of soil that largely governs its capacity to absorb, retain and supply moisture within the soil. A well-structured soil, high in organic matter and soil carbon essentially acts as a sponge, releasing retained moisture slowly for plants and animals to maintain production over a much longer period. Soil carbon also helps support a healthy balance of nutrients, minerals and soil microbial ecologies, improving soil fertility. Through this, healthy soils promote vigorous plant growth and plant and animal resistance to disease and insect infestation. Diverse vegetation adds organic matter to the soil and provides a protective cover to control evaporation and soil loss through wind and water erosion.

"We all have a role in the responsible management of our soils and landscape."

This integrated system turns sunlight energy into the food and fibre we need - and provides the ecosystem services that are fundamental to human survival. We need to support this natural system to perform optimally.

So who is responsible for this management? We all are. In Australia, our farmers and graziers between them manage almost 60 per cent of the landscape, so it is imperative that they all learn, understand and apply good soil management – which many already do. I also take every opportunity to stress that urban Australians need to better understand the importance of rural and regional Australia, in terms of food production, the provision of clean air and water for all Australians, the value of the natural environment and the social contribution made by rural communities.

image of Michael Jeffery with school students

We can all get involved, be it through the practices we apply in our own gardens and backyards, through volunteering with Landcare, or, a personal favourite of mine, establishing school gardens nationally, such that our young people can be taught about the science underlying food production and landscape processes, including by focusing on soil biology, photosynthesis, the water cycle and the fundamental role that green cover can play in reducing carbon emissions.

It is possible that the impending global food, water and climate crisis may be the most significant challenge humanity faces this century and, ultimately, it all devolves around how we look after our soil.

The 2015 International Year of Soils provides the ideal platform from which to renew our focus on this critical issue. May I suggest, that “to save the planet, we must save the soil”.

Learn more about the regenerative landscape management practices promoted by the Advocate for Soil Health.

A healthy landscape