AUSTRALIAN farmers must be paid fairly for producing food and fibre that meet increasing consumer expectations on social and ethical outcomes like climate change and the environment.
That was a key point raised at a high level industry roundtable of about 30 stakeholders in Canberra recently where the contents of a new report by the Centre for Policy Development (CPD) were debated.
The CPD discussion paper, From vicious to virtuous cycles: a sustainable future for Australian agriculture, delivers a stern message to Australian agriculture saying past and present production farm practices had lacked environmental or economic sustainability.
“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 said.
“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 roundtable was moderated by former Federal Agriculture Department Secretary Andrew Metcalfe - now an agribusiness and agriculture specialist and partner at Ernst & Young in Canberra.
A wide cross-section of stakeholders participated, including Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon, farmers, researchers, industry groups and government departments discussing ways to manage farm and environmental sustainability.
Soils for Life Chairman and former Governor General Major-General Michael Jeffery told the forum climate change and its intrinsic link with future global food security represented two of the planet’s approaching Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Major-General Jeffery said the other two “Horsemen” or big global issues were the ongoing unknown impacts of the Global Financial Crisis and negative impacts of terrorism on agriculture and global security.
He said the world’s food supply had to double over the next 35 years, with 10 billion people expected to inhabit the planet by 2050 – up from the current 7.3b – despite production assets like arable land and water gradually diminishing.
However, Major-General Jeffery said soil, water and plants are “irrevocably linked” to the planet’s future and should be regarded as key strategic national assets.
He said over time Australia’s landscape had been degraded and water supplies damaged, impacting soil health and therefore reducing the quality and nutritional value of food produced.
But devising ways to reclaim soil health, through improvements in rainfall capture and moisture retention, had to be major national and global policy drivers, he said.
Major-General Jeffery said Australia had good farmers and scientists but questioned whether the nation’s political decision-making and policy development was effective and focused enough, to avoid ongoing soil degradation.
He said soil, water and plants should be declared “national strategic assets” backed by an overarching policy approach that considered the entire nation’s long-term future, not just isolated areas, like the Murray Darling Basin.
“It all gets back to how we manage our soil, water and plants as an integrated trio – that’s the key,” he told Fairfax Media.
“Whether you’re a farmer, grazier, catchment authority or a city planner, we’ve really got to lift the soil, water and plants as key national strategic assets and manage them accordingly, in an integrated fashion.
“We’ve got to get that approach fundamentally right and manage the Australian landscape in totality.
“You might make the Murray Darling Basin a priority to kick that off but if we’re not managing that area in totality with the Australian landscape system then we’re never going to get it as right as we could get it.”
Major-General Jeffery said Australian farmers manage 60 per cent of the national landscape and should be paid a fair price for the products they produced which would help to reduce ongoing burden on soil health and the environment.
“Somebody really needs to put their brains into this and determine what a fair price is,” he said.
“The mental attitude of driving prices down to the lowest level for consumers has got to be properly balanced with what’s a fair price for farmers.
“Because if farmers are being screwed to produce more with less - which they may do with more chemical or this and that - they’ll eventually kill their soils and that will kill everybody because there won’t be enough food.
“It’s about getting a fair price for the farmers’ product but it’s also about rewarding and incentivising farmers, for improving the health of the landscape.
“I’m not talking about cash handouts; what we want is some smart people who can work out what those rewards might be.”
Mr Metcalfe said the success and sustainability of agriculture was something all Australians had a major stake in.
“It is essential that we take a broad and long-term view of the challenges and opportunities in the sector,” he said.
“Bringing different viewpoints and unusual suspects together to tackle vexed and complex policy issues is vital and this is a real strength of CPD's approach.
“We are committed to playing a continuing role in helping to facilitate and deliver on these conversations.”
Markets must reward good farmers
The CDP discussion paper’s lead author Sue Ogilvy said farmers had been failed by the markets and nations they serve but are “extraordinarily important because of their role in looking after the landscape which requires an amazing range of skills and capabilities”.
However, she said businesses and consumers that enjoy the benefits provided by farmers have not traditionally shared either the responsibility or the benefits fairly.
“If we want more from farmers - if, in addition to good food and fibre, we want better soil, more biodiversity and healthier waterways - we must be prepared to create the markets and the supply chains that recognise and reward the farmers for delivering it,” she said.
Primary Industries Climate Challenges Centre Director Richard Eckard – who attended the roundtable - said a high-profile forum or grouping that can focus discussion on challenges 10 or 15 years ahead was crucial to getting traction.
He said an agriculture-focused group of the calibre of the Wentworth Group - that brings together not just eminent scientists but experts from government, industry and the farm sector - could help to overcome silos and provide strong leadership on sustainability issues in agriculture.
Farmers 'getting on with it'
CPD CEO Travers McLeod said one of the roundtable’s major takeaway points was that farmers are “getting on with it” and have made big strides forward on sustainability.
He said the conversation was increasingly becoming about landscape restoration rather than resource degradation.
“This in itself is a major achievement and farmers have been at the forefront - but they can't continue to do it on their own and shouldn't be expected to,” he said.
“The challenge is building on this progress by ensuring that consumers, business and policymakers are all contributing to contributing to markets and policy settings that can drive better outcomes, and overcome supply chain path dependency that still has the bulk of the sector locked into an unsustainable long-term trajectory.”
Mr McLeod said the key point of CPD's discussion paper was “we should be optimistic about a future that combines profitability and sustainability”.
“Achieving this is a shared challenge - many of the key changes to support better outcomes depend on action well beyond the farm gate,” he said.
“The discussion demonstrated the expertise and commitment of the key players across the sector when it comes to sustainability.
“What is lacking is a strategic vision for agriculture that puts sustainability at its core.
“Any other strategy would be self-defeating because in the long run profitability, productivity and sustainability are bound up together.
“But this is about more than just being defensive - strong performance on sustainability could offer a major strategic edge as global markets for clean, green, healthy products continue to grow.”
Mr McLeod said that strategy can’t be delivered without taking a holistic view of the agricultural policy ecosystem and without linked-up thinking across all the experts and players.
“This is a challenge in itself - governments have not been very good at 'knitting' across different policy departments, and much of the necessary research, expertise and power is dispersed across different silos in the sector,” he said.
“Too many players are trying to turn the tide independently, which is impossible.”