Innovation in agriculture will benefit farmers as well as the climate

One of two CRCs to receive funding in Round 24 of the CRC Program, the Zero Net Emissions from Agriculture CRC aims to reduce the emissions produced by Australian agriculture while ensuring the sector remains competitive. Cooperative Research Australia spoke to two leaders of the CRC’s team. After a lengthy bid process, the leaders of the CRC are excited to get started with their ambitious project. ‘This is a response from the government to the most pressing issue of our time. What we’re really excited by now is the opportunity to get on with it,’ said Professor Matthew Morell, the CRC’s interim CEO. Interim chair, Dr Debra Cousins added ‘I’m most excited to be a part of the solution to global climate change.’

Matthew and Debra say the issue of agricultural emissions is more complex than many people realise. Matthew explained that ‘Reducing emissions and dealing with climate change is really the elephant in the room. Agriculture is complex because it is both a major contributor to emissions and particularly exposed to climate change due to its reliance on our climate and agricultural biological systems.’ The need for a coordinated and large-scale response to this issue is what led to the creation of the Zero Net Emissions from Agriculture CRC. Matthew added, ‘We can’t only rely on reducing emissions from transport and energy generation. We urgently need to do something concrete and at scale about the problem of agricultural emissions.’ 

Matthew explained why the CRC program was the ideal way to achieve such a large-scale response: ‘The universities aren’t going to do this by themselves. State governments aren’t going to do this by themselves. At the end of the day, you need industry embedded in the program. It’s in the back blocks of farms that this is going to be achieved. A CRC is the right vehicle to take this project forward because the CRC program provides scale relationships, national coverage, and a format that’s well understood in the industry-research environment.’ 

With such a large and collaborative platform to tackle the issue, it’s no surprise that Matthew and Debra have big ambitions for the impact of the CRC. ‘We want to be coming up with technologies that can be deployed to transform this sector globally,’ said Debra. ‘We’re reducing the emissions from the production of agriculture by trying to redefine the systems in which farming happens. This is called insetting rather than offsetting. Ultimately, the goal is for Australia to be respected globally for the way we can reduce emissions in agriculture.’

To achieve their ambitions, the solutions provided by the CRC need to be economically viable as well as environmentally friendly. ‘The cost of implementation must be very low or indeed improve productivity to drive adoption,’ said Matthew. ‘We’d like the agricultural sector to see that it’s not just an added cost. This is an opportunity to do agriculture better and be more profitable.’ Due to the time-sensitive nature of climate change, the CRC’s solutions must also be implemented quickly to have the desired effect. Debra explained the CRC’s unique approach to encourage faster adoption of new technologies. ‘In agriculture, it traditionally takes around 9 years to get adoption. Our model includes quite a unique feature – the use of over 25 producer demonstration sites. These are sites on commercial farms where people can physically see the difference made by new technologies.’ Debra hopes that these sites, located around the country in different agroecological zones and each deploying multiple technologies, will accelerate uptake and adoption.

Another area of the CRC driven by industry demand is the education program. ‘Some industry partners came to us and said, “We have a real problem”. They need well trained people with access to the science, information, and tools to combat their emissions’, explained Matthew. He also explained the urgency of these issues for agricultural businesses: ‘These are frontline business issues now. If we had to train graduates and wait for them to be employed, it would take quite a long time to give them the workforce that they need. That’s why we have this vocational education element in the CRC. Debra detailed the various elements of the CRCs education program, saying ‘We will have 50 PhD studentships. We also have Tocal College which is an agricultural college in the Hunter Valley as part of our vocational education and outreach.’ Another type of education within the CRC involves the application of traditional knowledge to modern problems. ‘We have a real interest in understanding how Indigenous communities manage agriculture and interact with their environment. We wanted to embed in the CRC a way to bring together an Indigenous perspective and Western science,’ said Matthew. ‘This will help us develop new solutions while also allowing us to contribute to the economic and social prosperity of our Indigenous partners.’

Both Matthew and Debra are proud of the broad range of partners involved in the CRC. These partners include major players in Australian agriculture as well as all state governments and the Northern Territory government. ‘I’m really proud of and excited by the fact that this is truly national,’ said Debra. ‘About 60% of our partners are SMEs. Hopefully the CRC helps build capacity among SMEs and allows them to grow their businesses,’ she added. The lack of capacity among Australia’s SMEs – our ‘missing middle’ – was identified by the Hon. Ed Husic MP as a key challenge for our economy (link). These CRC partnerships are one part of the solution to this larger issue. 

Although many people understand the importance of addressing climate change, the details are at times quite technical. When asked about the quantitative impact of the CRC on greenhouse gas emissions, Debra provided an excellent take-home message: ‘A very conservative estimate of the impact of the Zero Net Emissions from Agriculture CRC is that during its lifetime, it will provide the equivalent effect to taking every car off the roads in Australia for a year.’

Cooperative Research Australia would like to take this opportunity to warmly congratulate Debra, Matthew, and the rest of the CRC team on the success of their bid. We wish them all the best.

To read more about the Zero Net Emissions from Agriculture CRC, click here.