Modern farming can’t ignore the intersection of environmental, social, and commercial concerns, writes Joshua Gilbert, who recently resigned from his position as Chair of NSW Young Farmers as a result of his opposition to pending native vegetation clearing laws.
Farmers have a natural affinity with their land. The farm is the home of their family’s dreams and aspirations, the page upon which they write their stories of passion and love – their life, their livelihood, their heart.
From outside the farm gate the view is different. Consumers place large amounts of trust in the farmer to produce what they need, when they need it. But as societal views shift around the governance and sustainability of corporations, so too does the interest in food production and animal welfare. Farmers are increasingly held accountable for their actions and are asked not only to provide but also to protect and care for the environment and animals that support the production of food.
As corporations and business are increasingly called on to adopt ‘triple bottom line’ accounting practices – considering social, economic and environmental factors – agricultural corporations and family farmers find themselves at a crossroads.
We have to ponder what practical accounting and social metrics should be developed specifically for the agricultural industries.
This discussion is brought to life by the proposed changes to the Native Vegetation Act in NSW, policy which intends to cut ‘red tape’ for farmers by allowing self-assessment when clearing the flora and fauna on their property. Without full appreciation of the value of native vegetation, this policy risks not only the repetition of past errors, but also of trading long-term profitability for short-sighted practices.
This controversial policy highlights the need for all to reconsider the interaction between the three areas of triple bottom line reporting – not only finance, social and environmental, but also the corporate social responsibility to apply them in the unique field of farming.
Times are changing, and in this new world our society needs to shift its thoughts on the environment. Do we as a society value the pursuit of money over the longevity of social cohesion, the natural environment and our accountability to the public?
Kinship for the land is not just felt by farmers, but also by our Indigenous brothers and sisters and the broader environmental movement. With the desire to create fair, just, and equitable policy regarding the natural environment, it is negligent that these voices have been hushed and ignored, often trumped in the public and political discussion by large farming organisations.
Other changes taking place are the partnerships that are being built where once there was nervousness and mistrust. Recent disputes over mining activity have seen farmers and environmental groups stand hand in hand, united in their desire to protect the land.
Unfortunately the legitimate concerns of the environmental movement regarding policy changes on native vegetation clearing, like those expected to be pursued by the Baird government when parliament resumes, are too-often falling on deaf ears within farmers associations, and the relationship is at risk.
Comparable policies to the New South Wales government’s within Queensland have seen over 300,000 hectares of native vegetation ripped from the landscape in Queensland, despite industry best practice. Rampant clearing in 2014 also led to carbon emissions equalling 6 per cent of the national total.
Australia has become number three for the worst land clearing rates among developed nations. And still, some industries continue to lobby for self-regulation in order to provide the opportunity for them to destroy our native landscapes.
We are at risk of losing prominent native vegetation in Australia. This also increases the risk of negative public perceptions towards farmers. Recent experience with the live export debate showed the cost of these negative perceptions: the live export debate questioned every farmer’s right to farm, and cost beef producers dearly in the short and long term, forcing some farmers to leave the industry.
Similarly, the proposed native vegetation policy lacks foresight and vision and further risks the brand of ‘Australian agriculture’ and the livelihoods of our farming families and rural communities. The drive for farmers to increase their land value and productivity seems to focus only on a single bottom line factor, and negates any public accountability and social and environmental responsibility farmers otherwise aspire to achieve.
There is hope though.
Achieving sustainable land use for profitability and sustainability in the short and long term requires collaboration between farmers, environmental groups, Indigenous Australians and consumers with a conscience.
Coming together through a shared love and appreciation of the value of land, the food and fibre it produces and our environment, we stand to create partnerships for the true long term prosperity of our nation. We can build on the 40,000 years of Traditional Indigenous Knowledge and mutual respect for our delicate landscape to form fair, equitable and long term policy, not one which sacrifices future prosperity for short term ‘gains’.
We each have a personal responsibility for not only our future, but also for the future of our descendants. Each day, we have the ability to encourage change, create hope and create equality. Our views on the environment, agriculture and our way of life should be treated no differently.
The challenge for us all is to lift our gaze beyond our current horizon. Money should not be the sole imperative. We need to focus on the long-term outlook and understand where our interests and connection to the broader society should lie. We must equally value the three pillars of triple bottom line accounting, while creating agricultural metrics showing mutual respect for the views of farmers, consumers and the environment.
Are we ready to truly partner and ensure the equality of agricultural reporting for long-term equity, justice, fairness and profitability? I believe the time for mutual collaboration and respect is now.
Joshua Gilbert stepped down from his role as Chair of the NSW Young Farmers on January 26 because it had become “apparent that [his] personal views no longer align with the broader association”. Gilbert spent much of his Chairmanship campaigning on climate.
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