Trends for a greener ag industry

With the harsh realities of climate change becoming harder to ignore, now more than ever investing in sustainable agriculture has become a priority. The impacts of agriculture are far-reaching, but fortunately there are many trends on the rise that focus on improving the sustainability of the sector.

Here are the latest sustainability trends creating a buzz in the agriculture industry:


Regenerative agriculture

First of all, what is regenerative agriculture? Professor Nick Gill of the University of Wollongong defines it as “a form of agriculture in which farmers go beyond seeking to be sustainable to regenerate agriculture ecosystems that have been adversely affected by agriculture in countries like Australia over long periods of time.” A key practice of regenerative farming includes rotational grazing which seeks to mimic nature with animals intensively grazed in small paddocks for short bursts followed by long periods of pasture recovery. Another regenerative practice is no-till farming, which has been widely adopted across cropping regions, and fits into regenerative agriculture because it minimises topsoil disturbance.

While some may view the movement as a fad without a strong basis, regenerative agriculture actually draws on decades of scientific and applied research on agroecology, agroforestry, holistic management, organic and natural sequence farming and permaculture across global farming and research communities. Importantly, it has the potential to increase resilience to climate change due to its ability to sequester carbon and rebuild organic matter in soils while also increasing crop yields and boosting farm profitability.

According to the Western Australia Department of Primary Industries and Regional Development, the purpose of regenerative agriculture is “to enhance natural ecosystem services, resulting in sustainable production, an improved natural resource base, healthy nutrient cycling, increased biodiversity and resilience to change”. These are the factors that drive the increasing numbers of farmers adopting a regenerative approach, and illustrate that traditional farmers don’t have to completely overhaul their processes to achieve a more resilient, healthy environment. 


Indoor farming

Indoor vertical farming is exactly what it sounds like: leafy greens and herbs growing on stacked trays, in a highly-controlled environment, with artificial sunlight and very little soil.

This method of producing crops is now slowly transforming the way we grow food can help address some of the issues around global food shortages. Vertical farming is far from the traditional approach where crops are being grown in huge fields or greenhouses, yet it is not a proposed replacement for traditional farming, but a way of increasing sustainability and food security, while providing a complement to traditional ag.

Benefits of vertical farming include the ability to grow fresh produce all year round without being reliant on weather conditions or even seasons, and minimal threat from pests, meaning pesticides are rarely used. The controlled environment enables less waste and short production cycles year around. Further, vertical farms can save up to 75% more water than conventional farming.

Vertical indoor farming is also suitable for high-density urban areas, meaning the produce has less distance to travel to market, offering the greater sustainability for urban centres. The value of this has also been highlighted by the COVID pandemic, as urban areas’ access to fresh produce came under threat. Having more production centres in these areas will help reduce this threat in future, while reducing the emissions generated during transport.

Australia’s first end-to-end automated indoor vertical farm, Stacked Farm can produce a couple of tons of produce a week – equating to a 20–acre farm in output. However rather than working against traditional agriculture, this out can act as a means to complement it, according to CEO Conrad Smith:

“It’s a game-changer for the cattle industry. We have identified that we can grow livestock feed en masse very quickly, and again using up to 95 per cent less water. A 1000-square-metre vertical farm will have enough output to feed hundreds of cattle daily.”

Though there are many benefits to indoor vertical farming, it is important to note that it is not a feasible replacement for traditional farming for several reasons. Firstly, not all types of produce can be grown in this setting, meaning there will be continued reliance on traditional farming for production of most types of tree fruits, nuts, root vegetables, and grain. Secondly, sectors like dairy and meat production will continue to rely on more traditional farming methods. However, as Mr Smith notes, vertical farming does have a role to play in supplying feed to these industries. While it does not provide a total food solution yet, vertical farming has a major role to play in the future of sustainable agriculture.


Alternative proteins

Alternative (non-meat based) proteins have been a hot topic in the agri-food sector for many years, however, in recent years there has been a surge in the number of non-meat protein sources available commercially. Now, a shopper can come across many different brands that offer alternative sources of protein to meat, products ranging from burger patties, to imitation chicken nuggets, schnitzels, and complete meals.

While the beef, dairy, lamb, and pork industries provide staples in the diets of many Australian’s and a key part of our economy locally and as an export, there is an environmental imperative to move to more animal-free sources of protein. According to researchers from Oxford University “the rearing of livestock for meat, eggs and dairy products generates some 15% of total global greenhouse gas emissions and uses 70% of agricultural land”. The researchers go as far as to argue that we cannot successfully address the impacts of climate change unless western nations reduce meat consumption by as much as 90%.

Some producers fear that the rising number of Aussies choosing alternative proteins could spell loss of profits for Australia’s meat industry. However, in its 2019 State of the Industry Report, Meat and Livestock Australia acknowledged the potential for alternative proteins to address global food security, noting the “demand for protein is growing significantly and traditional production will need to be supplemented by non-animal based sources”. Further, the economic value of alternative proteins to Australia is evident in a study by CSIRO, which states that “based on current demographic and consumer trends, CSIRO analysis estimates that the domestic and export opportunity for alternative proteins could reach $4.1 billion and $2.5 billion respectively by 2030”. As with most innovations in the agri-food space, alternative proteins deliver a range of benefits, but do not negate the need for traditional farming practices.

A recent report indicates that Australia’s meat consumption is at its lowest in 25 years, as the impacts on both health and the environment become more generally understood. This is good news for the environment as well as the alternative protein industry, as the trend indicates that Australians are becoming more environmentally aware in a time when it is most necessary to enact change in the human behaviours that impact negatively on our planet.

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