Agriculture’s opportunity to speak a global sustainability language

04.08.20

For AgriFutures Australia’s Jennifer Medway, sustainability underpins farming practices on her sheep property at Gunning, NSW, but a new report highlights why Australian agriculture needs to up its game when it comes to celebrating sustainability success on the global stage.

Sustainability is back in vogue, the new buzz word that never really went out of fashion. On a personal level, it drives almost every decision we make on our sheep property at Gunning, NSW—stocking rates, pasture selection, water management, genetics, drench rotations, our wool selling and marketing strategy, enterprise mix, health and safety, and innovation and technology adoption, the list goes on…

Supporting producers like us is a vast amount of investment in positive sustainability outcomes by RDCs, industry, NGOs, government and agribusiness. But investment is not the issue, as a sector we are already achieving ambitious sustainability targets, although we can always do more. The challenge is we need better ways to measure sustainability and promote Australia’s strong credentials to keep pace with international expectations.

Australia’s international trade partners are sending increasingly stronger signals that they want to know what our sustainability narrative is. It isn’t enough to be ‘clean and green’, there is an opportunity to stretch beyond this identity to focus on proven sustainability metrics in carbon, soil health and water use, for example. The maturity of Australia’s alignment and reporting against international benchmarks, such as the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), varies considerably by industry—a challenge we must collectively address.

The good news is that much of the work is already being done, we just need to get better at sharing our sustainability story  globally in a language markets understand.

At AgriFutures Australia, we released an exciting new study, Telling Australia’s rural industries story, which provides a snapshot of sustainability in Australia’s agricultural, fisheries and forestry industries and how they track against the 17 UN Sustainability Development Goals.

Undertaken by KPMG Australia, the study offers a truly cross-sector analysis of sustainability and suggests there are real benefits to be gained if Australia can gain consistency with its sustainability goals, measurements and global messaging.

Not to be alarmist, but while the latest UN Sustainability Development Report shows that Australia, as a whole, has improved one spot on the 2020 SDG index, now ranked 37 in the world, we are substantially down from a high of 26 in 2017. Perhaps most worrying is that Australia ranks well behind many other developed countries and agricultural trade competitors, such as New Zealand, Canada, and the United States.

Fortunately, the SDGs are just one measure of sustainability, but the goals are increasingly viewed as the internationally accepted language for measuring and reporting business, industry and country-level sustainability credentials. With the sector’s current focus on community trust, food security and environmental stewardship, addressing our collective global SDG position isn’t out of reach—many of our trade exposed industries, shown through the study, are already proactively taking action on behalf of their producers.

However, action isn’t reserved only for industries and governments, we only need to look to some of Australia’s leading farm businesses who have already taken up the sustainability reporting mantle by aligning their sustainability targets with international benchmarks.

OBE Organics, the world’s first grass fed organic beef exporting company founded in the 1990s, recently went through a process of re-thinking their sustainability strategy to focus it entirely on contributing towards the SDGs—aligning their key business and farm sustainability targets with relevant UN Sustainable Development Goals.

OBE’s previous targets were based on what they thought was right.  By replacing these with the SDG targets, they’re now aiming for what the global community says needs to be done.

There is a risk that market access for Australia’s food and fibre products may be compromised if we do not pay closer attention to world trends when it comes to sustainability. We are already seeing this play out. Since 2018, all European Union Free Trade Agreements must now include a Trade and Sustainable Development chapter, requiring partners to follow international standards across the three sustainable development pillars: economic, environmental and social. Only recently, the European Green Deal was agreed, which aims to make Europe carbon-neutral by 2050, crucially for Australia it embeds climate action into trade policy. This issue is not going away, but it also presents an opportunity that can work in our favour.

So, what can we do as a sector?

My take is that there is an identified need to:

  • Understand whether we can better align Australia’s already strong sustainability credentials with international benchmarks
  • Determine whether new or different sustainability metrics are needed to better tell our story
  • Collectively and individually find better ways to promote our sustainability credentials to a global audience in a language they understand.

The RDCs and Australian Government have already begun a conversation around how industries can better align and promote our sustainability credentials to a global audience that recognises the excellent initiatives and planning that is driving our sustainability narrative. Backed by the findings from this new research, now is time to work together to understand how we might keep pace with global expectations in sustainability.

Telling Australia’s Rural Industries story is well worth a read for anyone that wants to understand how Australia is tracking against the SDGs and the opportunities that exist to get sustainability measurement and reporting right. Download the report via the AgriFutures Australia website.

Jennifer Medway is Senior Manager, Business Development at AgriFutures Australia and leads cross-sectoral research into rural issues of national and global significance