Sustainable agriculture the only way

Alex Maier is the Marketing and Communications Manager for CEAT. She reflects on her key takeaways from the evokeAG agrifood tech conference.

“How do you define sustainable agriculture?”

That was the question asked of delegates at the recent evokeAG 2023 conference, and teased out through a number of panel discussions over the two-day event. Panellists reminded us that sustainable agriculture is not just about carbon emissions; it’s about natural capital, biodiversity, water quality, water use efficiency, food waste and more. Sustainability principles can be applied across the food supply chain: from how farmers manage their land, water and animals; to how produce is transported; and finally how it is packaged and marketed for retail sale.

There was also talk of how we can measure sustainability, with a proliferation of frameworks across different sectors from pork, cotton and sugar to rice, eggs and forestry, each with a slightly different set of principles and measures of success. There’s even the newly-developed Australian Agriculture Sustainability Framework, which presumably sits on top of the sector-specific frameworks, addressing sustainability from a whole-of-agriculture perspective.

Despite the many frameworks, there are common principles and inputs to most measures of sustainability, and this is where ag tech has a role to play. Ag tech can help collect, analyse and report on data to prove the environmental credentials of the food on our plates and in our exports.

So there’s rough agreement on what we’re measuring and how we’re going to do it, but the real question that needs answering is why. The answer is two-fold:

Firstly, measurement is the first step towards improvement – sustainability frameworks are a useful tool to drive more environmentally-friendly practices, and we need a sustainable way to produce food in a changing climate if we’re to feed the world’s growing population.

Secondly, to run an economically viable business, farmers need to make money. There is growing consumer demand for sustainably-produced products, and a growing likelihood of increased sustainability conditions being placed on Australian agrifood exports through conditions in trade agreements. In future, proving a product’s sustainability won’t just be a nice to have, it will be essential.

In this context, it was interesting to hear from former Director of Harvard Business School’s Agribusiness Program, Mary Shelman, about the Irish experience of creating a national brand based on sustainability.

In 2012, leveraging perceptions of Ireland as ‘green’, the Irish Food Board (Board Bia) introduced the world’s only national food and drink sustainability program, Origin Green. The program recruited food companies across the entire supply chain and required them to submit an independently-verified sustainability plan covering raw material sourcing, manufacturing processes and social sustainability. In return, the companies benefited from the full support of Board Bia’s marketing resources and a united approach to promoting Irish food and drink brands in international markets.

The program was designed to give Irish companies a competitive advantage when selling their products overseas, rebuilding the country’s economy following the 2007 global financial crisis. It has been an unmitigated success, contributing to an almost doubling of Irish food and beverage exports in the 10 years since it was established. It has also helped the country to meet its sustainability targets ahead of schedule.

While Australia’s agriculture industry is very different to Ireland’s, there are lessons we could take from the Origin Green experience to harness support for the action needed to drive a more sustainable agrifood industry here.

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