CSIRO Researcher Sandra Eady’s career has taken her from studying sheep on a dusty outback station in Australia to tabling critical and complex life cycle evidence to secure Australia’s canola exports to the European Union.
Now transitioning to retirement, we asked her about her scientific journey and how it moved her toward LCA expertise.
Where did you start your career?
The first 3 years of my career were spent in a fan forced oven. Well, not really, but that’s definitely what it felt like. After leaving Gatton Agriculture College (as it was then) with an AgScience degree, I headed to an outback field station south of Julia Creek, where I studied the impact of heat stress on wool and lamb production for the Queensland DPI. I stayed with Queensland DPI for 9 years, moving from the field station to a role in Charleville as extension officer for the Quilpie District. At the same time as I was working with farmers on issues like blow fly control and clip preparation, I did my Masters at James Cook University in Townsville on the impact of heat stress on high and low wool producing sheep. From there I earned a scholarship to do my PhD on quantitative genetics: breeding sheep for worm resistance, at the University of New England. This ultimately gained me my job at the CSIRO, where I started out developing a national technology transfer program – “Nemesis”, to breed sheep for worm resistance.
When did you first begin to start to consider LCA in your work?
In some ways it started with that first role at CSIRO, because this is where I became involved in systems thinking. I had to consider whether it made more sense to breed sheep for worm resistance, which would require farmers to back off on breeding for other factors, or is it better to invest in new and better drugs. This was the first time I had to make whole of systems decisions.
I moved more specifically into LCA a little later when I was working on supply chain research. This was in 2006/07 when Australia was seriously considering an emissions trading scheme and I became involved in really big integrative studies on how much carbon we could store in rural landscapes, to inform the team that went to Copenhagen for the climate change talks – you remember, the ones that went nowhere.
I went on to manage this area of research for CSIRO for a number of years, and this is when I started working with Tim Grant from Lifecycles. With RIRDC funding, he and I worked together to established the agriculture inventories in AusLCI.
What has been your most important LCA work?
Perhaps everyone says this when looking back, but I do think that the canola project we just completed was my most important.
Many ALCAS members would be aware that the European Union revised their GHG savings targets on biofuels from 35% to 50%, to take effect from 1 January 2018. This was in response to concerns that the biofuel industry was sucking oils out of the food market, resulting in rainforests being cleared to grow palm for oil.
The European move had potential to devastate Australia’s $1.0 billion canola export market. Tim Grant and I led a life cycle assessment report that tracked the GHG emissions of all facets of canola farming in each Australian state where the crop is grown.
Because of all the backwork that had been done in developing AusLCI we were the first non-member state to have our report accepted. We partnered with a European agency to help step us through the political hoops. We were reviewed by: the University of Melbourne, a leading biofuel agency in German and a European auditing agency. Talk about peer review!
I’m proud to say that, with only 15 months lead-time, we managed to get our submission accepted just before Christmas, which meant that a $1billion Australian industry was not impacted when the legislation took effect on 1 January.
Does CSIRO plan to retain focus on LCA once you retire?
Absolutely. CSIRO wants to keep an LCA practitioner working in the agricultural space. I’m delighted to say that Maartje Sevenster will be taking over and I am very confident CSIRO’s contribution to LCA will continue.
What are the big issues that still need to be addressed by Australian LCA professionals?
We really need to get our inventories linked internationally. The amazing data we are accumulating in AusLCI needs to be incorporated into the larger international inventories, like EcoInvent..
We have to tackle how we incorporate the impact of indirect land use change and soil carbon change into our life cycle inventory. The international groups are doing it using high-level data that delivers some pretty horrible results for Australian agriculture. We have more detailed data and we must be proactive in getting this data into the right places.
Just considering the recent canola project, if the international LCI databases had included canola and it came out with a GHG footprint using inappropriate land use change data, EU reviewers would have questioned the results of our LCA. Ultimately this could have resulted in a 12-month delay in getting our figures accepted, wiping out $100M income for Australian famers for the year.
What are your plans post retirement?
I am currently officially a Post Retirement Fellow with CSIRO and will be helping to settle Maartje into her new role. I’m also actively involved in the Zero Net Energy Town project for Uralla Shire, where our goal is to move to 100% renewable energy. And lots of gardening, house renovations and hopefully a trip to Italy next year!