We can produce sustainable food, but who pays the price?

Jazmyn Michie is studying Environment and Sustainability at the Australian National University. She recently attended the evokeAG 2023 agri food tech conference which gave her food for thought on the challenge producers face in embracing sustainability, while also running a profitable business.

When entering the evokeAg 2023 conference I was overwhelmed by the excited buzz and passion of the people in the rooms. As the event began, I heard experts in their fields speak on the broad-reaching possibilities for new technologies to help the agri-food sector become more resilient, sustainable and productive. It was clear that there is a lot of ambition among key players in the sector, and that many see technological advances as critical to meeting climate and sustainability goals.

As an Environment and Sustainability undergraduate student at ANU, I was excited to hear how agriculture can be more sustainable now and into the future. It was wonderful to hear the issues of sustainability and decarbonisation of the sector being brought up in the majority of talks I attended, and it seemed to be at the forefront of people’s minds, whether that be business, research, or smaller-scale producers. 

One of the drivers of this change is consumers who continue to demand more sustainable and biosensitive production within the agri-food sector, but there was one question in particular that stuck with me: Who is going to pay for it?

In an engaging panel discussion at the conference, Sam Trethewey, of the Tasmanian Agricultural Company, expressed his own experience of making his business more sustainable to fulfil consumer demands, but then finding some of the same consumers were not willing to pay the increased price for these products. He believes sustainability in business should not be a marketing strategy, but a licence to operate, and information needs to be better translated to consumers so they are guided by more than just price. This raised some interesting questions about the balance that must be struck around the responsibility of producers, consumers, and government and their impact on the environment. As the cost of living continues to increase with global carbon emissions, how do we as a society decide where our priorities lie when somebody must feel the impact of rising costs? 

Separately, I spoke with a regenerative farmer at the conference who disagreed with government intervention to subsidise sustainably produced food and said it just will not happen. He claimed that, given the size of Australia’s agriculture export industry, anything which threatened the profitability of a large-scale producer such as compulsory sustainability credentials or increased product transparency, could threaten the country’s whole economy. These discussions, both within the panels and with other delegates of the event, highlighted the complexity of the issues facing the agricultural industry.

In contrast, it was encouraging to hear from business owners who have benefitted from centring sustainability in their business models and products. Representatives from companies including RM Williams, Hello Fresh and Sea Forrest spoke about the ongoing work they are doing to find innovative ways to reduce their carbon and environmental footprints. The increased need for transparency (particularly within supply chains), health of land, and interdisciplinary and multi-stakeholder collaboration trended throughout the discussions and it was hopeful to see so many sectors discussing and working towards a similar goal.

Another prominent area of change regarding sustainable agriculture was the need for ecological literacy. This trend was particularly interesting when juxtaposed with the theme of agri-tech and asked us to consider whether we should try to create a silver bullet or listen to and respect the land itself. This concept was most prominent in the Opportunities and Perspectives from First Nations Australians panel discussion which highlighted the need to prioritise social and community outcomes rather than the economic bottom line. 

Overall, the ideas and insights into sustainable agriculture at evokeAg 2023 were active, hopeful, and addressed the need for change. Abstract discussions of technology were grounded by some speakers who demanded more urgent action, however, the complexity of these issues could not be fully explored within the relatively brief time slots. I am particularly excited to see sustainable agriculture grow into the future.

Jazmyn was one of six students supported to attend the evokeAG conference through a CEAT sponsorship

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