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A fight over plans to cut farming’s greenhouse footprint from methane-burping livestock looms for the Albanese government, with Agriculture Minister Murray Watt declaring the sector must reduce its emissions as the National Farmers Federation campaigns against the government’s renewable plans.
Watt declared the industry cannot rely only on carbon offsets and must change practices as he launched consultation on Tuesday on the government’s agriculture and land plan, which will guide cuts to emissions from agriculture in line with the national target to hit net zero by 2050.
The Albanese government has launched a controversial reform, which will result in a sector wide plan for agriculture to cut its greenhouse emissions, which are mostly generated by methane-laden burps from livestock. Credit: Steven Siewert
The government is also committed to the global pledge to cut methane by 30 per cent from 2020 by 2030.
That is a big task for graziers as sheep and cows’ gassy burps are loaded with the greenhouse gas – a byproduct of digesting grass. Livestock methane makes around two-thirds of agriculture’s greenhouse emissions.
New Zealand has imposed a tax on farm methane emissions that kicks in from 2025, but in news that will be welcomed by Australian farmers, Watt has already ruled this out.
Watt said the reforms “will be done without a methane tax or ag sector emissions target” but government would work industry to develop a plan.
Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen has teamed with other ministers to draw up plans for emissions reductions in six sectors of the economy. Agriculture, which generates 17 per cent of the nation’s greenhouse footprint, is first cab off the rank.
“It’s really important that agriculture does reduce its emissions,” Watt said told the ABC.
The agriculture minister linked increasing droughts and extreme weather events to a 23 per cent decline in average profitability, with climate change costing farmers about $30,000 on their bottom lines every year.
Farmers also need to boost their green credentials to maintain critical export market access, which is the destination for about 70 per cent of Australian agriculture produce, Watt said.
“Pretty much all of our international trading markets, as well as domestic consumers, expect to see higher and higher sustainability records when it comes to agricultural production.”
The emissions plan will be launched in the wake of the National Farmers’ Federation’s Keep Farmers Farming campaign, which demands changes to environmental water buybacks, the impending ban on live sheep exports, the government’s refusal to create a visa for imported farm workers, national environment protections and industrial relations reforms.
But the most pressing issue for the government is the federation’s opposition to the routes selected for new transmission lines, which are urgently needed to connect wind and solar farms to population centres.
The National Farmers Federation backs net zero by 2050 and president Tony Mahar said climate action was a valuable opportunity to boost farm productivity, but stressed that industry feedback must be central to policy development.
“Net zero doesn’t mean zero farm emissions by 2050. We’ve got to recognise the challenges and trade-offs in bringing down farm emissions,” Mahar said.
Nationals leader and agriculture spokesman David Littleproud said the government’s emissions reduction plans, which hinge on boosting renewables, was a threat to agriculture productivity.
“The government is belatedly acknowledging that their reckless race to 82 per cent renewables by 2030 will not just destroy the natural environment but also farm land and food security driving up grocery bills.”
Farmers for Climate Action, which represents 8000 primary producers, said the sector needed policy reform to help remain sustainable under global warming.
“Farmers are part of the solution and we need to engage with them to get the right emissions reduction plan for agriculture.”
State agriculture lobby NSW Farmers stressed the challenges in driving significant emissions reduction, given technologies that could make a difference are yet to be proven economic, such as electric tractors and seaweed-based livestock feed supplements to reduce methane burps.
“Our sector remains sceptical of this government’s commitment to agriculture,” said NSW Farmers policy director Nick Savage.
“On the one hand ministers talk about farmers being leaders in sustainability, and working in partnership with farmers, but on the other hand talk about adopting low-emission technologies that are not yet commercially viable.”
Victorian Farmers Federation president Emma Germano said Australian agriculture’s role in feeding the world meant other sectors should be prioritised for potentially disruptive emissions reduction reforms.
“We’ve got to think about it in the global context and make sure that we maintain food security as a central tenet of this debate … we should probably be starting with the things that are not our food supply,” Germano said.
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