A green transition at the scale and speed the government needs to meet its mandated emissions targets must better help producers adapt low-carbon practices and technologies without compromising farm viability, trade and global and regional food security.
The comments were made in submissions by peak agriculture bodies on the era-shaping Agriculture and Land Sectoral Plan, released quietly by the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry on Tuesday morning.
Common themes included that producers were "ready to play a role" in the nations carbon abatement and emission reduction programs but cannot begin to do so "without the appropriate and proper support from the government."
There was also an overwhelming call for the government to acknowledge that a one-size-fits-all approach would fail if applied to agriculture, for increased research and development funding and more effort made to close information gaps.
A barrier to progress identified in many submissions was that current levers "involve relatively nascent technologies and are not yet commercial" and that many emissions reduction solutions involve substantial upfront investment, which can stop adoption "if costs, benefits and impacts are not well understood."
Submissions also called on the government not to make the same mistake as the European Union Commission, who last week made a snap decision to shelve its agricultural chemical restrictions after weeks of farmer protests. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen acknowledged that the body had not fairly consulted farmers before writing the policy.
"Agriculture and farmers are key stakeholders and must have a seat at the table when it comes to developing viable and effective strategies for the sector to decarbonise," the National Farmers Federation submission said.
On an economic front, producers said the government must assure farmers that targets and taxes will not be placed on agriculture, that the sector is not adversely impacted by offset purchases and exclude agriculture from any mandatory cap and trade policies.
"More than 75% of Australian agriculture produce is exported, and that as a trade-exposed sector we must remain competitive within domestic and international markets," the NFF said.
Meanwhile, the National Australia Bank said it had already set targets for several industries to guide emissions reduction across its lending portfolios and was currently working on developing decarbonisation targets for agriculture.
"Understanding the Government's view on actions needed to reduce emissions in each sector will assist NAB and the broader banking industry greatly," it said.
"It will reduce complexity and also reduce the risk of banks and Government having mis-aligned requirements for industry. NAB sees this need for alignment as particularly acute for primary producer customers."
The sector plan will be developed at a time when the resilience of Australian agriculture has been worn thin by sustained input price hikes, reduced productivity caused by extreme weather events, supply chain, infrastructure and workforce disruptions and low farm gate margins.
The submissions underline the importance that the new regulatory and policy regimes not compromise production and lead to further grocery price increases, a major driver of the current cost-of-living crisis.
Other proposals included a Queensland Farmers Federation push to enable producers to undertake soil carbon projects on a smaller scale with more flexibility.
A 'secondary register' for smaller carbon projects to be created that were not linked to a larger registered project.
There were also calls for a grandfathering clause to be introduced to recognise those farmers who have "already been making significant achievements."
There was also wide support for amped-up biodiesel and biofuel replacements research.
Along with better coordination between the federal, state and local governments and private enterprise to move towards developing energy sharing models and tariff trials, better utilise distribution network infrastructure and extend energy efficiency rebate programs.
A Senate Estimates hearing on Tuesday heard that the Agriculture Department was hoping to gain traction with producers by using their already established network of "trusted advisors" as a go-between to pass on relevant information.
Agriculture, unlike other heavy emitters such as the fossil fuel industry, will not be captured under regulatory frameworks like the Safeguard Mechanism.
But, as that mechanism takes effect in coming years, agriculture's share of the National Inventory of total emissions will increase.
"This will place additional focus on the sector," the NFF submission said.
"This must not be taken as a reason to demand greater performance from agriculture. Unlike other sectors where sectoral plans are also in development, net-zero remains a distinct impossibility for agriculture."
The NFF also recommended that looming government action be built around a "trajectory approach" rather than a hard target as targets "lock sectors into specific action and ignore the complexities of on-ground circumstances."
The submission also recognised that carbon offsets, specifically "vegetable sinks", were likely to be supported by the government.
However, the NFF said the intersection between offsets and agriculture is a "point of concern" due to the risk of losing arable land and "perverse" social, economic and environmental outcomes across regional Australia.
The Red Meat Advisory Council said the Federal Government's decarbonisation pathways must be realistic in terms of their expectations of emission reductions from the red meat and livestock sector and that agriculture is not contributing disproportionately to off-setting other sectors emissions.
"Further significant decreases in emissions are unlikely to be achieved in the red meat and livestock industry without prioritising specific activities that target enteric methane," the RMAC submission said.
"There is much more work needed to be done to apply feed additives and innovations across our production systems in a practical, profitable and resilient way."
Meanwhile, Sheep Producers Australia chief executive Bonnie Skinner said the nation's 20,000 sheep farming businesses were operating from arid and wet temperate to subtropical climates, and on a very large to very small scale.
"This means that it is difficult to envisage arrangements that could be implemented for all or even most producers regardless of how well intentioned and designed those arrangements might be," she said.
Ms Skinner said it was imperative that a formalised consultation mechanism be established to "give producers confidence to plan and invest as well as focus and hone the research agenda and investment priories."
She also said "agriculture requires a suite of ACCU (Australian Carbon Credit Unit) scheme methods that better manage landholder requirements to increase carbon removals while maintaining productive grazing enterprises."
Meanwhile, Cattle Australia, whose members farm almost 80 percent of Australia's agricultural land covering half of Australia's total landmass, said "while there is still so much potential", investment by the beef industry to reduce emissions has been "substantial and successful" and that a "refocus on other commodities is needed."
It also said a single focus on absolute emissions reduction under the current CO2e accounting frameworks is "detrimental for the beef industry" and that the grass-fed beef industry will become "climate neutral."
CA also supports the Dublin Declaration that stated livestock systems were "too precious to society to become the victim of simplification, reductionism or zealotry (fanaticism)."
"Manage what we have better, before aiming for more. Before further landmass and marine areas are converted for conservation purposes, the management of National Parks needs serious review to stop loss of biodiversity and carbon emissions caused by bushfires," the submission said.
GrainGrowers' submission said that initiatives for removing on-farm barriers to action must be designed and pitched to consider "business mindset, appetite for risk, and technical proficiency in tandem with crop-specific conditions such as climate, soil characteristics, pest and disease pressure, topography, and water quality."
While Grain Traders Australia said the comparative advantage of Australian agriculture in terms of ESG, including GHG emissions, positions the Australian grain industry to focus on the importance of the trade of grain as a critical component to regional and global food security.
As opposed to the sprawling cattle industry, the Australian Fresh Produce Alliance said the nation's diverse horticulture sector accounted for only one per cent of agriculture's total emissions, and that government should not include it in any whole-of-agriculture targets or couple horticulture with other sectors as part of developing its sector plan.
It also identified a key issue facing the government across agriculture, saying that, while numerous carbon capture opportunities existed, "there is currently insufficient data to be able to accurately determine the industry's emissions profile."
It continued to say that the absence of reliable data outlining the sector's emissions profiles creates immediate barriers to developing evidence-based policies and objectives.
Meanwhile, AFPA member the Costa Group said much work was already being done to reduce the environmental impact of its operations given the industry is highly exposed to the impact of extreme weather events and seasonal conditions.
"We are investing in new technology and production techniques to minimise inputs, including water and fertilisers, and have a strong focus on the adoption of renewable energy," it said.
It identified seven key areas the sectoral plan should cover, including providing renewable energy incentives, targeting food waste and recycling and fertiliser technology.
Many of the papers mentioned a Fertilisers Australia White Paper, handed to government last year, that proposed an aggregation payment for farmers to use fertiliser precoated with nitrogen inhibitors.
Fertiliser Australia executive manager Stephen Annels said in its submission that manufacturing of fertiliser in Australia had struggled to compete with imports, "partly due to
our regulatory environment, gas price policy and partly due to less efficient infrastructure."
There are several proposed urea plants being developed in Australia, two in Western Australia and one in South Australia. All three are looking at using natural gas to produce ammonia and then capturing the carbon dioxide and securely storing the excess carbon dioxide back in the ground.
"Other technologies seek to use hydrogen atoms from water, other technologies are seeking to use renewable energy to produce ammonia," it said.
"All these technologies are expensive, some are in their infancy, however, they provide an opportunity for the Australian government to invest and become involved in new technology that can contribute to the emission reduction targets, both current and future."
Submissions widely support a suite of opportunties to reduce emissions at the direct source or atmospheric level to build carbon stores on land included low-emission anti-methanogenic feed supplements like asparagopsis, improved genetics, soil carbon sequestration, precision agriculture, conservation tillage and slow-release and coated fertilisers.
The NFF paper also said a range of "green energy" options including low- or zero-carbon fuels, biofuels from sugar bagasse and other ag trash and electrification of heavy machinery on-farm could ratchet down emissions.
The ag submissions mostly agreed that it is vital that government and regulatory bodies implement policies and regulations that incentivise the adoption of low-carbon practices and technologies without harming farm businesses.
Meanwhile, peak research body the Australian Farm Institute pointed out that there were only "28 annual planting opportunities" left to create the "fundamental shift" needed to reach the government's net-zero 2050 target.
It also warned that while "innovation is inherent in Australian agriculture, it can be hard won."
The AFI said simply providing landholders with more information and data "won't necessarily lead to better decisions" regarding emissions reduction and sustainable land management.
"Behavioural factors such as choice overload, decision fatigue and zero risk bias influence how and why landholders make decisions and implement practice change," it said.
"People make quasi-rational, values-based choices every day, and farmers are no different. Recognising this and aligning information with landholder's values is an important component of developing successful policy. Government should consider...behavioural economic interventions such as nudges and simplifying choice architecture."
A strong theme of the submissions was the crucial role innovation of technology, on-farm methods and practices and supportive policies will play in reducing emissions and sequestering carbon.