Food Systems Podcast 51
In discussion with Richard Heath
Wednesday, Jul 05, 2023
In this edition of the Food Systems Podcast, we travel to the Australian Farm Institute’s mid-year conference and talk to Richard Heath, Executive Director of the Institute*. We discuss Australian agriculture’s progress on the journey to sustainability and his key takeaways from the conference, which is focused on sustainability in agriculture including ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) goal setting and targets.
Where is Australian agriculture on the journey to sustainability?
Quite a long way down the road. For example, the data shows we are using less pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer per unit of production area than competitive countries. Using that as one measure of sustainability, we’re doing really well.
As an agricultural nation, we’ve been propelled to sustainability by the harsh environment we’re farming, perhaps quicker than some other countries. We can’t afford to be wasteful with water or inputs because we’re under pressure from that harsh environment.
Is that coming across loudly enough, domestically or internationally?
It isn’t. Sustainability is very nuanced; every environment is different. There’s an assumption that a common set of practices should be adopted universally. Australia has adopted different practices to the rest of the world, particularly Europe.
No-till is one of our big sustainability stories, but it relies on pesticides and that’s been the focus in some jurisdictions. The nuance is that our soil health, soil preservation and water use metrics are a result of using chemistry to produce a no-till system.
The conference has been talking about ESG and target setting. What are your key takeaways?
Two core things that we need to get right. First, the ability to measure outcomes. Otherwise, we rely on measuring practices, and with hundreds of different practices that becomes very onerous. As long as the outcome is verifiable and legitimate, measuring outcomes creates many more pathways to sustainability.
Second, the need for consistency in sustainability language, reporting platforms and the mechanisms that we use to define what sustainability is and report against it.
We’re all part of a new global network, the Global Forum for Farm Policy Innovation (GFFPI). What do you think GFFPI is going to do?
GFFPI opens up the opportunity to get the right people in the room from various countries, various platform developers, and different disclosure mechanisms.
We’ve got to cut through to influence and make it easier for farmers to implement and measure practices on the farm. Think of all the pressures around ESG – financial disclosure, the impact on provision of insurance, corporate ESG goal and target setting that flows through supply chains, national disclosure, industry disclosure. The one place all those pressures intersect is the farm. No wonder farmers are finding it difficult to navigate. GFFPI can start the discussions to reduce some of that confusion.
What are you optimistic about? And what are your concerns?
What makes me really optimistic is that true multi-capital reporting, expressed through ESG metrics, will define the true cost of food and allow it to be valued and paid for. For so long we’ve just had a focus on financial capital, but financial capital is impacted by natural capital, social capital, built capital, community capital. ESG is the mechanism by which we can put metrics around all of that and understand it more.
What I’m concerned about is that there’s a long way between that theory and it being applied in practice. And along that pathway there is corporate greenwashing, profiteering and many traps we can fall into without good policy.
* The Australian Farm Institute is an independent institute leading the farm policy discussions to ensure a viable future for the Australian agriculture community, delivers timely analysis and insights, and promotes the evidence-based policy solutions that maximize the economic and social wellbeing of farmers. Along with the Forum for the Future of Agriculture, the Canadian Agri-food Policy Institute, and the Farm Foundation (from the USA), they are partners in the Global Forum on Farm Policy and Innovation (GFFPI) which is a collaborative initiative to increase the sustainability of agriculture across the world.
If you have found this short summary interesting, there’s lots more to hear in the full 14-minute conversation. It is available now on iTunes, Podbean or Spotify or on this website.
Prior to joining the Australian Farm Institute (AFI), Richard was Associate Professor of Agronomy and Farm Management at the...see more University of Sydney and before that was involved in a large family farming business in North West NSW. Richard is a director of the Grains Research and Development Corporation and sits on the Advisory Committee for CSIRO Agriculture and Food. He is a Nuffield scholar and was a director of Nuffield Australia.