As the world's attention turns to Egypt for the latest UN climate change conference, some in the livestock industry are questioning how Australia can meet a pledge to drastically cut methane in less than eight years.
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Farmers vent methane pledge concerns
Livestock supplement supplier Chick Olsson says farmers face problems measuring methane emissions. (Russell Freeman/AAP PHOTOS)

In October, Australia signed on to the non-binding international commitment to reduce emissions of methane – a potent greenhouse gas – by 30 per cent.

The global target, which includes the agriculture sector, was welcomed by many of the country’s major industry groups.

But livestock supplement supplier Chick Olsson, who supports the pledge, says problems in measuring methane emissions reductions along with highly complicated regulations are causing headaches for producers.

“It’s still very, very new, we’re still learning as we go along,” he tells AAP.

At his AgCoTech factory in the southern suburbs of Brisbane, methane-busting supplements are blended in a giant “cake mixer”.

The supplement blocks contain natural vegetable oils, including eucalyptus, garlic, clove and canola, which help bulk up cattle but also reduce emissions.

Despite the hype around the methane-busting seaweed asparagopsis, Mr Olsson doesn’t plan to use it in his mixture until the industry has developed further.

He adds the $8 million allocated in the October federal budget to try to commercialise the product isn’t enough.

“If you’re serious about it, it should be probably $800 million to the cattle industry,” Mr Olsson says.

A Commonwealth Bank report estimated in September that between $132 million and $1.62 billion was needed to establish an asparagopsis supply chain.

The government committed a further $5 million for methane-reducing research and development in late October.

At the Olssons’ factory, the “emission control” lick-blocks take a few days to set before being trucked more than 2000 kilometres north to the gulf country, where they will be fed to a 10,000-strong herd of cattle.

A 90-kilogram block will last five cattle 120 days.

Mr Olsson says the blocks and other improvements have helped remove 4000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent from the atmosphere at one cattle station he services alone.

But the difficulty in measuring methane reductions as well as the price of supplements poses a problem for producers, he adds.

“There’s no point going to COP27 with the methane pledge if there’s no way for farmers to get there, there’s no recognisable system where they can receive (Australian carbon credits).”

A spokesman for the Clean Energy Regulator said there were a range of ways farms could be credited for cutting methane through the Emissions Reduction Fund, the country’s carbon credit system.

At the other end of the country, Tasmanian dairy farmer Richard Gardner also has concerns.

He says there was a “moral imperative” for Australia to sign up to the methane pledge, but measuring the greenhouse gas will be the biggest challenge for producers.

“At the moment there is no simple and practical way currently to measure methane,” Mr Gardner tells AAP.

The dairy farmer has been feeding his herd asparagopsis for two years as part of trials with one of the seaweed farms licensed to grow it commercially.

Mr Gardner says while his cows are eating about 10 per cent less grass, expensive and impractical technology means he hasn’t measured the methane reduction.

“The current technologies like asparagopsis should, in theory, reduce emissions by more than 30 per cent,” he says.

“But can we get them into the animals effectively and efficiently?”

Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA), the meat sector’s marketing and research body, thinks the industry can and has dedicated $140 million in the past five years towards the journey to carbon neutrality.

Managing director Jason Strong says his industry is the “gold standard” in reducing greenhouse gases, cutting emissions by 59 per cent from 2005 levels to contribute about 10 per cent of the national inventory.

Around 80 per cent of emissions produced by the industry is methane, which means reducing the gas is a big deal.

The Australian red meat sector made its own pledge in 2017 to be carbon neutral by 2030, a plan that included a target to reduce methane by 25 per cent.

Mr Strong admits the journey has been a little like “building the plane as we’re flying” and not all producers are on board.

“We can’t be naive … I think we can be pretty confident we have the full range of views,” he tells AAP.

But while it’s been difficult to measure methane reduction – especially for free-range cattle – a lot of effort has gone into changing that.

Last week, MLA-backed University of Queensland researchers unveiled a saliva test that uses gene-sequencing technology to find the most feed-efficient animals.

It is among a range of measures that could help beef farmers reduce methane emissions, but it’s unlikely to be available to use for at least four years.

Mr Strong says the science is moving fast and some methane-reducing technologies, like offering asparagopsis to producers on a commercial scale, are close.

“We’ve gone from four or five years ago saying you can’t reduce methane from a cow, to demonstrating that you can reduce it by more than 90 per cent, to (asking) why aren’t you selling it commercially?” he says.

While Agriculture Minister Murray Watt promises the methane pledge won’t result in a “burp tax” on farmers, as has been proposed in New Zealand, the Nationals’ Susan McDonald says there are no guarantees.

“Why has our federal government signed up to something, but at the same time is telling producers it won’t cost them anything and won’t require reduction?” says Senator McDonald, who is the opposition’s spokeswoman for northern Australia.

“What we haven’t seen yet is any support for technology to assist with measurement of methane.

“If you sign up to a pledge, then you have to do something about it, and under this government’s regime, it will be taxes, it will be reduced herd size.”

But Mr Watt rejects the suggestions, telling AAP the methane pledge will help the red meat industry by putting it on a level playing field with trade competitors.

“Increasingly our trading partners are wanting to do deals with countries that demonstrate a stronger commitment to sustainability,” he says.

“Our biggest farming groups have already committed themselves to carbon-neutral meat production by 2030 and are well on the way to achieve those goals.

“Despite the same tired old National Party scare campaigns, red meat producers are already ahead of the curve.”

Bega’s Better Farms Program supports eligible dairy farmers’ by offering up to $1.1 million worth of financial grants each year.

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