Despite being the key theme of most discussions about modern agriculture, true sustainability risks being lost thanks to the industry’s narrow definition of the phrase, and with it the ability to tell a genuine story about agriculture’s efforts.
Richard Heath, executive director of the Australian Farm Institute, cautioned delegates at the Oceania 2035 summit that true sustainability must capture more than just agriculture’s impact on the physical environment.
The institute is an independent policy research unit with a broad brief to lead thinking in all and any aspects of Australian agriculture.
To that end Heath said for the past three years every single issue they had been asked to work on was underscored by sustainability.
“You will hear a lot of people in agriculture say we need a sustainability framework to tell our story better. But we do not just need to tell the story better, we need to be better.”
The focus on having a light footprint on the environment is only one parameter for sustainability’s definition and represents the only lever many are pulling in defining that story.
Heath said it is only by using frameworks like environmental, social and governance (ESG) factors that a more holistic take on sustainability can be captured.
ESG reporting captures the expected environmental aspects of sustainability, like biodiversity, water quality and energy efficiency. But social factors and capital like gender equality and worker treatment are also included, and governance includes aspects such as transparency, corruption avoidance and management compensation.
“This construct is not new, we have all heard of the ‘triple bottom line’ type integrated reporting,” Heath said.
Sustainability is applied across financial, manufacturing, human and natural capital, with integrated reporting frameworks recognising all of them.
He said the move by governments to require banks and finance houses to disclose climate change risk is prompting a move to this more holistic approach.
The sustainability of human and social aspects of agriculture is being recognised by large corporations and bankers in areas like farmer mental health and fitness.
“In the past these ‘capitals’ have not been recognised. If we had, would we be experiencing the problems of mental health or rural labour shortages we now have?
“Banks are starting to address this in a very determined way.”
Australia now has multiple “sustainable” certification types and the danger is that with so many, farmers who may wish to be part of one will only become confused about what is the best.
Heath’s institute has been tasked with establishing an agricultural sustainability framework that includes all the ‘capital’ types in its definition.
“This will tell Australian agriculture’s sustainability story, delivering an evidence-based certification system.”
He said at this point there is a conflict between practical-based and outcomes-based systems.
“What is harder but more useful is if we can understand the outcomes we seek and leave it up to farmers to determine how to achieve that, specific to their farm,” Heath said.
He acknowledged there are currently some dubious practices being ticked off as ‘sustainable’ in what is often reduced to a box-ticking exercise.
Describing himself as an eternal optimist, Heath said he hopes that with a clear framework and understanding of true sustainability’s definition, practices will ultimately get better.