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Give EMS a go---by removing institutional constraints

Tony Gleeson


Institutional arrangements have a major bearing on how we manage our ecological impacts. However the design of many institutions related to land management is based on skewed interpretations of the economic performance and structure of agricultural industries, interpretations reinforced by the institutions they foster. This interdependence makes it difficult to improve environmental outcomes, not least through the constraint it places on the effective use of environmental management systems and the verification of environmental performance. New understandings or foundations are required to enable land management institutions to be more effective and these foundations need to guide consideration of the 2009 EMSA conference themes. Essentially we need institutional arrangements that foster innovations that build positive feedback loops between reducing adverse environmental impacts and producing internationally competitive products.

Key Words

Institutional arrangements, land, environmental management systems


The realities of land based ecosystems, human behaviour and land uses need to be taken into account in the application of an environmental management systems approach to land management. These realities should influence institutional arrangements which have a major bearing on how we manage our ecological impacts in rural Australia. This paper focuses on just a few aspects of these institutional arrangements leading to a consideration of the 2009 EMSA conference themes.

Institutions and land management

Institutions include traditions and the norms and practices of groups. Institutions include the organisations formed by government, industries and communities and their policies and programs. Institutions include laws, regulations, codes of practice and the operation of markets (Gleeson and Piper 2002). All of these elements together comprise the institutional framework and this framework influences human behaviour, particularly those behaviours that go beyond the individual.

The institutional framework is particularly important for land related environmental management systems for two reasons. First environmental management rarely has been a critical factor in the design of these institutions and so it tends to be a tacked-on role. Second land management is heavily loaded with incremental political processes leading to layer upon layer of conflicting and confusing signals for the very many people who play differing but important roles in managing land.

Our constraining mindscape

One of the forces opposing desirable institutional change is the agriculturally centric and overly positive mindscape or picture that most land managers and those in related organisations and positions have of rural Australia. This mindscape is reinforced by the institutional cultures, structures, and processes that have been established, promulgated and reinforced over many decades. It makes it difficult to deliver meaningful reform.

Australian farmers are lead to believe they are highly efficient and internationally competitive

(Gleeson and Piper 2002) leading to a view that they are not in need of insightful solutions to gain competitiveness. This view is based on the selective use of statistics and of language and the rent seeking activities of existing organisations and individuals.

The realities are much different.

Over the last half of the last century there was virtually no change in the real gross value of Australian agricultural output despite at least a two-fold increase in Australian agricultural production and in the real value of world agricultural trade. In the twenty years to 2000/2001 the real gross value of agricultural production in Australia rose by less than one tenth of the rise in national gross domestic product (Synapse Research & Consulting & Bob Hudson Consulting 2005).Real net farm income in the mid-1990s was only one third of what it was twenty years earlier despite dramatic increases in resource access over these and preceding decades. For example about three quarters of the irrigation water used for agriculture at the turn of the century became available only in the preceding three to four decades.

Even acknowledging that these statistics hide great variation between individual businesses there is a clear economic case for innovations that enable Australian agriculture to compete in higher priced markets, markets such as those that would reward environmental certification.

The institutionalised view that Australian agriculture at the farm level is based on single industries is another illustration of how mindscapes influence institutional arrangements which in turn constrain the application of well designed environmental management systems. This single industry view is reflected in many industry-by-industry analyses and in the structure of many agricultural organisations, in the private and public sectors, a prime example being the industry-by-industry approach to research and innovation, including in relation to environmental management.

But again the realities are much different.

Australian agriculture at the farm level is comprised of complex and changing mixes of agricultural industries. In fact over 60 percent of Australian farmers producing more than 70 percent of produce by value in 2000/01 operated two or more industries (Gleeson, Lewis and Grosser 2006). The point is further illustrated for example in the cotton and sheep industries where in 2000/01 only 10 percent for cotton and 3 percent for sheep meat and wool by value was produced on cotton only and sheep only farms respectively.

The mix of land uses and its dynamic nature should have a major influence on the design of institutional arrangements influencing the application of environmental management systems.

Adjusting institutional arrangements for land management

We need to establish foundations to underpin institutional arrangements for improving land based environmental outcomes, particularly with reference to the operation of markets, policies and programs and the cultures, structures, and processes of organisations.

The institutional foundations for improving land-based environmental outcomes might include accepting that:

  • Environmental management can be usefully defined as land managers managing past, current and future impacts on the environment and that responsibility for leadership in environmental management rests with those having environmental impacts.
  • The environment cannot be usefully broken down into separate biophysical components. Environmental management needs to be ecologically sound (holistic) and apply across space and time.
  • Lack of recognition and reward are the primary constraints to improving environmental impacts.

For environmental and economic reasons we need institutional arrangements that foster innovations that build synergies and positive feedback loops between reducing our adverse environmental impacts and producing internationally competitive products. Because of the complexity of this challenge we need insights and innovations at a variety of levels.

We need ‘alpha’ innovations which are incremental changes within existing system parameters (better fertilizers), we need beta innovations which are changes to the system parameters (minimum till) and we need gamma innovations which are major system changes (pasture-cropping systems).

To do these things we need to understand and accept the economic and environmental realities of current land uses. We need institutions that are less risk adverse and fragmented across industries.

The remainder of the paper examines the conference themes from a perspective arising from these foundations.

Relevance of EMS to industries and agencies

The primary relevance of an EMS is to the landholder entity responsible for having an environmental impact. Industry organisations and NRM agencies however have considerable influence on land managers and hence they can positively or negatively affect adoption of EMS. In turn the extent of adoption of EMS by land managers could have a dramatic impact on the effectiveness and efficiency of those industry organisations and NRM agencies. Third industry organisations and NRM agencies have their own environmental impacts and well designed EMSs are as relevant to those organisations as they might be to the entities served by them.

To date legislatively backed and tax/levy funded industry-by-industry based agencies have constrained the national introduction of whole-of-property landscape wide approaches to environmental management notwithstanding that environmental certification could lead to improved access to higher priced international markets. This has occurred despite there being an agreed integrative national framework for environmental management, despite the majority of farms being multi-industry based, despite the need to account for off-property impacts, despite the duplication of product-by-product approaches and despite the availability of generic systems that cater well for those issues that are industry specific. Additionally 40 percent of Australia is not used for agriculture, a fact that highlights that we should be approaching EMS as a tool for land management rather than as a tool for agriculture.

With some notable exceptions NRM agencies have been reluctant to adopt EMS as one of the tools they use to encourage land managers to meet NRM targets. Contributing factors appear to be the confusion and misrepresentation resulting from EMS funding programs not adhering to the National Framework for EMS in Agriculture (note the agricultural centricity), the premature and excessive positioning of EMS primarily as a tool to achieve agricultural market advantage and that many EMS and EMS facsimile programs failed due in large part to not having effective tools to assist implementation.

Is EMS just about carbon?

The answer is an unqualified no. EMS is a tool for an organisation or an individual to manage environmental impacts. Not all impacts can be or should be reduced to considerations of the carbon cycle.

Integration of management systems

The integration of management systems was comprehensively addressed by Gleeson and Reid at the 2007 Hobart EMSA Conference in a paper that acknowledged the desirability of integration and identified the following five steps to enable integration to occur:

  • Limit the integration to management systems benefiting from external verification, basically to exclude purely commercial aspects.
  • Choose as the foundation the management system with the broadest applicability, invariably the EMS, and build other management systems, for instance a particular product quality assurance system, around the EMS.
  • If it isn’t an EMS, don’t call it an EMS because it is not easy to integrate across completely different approaches. BMP approaches like the Cotton BMP are not EMS; voluntary land holder surveys, like Landleader, are not EMS; the EMBP approach adopted in Victoria is not an EMS.
  • Use a well designed EMS
  • Use the best technology

The key point is that there is a need to avoid costly duplication and that the best way forward is to have discrete yet integrated management tools rather than having a single management tool to cover a wide array of tasks across many different environments and managers.

Recognition and reward for EMS users

Land managers who implement an EMS are likely to achieve rewards internal to their land based operations. However to achieve external rewards it is necessary to have a verification system relevant to the potential multiple sources of benefits. Given the increasing global focus on environmental outcomes and the export nature of most agricultural industries it is logical to implement internationally recognised EMS and EMS verification systems. 

Sharing the responsibility for environmental management

There is a widespread perception that the responsibility for land based environmental management should be shared between land managers and the broader community, at least when the land manager is a primary producer. This perception is illustrated in, for instance, the idea of communities paying for ecosystem ‘services’, such as biodiversity conservation, arising from land managers applying non-polluting practices.

Arguably the shared responsibility perception has its genesis in the full or part public good nature of some landscape environmental outcomes, in some positive or negative impacts being off-site and in there often being difficulties in pin-pointing the causes of land degradation.

Whilst all of these factors do contribute to the complexity of land based environmental management they do not provide an adequate basis for moving away from responsibility for land based environmental management being held by the land owner/manager in much the same way as a ‘polluter pays’ approach applies in other domains. A more cynical analysis could lead to the judgement that the perception of a shared responsibility arises from rent-seeking activities enabled by widespread agricultural fundamentalism.

We need to define the basis for private-public partnerships in land management in pragmatic ways, in ways to do with selecting the most effective instruments to enable land managers to execute their responsibilities to avoid adverse environmental impacts. Certainly in this context a well designed and applied EMS is an excellent way to achieve and have recognized continuous environmental improve.


Participation in the 2009 EMSA conference has been made possible by support for the Australian Land Management Group by Elders, Australian Wool Innovation and the Japanese textile giant, Onward Kashiyama. Insightful and fearless friends provided constructive comments on an earlier version of the paper.


Gleeson, T and Piper K (2002) Institutional Reform in Rural Australia: Defining and allocating property rights in Property Rights and Responsibilities, Current Australian Thinking Canberra: Land and Water Australia

Gleeson, T, Lewis, L and Grosser, M (2006) Alliances to assist implementation of environmental management systems, Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation Publication No 06, Canberra.

Gleeson T and Reid C (2007) Integrating land based management systems-five easy steps. Proceedings of EMSA Conference, Hobart, August 2007.

Synapse Research &Consulting & Bob Hudson Consulting (2005) Australian Farm Sector Demography: Analysis of Current Trends and Future Farm Policy Implications, Australian Farm Institute, Surry Hills, Australia.

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