Robyn Alders  Food system transformation: valuing food so that it won’t cost the earth

The existence of our human society rests on access to safe and nutritious food.  Despite its essential role in human health and wellbeing, food is produced and traded as a commodity under Ministries of Agriculture and Trade and rarely rates appropriate attention within Health Ministries, except in relation to food safety.  Debates on circular economies and food systems are challenging our commodity-based food production and trading systems. For example, current systems have ignored the cost of agriculture-associated environmental degradation and allowed dogs and cats in high-income households to consume higher quality diets than vulnerable people, especially women of reproductive age and infants in low-income settings.

Circular food systems promote sustainable local production along with climate-friendly and fair global trade of food. Recycling resources and materials keeps them continually in use, regenerates natural systems, and seeks to eliminate waste and pollution. Collaboratively developed, internationally based, locally adapted frameworks can inform producers and consumers whether the landscapes that produce food are healthy and whether the food itself is becoming more, or less, nutritious. Balancing healthy and equitable food environments with just and sustainable remuneration of family farmers, fishers, and producers, enabling them to care for both their households and their land and aquatic environments is key. To achieve sustainable and equitable food systems, food must be valued not only by its weight or volume, but also by its natural nutrient density, freedom from biological and chemical contamination.

Prof Justin Borevitz   Precision Landscape Regeneration

Climate and land use change threatens food and ecosystem security destabilizing life support systems globally. Promising examples of regenerative agriculture must be scaled from farms to landscapes while reproducing and refining best practices.  Mapping of management approaches needs to be coupled with advanced, on ground measurement and remote monitoring methods to model and predict future outcomes.

This talk will cover the design for integration of rehydration, remineralization and regeneration of ground and canopy tree cover building top and subsoil. I will present new tools and technologies that integrate multiple solutions to link agriculture and ecosystems and provide community resilience for the near term and climate recovery in the long term.

Wolfram Buss    Biochar for sustainable agriculture

Biochar has attracted global attention because it is a carbon sequestration technique that also brings benefits for soils. It is produced via the conversion of biomass at temperatures of 300-800°C in an atmosphere depleted of oxygen – the same process that is used for charcoal production.

Biochar has promised a lot in the sustainability and regenerative agricultural space, its effects in soil range from improving water retention, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, increasing nutrient retention to sorption of organic and inorganic contaminants in soil. The biochar hype has levelled off over recent years as it was discovered that biochar is not a miracle material.

In this talk I boil down what biochar can do and what it can’t. I will discuss which role it can play in making Australian agriculture more sustainable and how it could fit into existing farming systems.

Adam Caroll   Dealing with climate change

Plant varieties can differ greatly in their capacities to deliver the agricultural products and services we need in the face of climate change-associated environmental stress factors such as drought. Selection of breeding lines for development of stress-tolerant crop varieties that can produce more food with less resources in extreme environments currently relies heavily on expensive field trials that are difficult to control and can only be conducted at certain times of year.

This talk will discuss emerging evidence that selection of stress-tolerant crops can be accelerated and enhanced by moving early selection processes into controlled glasshouse environments and using mass-spectrometry-based metabolite measurements (information-rich low-level biological state readout directly linked to yield and quality) rather than macro physiological parameters such as leaf spectral reflectance properties and transpiration rates (information-poor high-level biological state readout indirectly linked to yield and quality) to predict agricultural performance in the field. Some opportunities and challenges in this area will be discussed.

Nicole Chalmer   Solutions for a Sustainable Future

Australian and Global food security is dependent upon cultural changes to enable ecologically viable production systems. Currently accepted agricultural practices are not environmentally sustainable. Resolving this disparity is a huge task however much can be learnt from cultures living in traditional food production systems which persisted for thousands of years. Their Social Ecological Systems had commonalities including managed ecoagricultural food ecosystems that cycled energy, matter and retained biodiversity; protected significant areas from human exploitation; and methods to ensure their long term sustainability by controlling  population growth.

After Europeans invaded Australia and imposed their cultural agricultural methodologies of environmental and landscape remodeling of Country, Aboriginal cultural ecoagricultural food systems collapsed. An ongoing trail of environmental destructions emerged including extinguishing ecosystems and their dependent species’; clearing woodlands and forests causing local and regional rainfall declines; soil degradation and erosion; removal of wetlands and pollution of water ways; salinisation and desertification of landscapes; all adding to global climate change.

Modern agriculture does not cycle energy and matter and requires constant inputs of finite resources whilst continuing to cause destructive environmental change. Rather than change food production systems to match landscapes, their sustainable biodiverse ecosystems are pitilessly removed to accommodate simplified industrial food systems.

Regenerative agricultural philosophies and systems can redress many of the problems caused by industrialised agriculture. Yet  to truly reach potential as very long term sustainable human food producing systems, needs integration with wild biodiversity and complexities of nature allowing natural processes to continue and become ecoagriculture again.

Gabrielle Chan   Why You Should Give A F*ck About Farming

Farming both contributes to and is endangered by the biggest existential threats of our time:
global warming, water shortages, soil loss, energy production, natural disasters, zoonotic diseases, population displacement and geopolitical trade wars.
Agriculture relies on the natural world and we must accept that humans shape the landscape, for better or for worse. But farming is not carried out in a vacuum. Since European invasion, farming has been comprehensively shaped by governments.
The way farmers interact with nature is a set of value judgments, both internal and external. In Australia, the government’s agricultural priorities have predominantly focused on growing more to earn export income. The current target is a $100bn industry by 2030. In this model, if the farmer wants a pay rise, they must increase their yield. But as global warming warps and disrupts, a portion of eaters, farmers and the odd public servant know this farmer economicus model is not enough.
This talk will consider the coming together of agriculture and the environment in the current political, economic and cultural climate. It will consider the potential and the pitfalls for broadening the agricultural model towards one that considers and actively regenerates the environment in the context of a federal election.

Mark Howden   Agriculture in lands of more droughts and flooding rains

Global GHG emissions continue to increase in spite of commitments to reduce them. They are currently at record levels, fuelling record atmospheric concentrations. Unsurprisingly, this continues to push global temperatures higher, with at least 7 out of the 8 years since the last IPCC reports being the hottest years on record. This is generating unprecedented heatwave and related conditions as well as associated changes in rainfall and rainfall intensity, vapour pressure deficit and to various extreme climate-related events.

The recent IPCC Working Group 2 report clearly demonstrated that these changes are already impacting on agriculture production, profitability and sustainability. Importantly, these changes interact with improvements in management and technologies, demand-side factors, institutional arrangements, other biotic and physical stressors. When these factors are accounted for, climate changes are almost overwhelmingly negative, both in Australia and globally, although there are instances where some positive impacts have arisen.

There are many adaptation options available to address some of these issues ranging from the technical and tactical to the strategic and transformational. But we are not investing adequately in the underlying R&D to generate new and better options nor in the implementation and M&E of those we already have. Importantly, the recent IPCC report and previous work shows that as climate change gets worse, the adaptation option space shrinks and the effectiveness of adaptation options tends to decline. Additionally, agriculture will have to increasingly compete for land and water due to factors such as urban expansion, energy production, carbon sequestration and ecosystem conservation. And at the same time reduce its GHG and broader environmental footprint.

There are interesting times ahead for agriculture in a changing climate.

Sally Hunter

Australian agricultural land is being significantly encroached upon by coal and gas mining.  With more than 37% of the nation covered by coal and gas tenements and applications, there are few places you can farm without the uncertainty of proposed projects and/or the negative impacts created by these industries.

Sally and Nicky bring first hand experience of the ramifications of these industries on agriculture, from their home regions of the Liverpool Plains and Namoi Valley in NSW.  As representatives of Lock the Gate they also bring a national perspective, with case examples from the Hunter and Bylong Valleys in NSW and Baralaba in central Qld.

They will profile what life is like when mining comes to your district.  They will raise issues of land and water access, community dynamics, pest and weeds and the employment sector and how these affect the resilience of our communities.

Using case studies, Nicky and Sally will consider post-mining uses of land as proposed fossil fuel projects are rejected.  They will also consider how we can avoid renewable energy projects creating similar land use conflicts as we seek to generate positive outcomes for our communities.

This is a plea for us to transform attitudes to landscapes and the people that inhabit them.  Let’s reach beyond merely the financial value that we can extract from a resource, to seek holistic solutions that facilitate local decision making and create intergenerational regenerative outcomes for Australia.

Julian Cribb   The Age of Renewable Food

Dramatic change in global diets, cuisine, technology and consumer preferences will, over coming decades, revolutionise human food more profoundly than at any time in history.  Critical scarcities of water, soil, nutrients, fish and climate stability along with rising concern about human and planetary health signal an epic shift in the world food production paradigm.

The talk outlines the three elements of a renewable global food supply for ten billion people living on a hot planet.

Ian Dunlop  Climate Change: Risk, Uncertainty & Discontinuity

As the Glasgow UNFCCC COP26 climate change meeting draws close, it is clear that the key players still do not understand the real threat that climate change represents.  Certainly there has been a sea-change in sentiment, accepting the need for urgent action, but expert scientific opinion calling for a genuine emergency response is still ignored by global leaders.

Likewise, climate change linkages to other global crises such as ecosystem degradation, biodiversity loss, pandemics, water and food shortages, are ignored, each still being treated in separate silos.

Conventional wisdom has it that, with urgent action represented by the fashion to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, an orderly transition to a low carbon world is both possible and attractive.  Continuity is the by-word – yes we must change, but not by that much.

This ignores the distinction between risk and uncertainty.  The official view, built upon quantitative analysis of risk, ignores the uncertainties in the climate system, such as non-linear feedbacks. These represent the greatest, potentially existential, threats to humanity; the “unknown knowns” –  we know they exist, but are yet be quantified due to lack of scientific knowledge.

Three decades of inaction mean that a 2050 target is far too late. The global transformation must happen much sooner if these threats are to be avoided. Discontinuity to our established way of life is now inevitable, but that brings opportunity to change the systems which have created the problem.

Matthew Evans   Farming Today

What we do to soil matters not only today, but for all of the tomorrows. Farming, the way we do it in Australia and in much of the world for much of the last 100 years, is incredibly destructive. Short term analysis, immediate gain and a plethora of chemicals, along with the wholesale use of fossil fuels in everything from fertiliser to tillage, have led to the ruination of agricultural land.

Farming, has, most often, ruined soil. But modern farming needs to build soil. Soil grows 98-99% of all the calories that humans eat, and Australia has squandered half its topsoil since European colonisation. Soil is eroded at an astonishing rate around the globe, with estimates that we lose a soccer pitch of agricultural land every five seconds to erosion or desertification. Not only is that bad news for humankind, but it shows that even sustaining what we have now isn’t good enough.

What we need to do is reimagine farming. We need to think of farming as not just managing animals or plants, but more importantly soil. We need to look at the world from the ground up, to not only keep what we have, but repair what we’ve lost. The good news is, all around the globe there are examples of farming that can heal landscapes. This can happen, if we recognise where we’ve gone wrong and learn from our mistakes. We have the ability to restore ecosystems and grow bountiful amounts of nutrient dense food, but only if we put what is under our feet at the top of our minds.

John Feehan   Improving soil with dung beetles

Australia’s 28 million cattle produce up to half a million tonnes of dung each day, fouling, paddocks, waterways, dams and leading to toxic algal blooms as well causing rank pasture and a fertile breeding ground for flies and internal parasites in livestock.

The introduction of dung beetles has had a significant positive impact on Australia’s pastures and the agricultural and environmental benefits of the introduced dung beetles are immense.

Dung Beetles bury dung, thereby improving soil fertility and enabling plant root systems to penetrate more deeply in compacted soils. Microbial activity thrives which in turn sequesters massive amounts of carbon, provides soil aeration, reduces chemical and nutrient runoff into creeks, rivers, estuaries and oceans.

Dung burial reduces the internal parasite load in domestic animals and greatly reduces buffalo fly breeding in northern Australia. Bush fly survival is reduced by up to 99 percent. Dung burial provides a habitat and food supply for earthworms, increases rainwater penetration and improves ground water retention.  A good dung beetle tunnel system can absorb 4 to 5 litres of water.

80% of nitrogen in dung when left on the pasture is lost to the atmosphere.  When dung is well buried, the nitrogen is placed in the grass root zone and grasses respond immediately.

The CSIRO released 44 species of introduced dung beetles in Australia and 23 are known to be established, however only three or possibly four species have spread to their climatic and geographic limits to date.

There are some species that have not yet been fully surveyed by experts to determine the extent of their establishment.

Stuart Hill    Ecological and Psycho-social Foundations for Agricultural Sustainability

I consider that focusing on the following three areas of ‘key enablers’ will help agriculture to become significantly more ecologically sustainable; & able to support equitable wellbeing, meaningful work & healthy (& aesthetic) landscapes & their biota.

1. Inclusion of psycho-social understandings & actions in all initiatives;

2. Redesign of all systems, in the service of ecologically sustainable & humane values; &

3. Developing pathways to longer-term whole system change from doable, contextually-relevant, individual & collaborative initiatives.

This will require those involved in sustainable change to develop and improve their competencies in:

A. Effective communication, based on relational psychology & artistic creativity;

B. Design/redesign and management of agroecosystems, based on agroecosystem science, & its relationships within whole systems; &

C. Cultural change for enabling progressive system transformation (our psycho-social evolution), based on social psychology & wisdom.

The challenge I face is communicating the importance of this approach to change, and working with others to implement initiatives within our fields of practice.

I will use stories from my 50+ years of doing what I am advocating to support and illustrate the nature of this approach; also to explain how I came to develop this understanding.

This has been enabled by my having been mentored since the 1960s by leaders in related fields, and colleagues and students, to whom I will for ever be grateful.

Tony Hill   Buy into a Healthier Australia

Various organisations are now stepping forward to support sustainable agriculture. In the past, great work has been done by volunteers and philanthropists in campaigns to save or protect important environmental assets.  But the pace of improvement in ecosystems is not fast enough.

In the face of global challenges such as mega fires, droughts, biodiversity loss and climate change, how can we engage all of the population to be active and move beyond sustainable, to a regenerative world.  Land to Market Australia seeks to transform our food system and take robust information about the ecological health of our farmland into a place where businesses and consumers can support regeneration.

Our farmers are experimenting with their farming practices, and consumers and businesses are realising that their purchases can contribute to planetary health. But how can we know if agriculture is truly regenerative? How can we go beyond a sustainable future, where our problems continue to wound the planet, to a regenerative future, where we heal those wounds? And how can we use human intelligence to measure the complexity of ecosystems?

For the first time we have a tool, Ecological Outcome Verification, that can let us monitor and clarify whether farming practices are improving or degrading the health of our landscape.

Walter Jehne   Whither Australia’s Agriculture 2030?

After 230 years of European Agriculture in Australia its time to critically examine what this land has, and should have, taught us. To define where our agricultural systems and impacts are going and need to go.

To understand the imperatives before us from; climate extremes, soil degradation, aridification, the loss of resilience and productivity and our options to reverse this ecological and natural capital decline in time.

To address the challenges debt, farm viability and the decline of rural viability and markets and our options to revitalise these social values as a foundation of our sustainability.

While nature provides practical solutions to these imperatives; will we recognise and use them wisely in time? What changes must we make to and via our agriculture, as our key point of agency, to regenerate such key processes and Australia’s former hydrated productive bio-systems, cool the climate and secure our sustainable safe future?

How can we make these changes in time, over this next decade?

Charles Massy

As our planet plunges further into the Anthropocene epoch, and while our national leaders negligently dither, nevertheless there are emerging signs of hope and practical solutions. A key lead is coming from what can be called an ‘Underground Revolution’: the burgeoning, eclectic, grass-roots segment of regenerative agriculture.

This movement is rapidly growing in all continents. Through apprehending the basics of landscape literacy, its practitioners focus on regenerating the key landscape functions (solar, water, soil health and biodiversity), linked to the fifth dimension: of paradigm change in the human mind. The movement also focuses on eliminating harmful industrial inputs and practices in cropping, animal husbandry, agroforestry and other practices connected to food and fibre production. This movement is closely connected to the escalating urban and regional food movements, and thus to gardeners and consumers.

In turn, via delivering clean-green natural fibres and nutrient dense foods (in addition to eliminating known harmful herbicides and other chemicals), the new regenerative farming movement has huge potential to address the exponential rise of modern human and animal diseases: a rise, albeit in delayed fashion, that parallels ‘The Great Acceleration’ trends of post-1950s social and Earth systems.

Therefore, in terms of our understanding of Complex Adaptive Systems, an apt definition of regenerative agriculture is not about ‘sustaining’ the status quo, but instead could be: ‘the use of agricultural practices and thinking that, through the utilisation of emergent properties within our landscapes, enable landscapes and systems to self-organise to a state of functional, open-ended health and resilience: to SELF-HEAL.’

Gavin Mudd

Mining of metals and minerals has been a key plank of Australia’s economic, social, political and environmental history – although the history invariably glorifies the economic value and largely ignores or minimises the impacts. But the world is changing: the United Nations has set global ‘Sustainable Development Goals’;  the world has signed the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and consumers, communities, financiers, investors and industry and many governments around the world want radical change.

This involves renewable energy and electrified transport – meaning a very different mining industry into the future. This presentation will review the essentials of mining and sustainability, linking these to environmental impacts and the suite of metals we need for the 21st century technology revolution already well underway.

Jane O’Sullivan

Sustainability is all about scale. Nature will forgive us for any behaviour, if it is sufficiently rare and localised. Yet things we have done for millennia without causing harm become devastating when scaled up. Particularly in agriculture, sustainability discourse tends to focus on the shining examples, with a romantic notion that they can be scaled up to apply everywhere. Exemplars are vitally important, but to understand their potential contribution to a sustainable future, we have to bring all the world’s future people into the picture. The more people there are, the fewer choices we have in how we meet their needs. Not using synthetic nitrogen fertilizer is no longer an option: biological nitrogen fixation alone can’t feed us. If we all turned vegetarian, our dependence on artificial nitrogen fertilisers would increase, as we forego the work of livestock in harvesting the widely scattered natural protein. Relocalising food systems is no longer an option, when billions of people depend utterly on internationally distributed food.

A 2020 study concluded that current production systems could only support 3.4 billion people without transgressing planetary boundaries for environmental impacts. Heroic transformations of production and consumption patterns are needed to feed 10 billion within these boundaries, requiring disciplined adherence to best practice in every corner of the globe. Even these practices don’t deal with the depletion of crucial mined nutrients like phosphorus and potassium. Yet global population growth is on track for 11 billion or more. Where do Australia’s responsibilities lie in this endeavour?

Will Steffen   The Earth System and Planetary Boundaries

This talk describes the planetary boundaries framework and its use in managing the global commons. The talk begins with an overview of the enormous changes to the Earth System in the last 70 years, changes that have driven the system out of Holocene stability and onto the rapid trajectory of the Anthropocene. Against this background, the planetary boundaries framework aims to provide a way to assess the magnitude and rate of human-driven changes to the Earth System. Of the nine planetary boundaries, at least six, and possibly eight, are now transgressed. Agriculture is the dominant driver of change in four of the nine planetary boundaries, and a significant contributor to two others. Thus, achieving sustainable agricultural systems is absolutely essential for restoring the stability of the Earth System as a whole.

Guy Webb   Restoring the Soil – ‘3D Carbon Paddocks’ project – Profit & Legacy

All life is carbon based.  Restoring ‘life’ back into agricultural soils and landscapes is therefore cantered around bringing carbon back into our landscapes.   Carbon exists in our landscapes as plant, animal, microbe, or the decomposed remains of the aforementioned, which can be trapped in the soil as valuable soil organic carbon (SOC).  Carbon is the one fundamental central metric by which we can measure sustainability and success of a farming system.

In a time when the Earth’s atmosphere is burdened with too much heat trapping carbon dioxide, agriculture may look upon this gas as a free resource to be harvested, traded & monetised, mined from the sky and secured back into the landscape to deliver carbon credits, biodiversity credits and importantly ecosystem services that bolster climate resilience and agricultural productivity.

Agriculture is functioning in a legacy landscape that previous land managers have left us. Over the decades, carbon was lost from the landscape at speed and at scale through vegetation clearing, overgrazing & tillage, driven by strong economic signals and pervasive cultural preconceptions.

The ‘3D Carbon Paddocks’ project combines all our hard won scientific landscape regeneration knowledge to redesign the current farming landscape and strategically secure carbon back into and onto the farm, rehabilitate biodiversity and purposefully capture climate resilience & production co-benefits.  The next critical evolution of climate-ready agriculture is to retrofit the landscape, to reboot the system, to “pimp the paddock”… at scale and at speed.

Through excellent science, strong economic signals and cultural curation, this can and must be achieved.

Penelope Wensley   Australia’s soil, water and vegetation as strategic assets

Soils have sustained life on earth since its emergence about 4.5 billion years ago. Soils play a fundamental role in supporting biodiversity, they are part of the carbon cycle and the water cycle and they underpin our food production.

Although the interconnection between these systems is becoming better understood, more effort is needed to raise awareness of these linkages, of the multiple services that soils provide and the critical importance of maintaining soil health. Not enough Australians realise that Australia’s soils are one of our most valuable natural assets, critical to sustainable food production, biodiversity conservation, water quality and human health. Too few know the extent to which this essential, irreplaceable resource is under pressure and at risk.

Soil scientists and those working in related fields have long lamented the lack of attention to soils in the policy and public domains: “underfoot”, “unseen”, “ignored”,” unnoticed” has been the mantra. However, this is changing. The subjects of soil, soil health, better soil management are all gaining traction, driven by a range of different forces and actors, in government, industry, the private sector and NGOs. Soil is moving up the national policy agenda, reflected in the adoption in 2021 of a National Soil Strategy. It’s Vision: “that Australia’s soil is recognised and valued as a key national asset by all stakeholders; and is better understood and sustainably managed”, holds great promise, including for Australia’s food producers. But its realisation will require strong effort and commitment to deliver the real and lasting change needed to secure our soils and make Australian agriculture sustainable.

Michelle Young

Sustainable Farms is a trans-disciplinary initiative at the ANU with a vision to empower farmers and their networks to adopt regenerative farming practices that will directly benefit biodiversity conservation.   Our approach ‘Natural Asset Farming’ is a simple framework to support farmers to create a portfolio of assets which build natural capital including biodiversity on a farm.  The management recommendations we propose have an extensive history of practical application by thousands of farmers with support from groups like Landcare and Greening Australia.

Core to our outreach program is that it is farmer directed but also supported with science by our team of regional field ecologists. We aim to bring people a range of different expertise into connection with farmers, to discuss the management of natural assets on farms. This dialogue between different groups is designed to support innovative thinking and practice change uptake.