A NEW report has delivered a scathing assessment and warning about past and present production practices employed by Australian agriculture and their lack of environmental or economic sustainability.
The discussion paper, From vicious to virtuous cycles: a sustainable future for Australian agriculture will be released today by the independent Centre for Policy Development (CPD).
The 52-page report argues that the natural resource base underpinning agricultural production has been gripped in a cycle of mutually-reinforcing environmental and economic decline.
But the executive summary also says sustainability-focused farmers, brands, investors and supply chains can play a key role in generating a stronger economic and ecological future for Australian agriculture.
“The starting point for this discussion paper is a harsh reality: the underlying natural resource base of Australian agriculture has been gripped in a cycle of decline for decades,” it says.
“The commodity markets in which Australian agriculture competes reward firms that deliver high-volume, low-cost produce to consumers - but are largely blind to the condition of the vital soil, water and other ecological resources that underpin agricultural production.
“The illusion of abundance masks a self-reinforcing long-term decline in the very natural resources upon which the sustainability of agriculture depends.
“To make ends meet in a period of volatile prices, variable output and weakening resource condition, many farmers are compelled to adopt or persist with practices and technologies that maximise near-term production at the expense of further depletion of natural resources.
“We describe this as the ‘vicious cycle’.
“The operation of this cycle over several decades has meant that individually rational and well-intentioned producer supply chain and consumer decisions have added up to collective outcomes that unwittingly, but systemically erode the environmental, human and social resources needed to sustain a thriving agricultural sector.”
But the report says by opening up markets for agricultural goods and practices that maintain or increase primary resource condition, Australia can reverse the negative cycle of declining resource condition, while safeguarding competitiveness and productivity.
It said that task isn’t solely for Australia’s farmers but was also a challenge they share with processors, investors, retailers, financial services suppliers, policy makers and ultimately consumers, “all of whom have a role to play to support the market-driven mainstreaming of sustainable products and supply chains”.
“Market forces that can generate value-driven competitiveness and virtuous cycles in agriculture are already emerging,” the report summarises.
“On the demand side, global firms, attuned to societal trends and capable of leading transformational change, have shown a determination and capacity to promote sustainability.
“Major brands including Unilever, Puma and Patagonia are striving to include environmental and conservation attributes in their sourcing of agricultural products, creating exciting opportunities for sustainable producers.
“On the supply side, leading-edge farmers in Australia and elsewhere are demonstrating that healthy, biologically-diverse native ecosystems can be utilised to produce conventional agricultural commodities sustainably and profitably.
“These ‘first practice’ techniques show immense early promise for delivering a range of private and public benefits, including increased soil health and biodiversity with minimal reliance on inputs.
“If these approaches can be substantiated, supported and scaled up – and the development of new sustainability-focused innovations can be systematically encouraged – these leading-edge farmers and those that follow can support major positive change towards a more sustainable agricultural sector.”
Roundtable to address concerns
The report’s key themes and content now will be addressed during a high level roundtable meeting today in Canberra moderated by former Federal Agriculture Department Secretary Andrew Metcalfe.
Mr Metcalfe is now an agribusiness and agriculture specialist and partner at Ernst & Young in Canberra and will flesh out the CPD report’s various propositions like consumer-led support for sustainable food and fibre products.
Soils for Life Chairman and former Governor General Major General Michael Jeffery will also address the roundtable that's due to be attended by about 20 key industry stakeholders, from agricultural researchers and commodity/industry groups through to agribusiness and various government agencies.
Report co-author Sue Ogilvy said the first step towards reversing the current trends was to demonstrate sustainability and productivity benefits of tapping into virtuous ecological cycles and encouraging more producers, brands and investors to get on board.
“Innovative farmers are already showing that regenerative approaches work,” she said.
“They are delivering output that meets more exacting quality and sustainability standards and in some cases may be doing so at a lower cost of production.
“Linking these producers to sustainability-conscious brands and consumers and improving how we measure and value the natural resources that underpin agricultural productivity are key to building on the progress Aussie farmers have already made.”
Consumers 'voting with their wallets'
Another report co-author and CPD fellow Dr Anand Kulkarni said that while sustainably boosting the volume of output was part of the picture, the most enduring opportunities for Australia would stem from an ability to deliver high-quality, differentiated products.
“Consumers are voting with their wallets,” he said.
“The agricultural supply chains Australian producers are part of are increasingly focused on serving high-value, sustainability-conscious markets, in Australia and overseas.
“We are already in the mix – but we have the potential to be leading the charge.”
The discussion paper suggests three key policy priorities - building the evidence base; leveraging the leaders; and measuring what matters. Building the evidence base: Research to validate and characterise the productivity and sustainability potential of ‘first practice’ techniques is consistent with the government’s research and development priorities and would provide a strong platform for wider adoption and standard setting. Leveraging the leaders: Government can support the adoption of first practice techniques by ‘fast followers’ by providing contestable funding pools for emerging projects and partnerships between first-practice entrepreneurs and ecologically-minded firms, and connecting networks of farmers, retailers and stakeholders.
Measuring what matters: Developing accounting standards and national accounts frameworks that accurately reflect the value of natural resources, together with indices to track resource condition, will strengthen the information and incentives needed for better market-led outcomes.