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Reflections from the Sustainable Agriculture Summit

By Eli Court, CEO, Soils for Life | Published  May 2024

Last week I attended Agriculture Minister Murray Watt’s Sustainable Agriculture Summit, with 150 other participants from across the food and agriculture sector. The Summit was organised as part of the development of the Government’s Net Zero Plan for Land and Agriculture, and so had a strong focus on greenhouse gas emissions. It was a great opportunity to spend time with people working in government, research and industry on agricultural sustainability. There’s clearly a lot of interest in what sort of transitions the industry might experience over the coming decades. But there is a long way to go. Here are some of my reflections…

Multi-use agricultural landscapes are the way to go: There’s plenty of evidence now that with ‘regenerative’ management, farming land can be productive, nature-positive and climate-positive. Our case studies show that, unlike other sectors of the economy, agricultural production and environmental/climate outcomes are not mutually exclusive or a zero-sum game. Many conservationists and carbon project developers are beginning to recognise that we don’t need to lock up farming land for carbon or biodiversity, and this is a questionable strategy anyway; it removes critically important stewards from the landscape who are needed to manage that land (especially in the face of accelerating climate impacts), and risks creating perverse outcomes. Multi-use agricultural landscapes are the far better approach.

Prime agricultural land versus renewable energy: Integrating renewable energy with farming is possible, but in many cases it is not working well. This issue came up again and again during the day, and there don’t appear to be any simple solutions. Plenty of examples exist of successful coexistence of renewable energy and farming, but plenty also exist of conflicts between neighbours, divides in communities, or impacts on the landscape through erosion or flooding as a result of poor placement of roads and infrastructure. There’s a clear tension between deploying renewable energy fast and cheap versus deploying it in a way that avoids conflict with other land uses, or actually creates synergies. Renewable energy zones are often located in prime agricultural zones because of proximity to population centres and existing infrastructure for transporting the energy. Moving these zones further away would increase the cost because of the need to build new transmission lines and substations. And then there’s the very tricky issue of how to share the costs and benefits in the communities where developments occur. I believe that we can make renewables work alongside farming if we take the time to do it right. But in a country where prime agricultural land is so limited and precious, for food production and for biodiversity, we should be taking every possible step to avoid taking prime ag land out of production.

Market mechanisms cannot be the only solution: A few times during the day I noticed that for some, the default answer to every question and every problem was ‘we can create a credit for that, and the market will sort it out’. We’re losing biodiversity in agricultural landscapes – – – let’s create a biodiversity credit. We’re polluting waterways – – – let’s create a water quality credit. We’re not investing enough in fire preparedness – – – let’s create a fire credit. Profitability of farming businesses is critical, and market mechanisms can provide a financial incentive if well designed. But history shows us that despite the best efforts they almost always create perverse outcomes, encouraging a profit-driven ‘tunnel vision’ focus on one thing (biodiversity, or water, or fire risk, or carbon), often at the expense of others. Other mechanisms are required to complement market mechanisms, and we should not be seeing them as a silver bullet solution.

Supporting farmer land stewards is a ‘no brainer’: My favourite moment of the day was when Minister Watt said that ‘supporting training and capacity building for farmers is a no-brainer’. I wholeheartedly agree! We have an entire workforce ready and willing to restore agricultural landscapes. Let’s support them!

The urgency isn’t there: The conversations throughout the day had a strong feeling of ‘business-as-usual’ and incremental change. The uncomfortable reality is that the ecological systems on which we all still rely are already beginning to collapse. Despite the neat charts we often see at these events showing a smooth, managed transition to net zero emissions, this will not be neat. It will be a messy, chaotic transition at best. Our challenge is to keep food production going and save as much biodiversity as possible. The faster we prepare, the more likely we are to avoid the worst scenarios. I think we need much more urgency in this conversation.

We need much more emphasis on resilience versus efficiency: Our entire food and agricultural system squeezes farmers to prioritise efficiency and least-cost production. And of course, efficiency is important. But as climate impacts increase the volatility of weather and degrade ecological systems, we need to focus much more on resilience so that we can maintain food production no matter what our new climate throws at us. This means prioritising diverse systems that give farmers flexibility and options, which is often in tension with efficiency. I see this as a challenge for the food and fibre value chain (buyers, retailers, banks, etc.), to find ways to support farmers to prioritise resilience rather than forcing them to maximise efficiency.

Disaster preparedness versus disaster response: Minister Watt wears two hats. He’s the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, and the Minister for Emergency Management. There’s perfect alignment between these two portfolios that doesn’t seem to be getting enough attention. Good management of agricultural land can minimise the impact of natural disasters. Landscape rehydration can reduce flooding by allowing more water to be absorbed in the soil, reducing runoff and flooding. More water stored in the soil keeps plants growing for longer during dry periods, slowing farmers’ entry into drought and allowing them to bounce back faster when the rains finally return. Cool burning of on-farm vegetation can reduce fire risk. During my visit to Toowoomba I visited a local Landcare coordinator who talked about the tens of millions of dollars spent on firefighting in the region. Just imagine if even a small fraction of that disaster response funding were allocated to disaster preparedness through supporting farmers to build soil and ecological health…

Soils for Life’s role: While our main focus as an organisation is delivering programs to support farmers regenerate the soil, attending events such as these helps us keep abreast of policy developments and provides the opportunity for us to inform government policy based on our on-ground experience and the perspectives of farmers. We will continue to build and maintain relationships with policy makers so that we can influence government policy in ways that support farmers to build landscape diversity and soil health, and prepare them for the challenges ahead.

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