Australia urgently needs real sustainable agriculture policy

Jacqueline Williams, UNE, 14/08/2019

AUSTRALIA has made a global commitment to “sustainable agriculture”, an endeavour seen as increasingly crucial to ending world poverty, halting biodiversity loss, and combating climate change. A recent report from the UN found land use – including food production – is responsible for around one-third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately, Australia has something of a sustainable agriculture policy vacuum, after years of a fragmented, stop-start approach.

Read more:
UN climate change report: land clearing and farming contribute a third of the world’s greenhouse gases

To honour our international obligations and respond to growing sustainability markets, Australia urgently needs a contemporary definition of sustainable agriculture, including agreed on-farm metrics.

Good policy abandoned

Australia spent more than a decade developing promising policies that defined sustainable agriculture with broad indicators for measuring progress.

In 1997 Australia passed federal legislation defining “sustainable agriculture” as:

agricultural practices and systems that maintain or improve […] the economic viability of agricultural production; the social viability and well-being of rural communities; […] biodiversity; the natural resource base [and] ecosystems that are influenced by agricultural activities.

The following year, the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Resource Management published a broad set indicators.

During the early 2000s a national framework of Environmental Management Systems was developed, and national pilots were conducted across Australia up until 2006.

Between 2004 and 2006 the Australian Bureau of Statistics recorded farmers’ investment in natural resource management. However these surveys have not been replicated in more than a decade.

In 2005, the states and territories formed a joint working group to create a national approach to property management systems. This group met with industry representatives and regional land managers throughout 2006, and in 2007 the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry planned a pathway for a national policy. There was much hope and enthusiasm it would soon become a reality.

However, since 2008 there has been no progress and little, if any, explanation for why this important sustainable agriculture policy initiative was shelved.

Current policy vacuum

It is concerning that Australia’s first progress report on implementing the sustainable development goals contains the words “sustainable agriculture” only once in 130 pages, as part of the heading for the goal of ending hunger.

The definition arrived at in 1997 is far too broad and simplistic, and can’t be used at the farm level.

When contacted for comment, a spokesperson for the Department of Agriculture reiterated their commitment to improving sustainable food production, and said:

Australia is involved in global discussions about how best to measure sustainable agriculture performance […] However a globally agreed methodology has not been set for [agricultural sustainability].

Australia’s only substantial sustainable agriculture policy mechanism at the moment appears to be grants available through the National Landcare Program. This is reiterated by searching through key Coalition policy documents and the recent budget.

The budget allocation to the overall National Landcare Program is around A$1 billion from 2017 to 2023. New programs announced in the 2019 budget that build on this commitment include:

  • A$100 million over four years for the environment restoration fund,
  • A$34 million over four years for a new biodiversity stewardship program,
  • A$28.3 million for a new communities environment program for 2019-20, and
  • A$2 billion over 15 years for the climate solutions fund.

These programs combined equate to some A$354 million per year. But a coherent sustainable agriculture policy cannot be delivered through grants alone.

And even though these grants are substantial, past ABS surveys found that farmers invest at least A$3 billion a year in natural resource management. The Indigenous on-country contribution is currently unknown, but likely to be substantial.

Caring for country fund

Around 10% of Australia’s population lives in rural or remote areas. These comparatively small communities – largely farmers and Indigenous land managers – currently steward most of the country.

A review released in late July on how conservation laws affect the agriculture sector has recommended the federal government create a A$1 billion fund for farmers who deliver environment benefits from their land.

This mirrors calls from farmers for an ecosystem services fund.

If our 13.9 million taxpayers contributed some A$60 each per year in a “caring for country” levy, urban and rural Australians could more fairly share the costs – as well as the advantages – of sustainable land management.

We could start with revisiting the good work undertaken more than a decade ago in developing a national framework for property management systems.

Underpinning such a system, we need an independent and trusted source of metrics for farmers, land managers and agricultural industries. To this end, the University of New England is establishing a research hub to help develop just such a harmonised approach.

Read more:
Vegan food’s sustainability claims need to give the full picture

There are many good news stories of sustainable agriculture around Australia, however our ongoing biodiversity crisis requires transformative policy change and federal leadership.

One bold first step would be addressing the current paradox of sustainable agriculture in Australia.

The Conversation

Author, Jacqueline Williams is senior research fellow and lecturer at the School of Environmental and Rural Science, University of New England , Armidale, NSW.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.





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  1. Paul Franks, 15/08/2019

    Tracey, I do not sell to the Australian market as it is a very fussy market. Has MLA polled the consumers in Japan, Vietnam, Korea, China and the USA?

    Why should I be forced to comply with the wishes of some market I will never supply? In any case I am still highly suspicious MLA marketing has it wrong if they think consumers in Australia are quite concerned about sustainability and all the other stuff we are told by MLA they are concerned about. I bet if you asked a hundred consumers what is sustainability, you would get a hundred different answers. I would say the recent federal election and the last US federal election has shown how fantastic the “experts” are at getting public opinion correct.

    But lets say MLA has it right, are MLA through LPA rules now going to ban live export of cattle and sheep as I also know polls show the majority of Australian consumers want that banned? Or are all the polls wrong there but for everything else they are right?

    Meanwhile the USA laughs at the way we carry on about these insignificant issues and carry on and increase their beef exports.

    It is no wonder so many producers want to return to the 1980’s when you could just concentrate on growing the world’s best beef.

  2. Tracey Gowen, 15/08/2019

    I think Mr Franks (below) is being simplistically dismissive in his comment that:
    “The opinions of those consumers who demand sustainability while they go on a round the world holiday are not worth a cracker and are just virtue signalers”.

    These consumers may in fact be contradictory and even hypocritical in their claims and actions, but the reality is they are a customer and consumer of our product. Perhaps we could instead look at this as an opportunity to engage with them, understand what information has fed into their opinions and attempt to influence this opinion.

    The MLA has collected and collated significant data on consumer, community and customer engagement on eating habits as well as perceptions on product sustainability, environmental impacts and animal welfare concerns, amongst others. I would direct you towards Lisa Sharp and her team in the Marketing and Communications branch of MLA who I’m sure would be only too happy to discuss their research methodologies.

  3. Peter Dunn, 14/08/2019

    If the UNE establishes a ‘research hub’ to develop a trusted source of metrics for the agricultural sector, undoubtedly the author will be prominent within, and job security is enhanced. However given the unbalanced quality of the paper, there is clearly a need for the community to be a lot more circumspect about exactly how taxpayers research dollars are spent. Paying no more than lip service to Government and industry achievements to date is no way to encourage a “harmonised approach”.

  4. Greg Campbell, 14/08/2019

    Jacqueline Williams appears to have been purposely selective in only focussing on Government policy and funding in the area of agricultural sustainability. The grazing industry itself is moving things along and on some issues is considerably ahead of general societal expectations. The dairy industry is well advanced; see:
    The cattle and beef industry is progressing well; see:
    and the sheep industry has more recently started down the same path.
    As the author points out, with or without Government policy some significant funding has been allocated to the environmental aspects of sustainability. But as work in the above links shows, sustainability is a broader subject also covering the economic and human elements of agriculture and food supply.

  5. Paul Franks, 14/08/2019

    Perhaps the reason it was shelved years ago was because it was found to be a totally useless and pointless exercise.

    I really am getting sick of all these people saying this and that and providing not a single skerrick of evidence that what they say is being demanded from consumers is actually being demanded from consumers and not in a way like a tick and flick survey. But consumers who are demanding sustainability (whatever that means) are practicing sustainability themselves.For example recycling and restricting their carbon footprint.

    The opinions of those consumers who demand sustainability while they go on a round the world holiday are not worth a cracker and are just virtue signalers.

    The problem is I think some have worked out there is yet more money to bleed from the producer and bang the “sustainable” drum for whatever reason, usually comes down to money.

    One thing is for sure though, producers need their leaders to be leaders and start calling crap when it is crap. But when their wage is guaranteed (unlike mine who pays for it), why bother rocking the boat.

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