Khory Hancock, an Australian environmental scientist, climate change solutions strategist and documentarian who is best known as The Environmental Cowboy, recently went on a journey through New South Wales to see firsthand the impacts of what is being called the worst drought in more than 400 years.
His film spotlights this historic drought and explains how climate change is responsible for making these events more intense and frequent. But his documentary isn’t just about exposing the problem. Hancock focuses more on the solutions to climate change, including how Australia can regenerate itself by using different farming practices while maintaining agricultural productivity.
The film showcases real-life groundbreaking examples of land regeneration. For example, Hancock meets grass-fed beef producers Derek and Kirrily Blomfield of The Conscious Farmer, who use holistic management grazing principles that regenerates the soil. He also meets Eric Harvey of Gilgai Farms, which produces hormone-free, steroid-free and antibiotic-free grass-fed beef and lamb using an ecological farming system that promotes biodiversity.
OCA had the chance to interview Hancock via email to get more insight into his work and upcoming film. Here’s what The Environmental Cowboy had to say.
OCA: Can you explain what the drought has been like in your community and how it has impacted farmers?
Hancock: The drought has been so widespread across Australia, but in particular in Queensland and New South Wales. The impacts are devastating to all aspects of life here. Suicide rates in men, particularly farmers in rural areas, increased.
The direct impact is on the farmers living in these areas that haven't received rainfall. But the impacts extend well beyond the agricultural industry. Businesses in rural small towns are closing down because there isn't money around to spend . . . we will see an increase in food prices in the urban cities eventually.
Obviously, the land has suffered greatly, the land has begun a desertification process in parts of Australia. This hasn't just happened overnight. This is the fifth or sixth year of drought conditions in most areas. There are now stories of wildlife being found in areas where they’ve never been sighted previously . . . in particular rare species of birds being found along the coastlines now near “wetter” conditions. The climate is shifting dramatically, and the impacts are extraordinary.
OCA: Can you share some of the regenerative practices farmers are using to manage drought conditions and store carbon in the soil?
Hancock: I work as a professional in the carbon farming industry in Australia, so I have covered a lot of territory here. I’ve seen a large majority of the land and cattle stations out here. The really positive aspect of all this, is that the solutions to climate change are equally as remarkable as the consequences we’re now experiencing as a result of global warming.
You can clearly see from paddock to paddock the different management styles of the farmer. Some with plentiful amounts of grass and coverage, thick layer of organic matter on the soil surface and diverse range of plant species. I wondered why, and I met an agronomist by the name of David Ward who introduced me to regenerative and “holistic” farming practises. These practices basically look at the triple bottom line, they include tools and strategies derived from more “sustainable” economic, environmental and social principles. My mind was blown. Scientific monitoring charts from some of the farmers implementing these types of regenerative practices on their properties showed an increase in soil carbon and nutrient levels with a simultaneous increase in animal agricultural productivity . . . even as the rainfall amount decreased!
Farmers were using their cattle and sheep to heal areas of their land that were eroded, such as creeks and bare paddocks. There are whole clay pans out west that used to be inland lakes . . . they looked like a complete desert, and these farmers have turned them into grasslands . . . which almost seems impossible. And I caught it all on film.
OCA: You mention you've been inspired by Eric Harvey and The Conscious Farmer for their efforts in using holistic farming practices to better prepare for the future. How can we get more farmers to adopt these regenerative practices?
Hancock: I think once people see the results for themselves, and have a big enough reason to change, they will change almost immediately. This drought has shaken up a lot of people, and many are now questioning whether the traditional methods are the most effective way to manage our land in the current climate. The conversation has started, and it will continue. The ideas are catching on, people will follow when they see the right and true path to take.
OCA: The trailer of your film clearly outlines the importance of mitigating climate change and the role agriculture can play, but do you think we can transition to a regenerative farming system fast enough to make a difference?
Hancock: This is a much bigger question than just regenerative agriculture. If the world doesn't transition our entire energy system into renewable energy—and do it soon—parts of Australia (and the rest of the world) will become uninhabitable from extreme temperatures, heat waves, lack of rainfall and evaporation rates. We can already see some farmers moving closer inland to farmland areas with higher rainfall conditions, parts of western Queensland and NSW may become “unfarmable” in the future.
The worst part of this is that regenerative agriculture alone can't effectively mitigate climate change. And changing a mindset and culture which encourages traditional farming methods is extremely difficult to do. However, the best part about this is that humans are generally reactive, not proactive. This is a global crisis, and once we properly realize this . . . which we're starting to . . . and once it becomes a “must” for people and not just a “should” . . . dreams become reality. The impossible, becomes possible.
Humans don't understand the limitless potential we have as a species. We have the solutions in front of us, everything we need to reverse climate change. The only question left is when will we implement these solutions? I have a belief that climate change will unite the world, regardless of our differences in race, religion and culture. It will awaken the creativity we need to solve a challenge we all face.
OCA: Can you describe the projects you're working on to reverse the impacts of climate change on the Great Barrier Reef?
Hancock: I'm working on open ocean seaweed farming as a methodology for carbon farming as an international emissions trade scheme. Trading carbon credits will industrialize the carbon price and make it competitive and profitable, which it currently isn't in Australia.
Seaweed farming has been proven to reverse ocean acidification and reduce ocean surface water temperature. I’m working on a project to line the barrier reef with seaweed farms, that both sequester carbon to sell as credits and also provide a buffer zone for the reef during marine heat waves that cause the bleaching.
Reducing the heat energy in the ocean will also reduce the severity of the cyclones. The other amazing benefit of seaweed, which I am working on . . . is that if you feed it to cattle—just a 2- percent intake into their diet—it will reduce the methane emissions up to 99 percent. Seaweed is amazing. It has multiple benefits and grows 30-60 times faster than any land-based plant . . . drawing down and sequestering carbon dioxide emissions at a rapid rate, which is what we need now: fast and effective solutions to counteract climate change.
OCA: What's the most important takeaway from your film "A Dry Hope?"
Hancock: If we choose to do nothing and ignore the climate warnings, we will sacrifice everything. We can all be part of the solution in some way, and we need to look at it as not a problem we can't fix . . . but an opportunity. An opportunity to create wealth, wealth in our economy, community and the environment around us that is the very foundation of our existence.
Australians pride themselves on being able to get back up when we get knocked down. We've been knocked down hard this time. But you wouldn't rebuild a house the same way after a cyclone destroyed it would you? You would make it stronger, reinforce the framework with better design and materials. Now, we need to do the same with agriculture and all that is, is about thinking differently about the way we currently do things.
OCA: How can people see your film?
Hancock: I am currently looking for more funding to finish the rest of the filming and produce the film. To date I have funded everything myself and won't be able to finish it without further partnerships/funding. If anyone would like to potentially partner with me to help sponsor this film, please don't hesitate to get in contact with me.