Budget bonus for farmers in special measures on soils
Squirrelled away in the budget portfolio papers for the department of agriculture in Tuesday night’s budget was an amount of $196.9 million in new funding over four years to implement the National Soil Strategy and associated measures as part of an Australian Government Action Plan.
The National Soil Strategy sets out how Australia will value, manage and improve its soil for the next 20 years. The strategy highlights three overarching goals: (1) prioritise soil health, (2) empower soil innovation and stewards and (3) strengthen soil knowledge and capability. Actions to address these goals will ensure that soil continues to contribute to agricultural productivity, environmental sustainability, and economic growth.
At the moment the first step for farmers wanting to be paid for improving their soil is to get an audit of the soil quality. This can be an expensive process, and the prospect of the Commonwealth picking up the bill must be attractive to farmers who want to participate in carbon bio-sequestration programs.
In order to introduce farmers to the soils strategy, the government has decided to introduce a two-year National Soil Monitoring and Incentives Pilot Program that will be trialled to improve our understanding of Australia’s soil condition and how to better manage it, assess the impact of land management practices on soil, assist farmers to improve their productivity and profitability, and better support farmers to participate in the Emissions Reduction Fund.
This pilot program includes five key elements:
A review of existing soil data to establish the quality, quantity and distribution of information across Australia, identify gaps in soil knowledge, and inform the roll-out of the pilot.
Payments to farmers and land managers to capture existing soil data to inform the program.
Incentives to encourage more farmers and land managers to undertake comprehensive soil testing in exchange for sharing their data with the program.
Re-developing the Australian Soil Resource Information System (ASRIS) to improve its ability to store soil data, track and report trends and changes in soil health, and monitor the impact of land management practices and environmental shocks over time.
Directing existing funding from the National Landcare Program’s Smart Farms Small Grants initiative to soil extension activities that encourage farmers to test their soil and help them interpret and act on results.
Apart from this, the government intends to establish education modules so farmers can be accredited in soil science, establish a national soil science challenge, and augment the food waste to soil fund.
Overall, the government intends to spend $212 million on soil improvement over four years, with an allocation of $65 million this financial year and $91 million next year. While this may seem like small beer in light of the budget parameters, it is only a pilot program and farmers should be able to press for more if it proves successful.
At the moment there is a lot of superficial discussion by so-called climate experts on how to achieve zero emissions by 2050. Most of them seem to think it can be achieved through renewables and electric vehicles. However, serious analysis by bodies such as the International Panel on Climate Change believe it will be impossible to reach the target without the adoption of measures such as bio-sequestration. This means that soil carbonisation will become very valuable as we approach mid-century.