Genevieve Carruthers, Environmental Systems Specialist, NSW Agriculture, Wollongbar Agricultural Institute, Bruxner Highway, Wollongbar NSW 2477
A paper presented to the 10th World Congress of Food Science and Technology. Sydney, Australia. 3-8 October 1999.
In Australia and overseas, as concerns about food safety have largely been addressed through QA and HACCP approaches, the attention of consumers is increasingly turning to the environmental impacts of food production. Legislation governing environmental impacts is growing rapidly to meet such community expectations. Farmers worldwide are now expected to demonstrate quality of their environmental management. At the same time, farming is declining in profitability, with many farmers seeing increased environmental management as nothing more than a direct cost that should be shared by society as a whole.
A number of programs have been developed to provide direction for environmental management for businesses. The international standard on environmental management systems, ISO 14001, is becoming a frequently used management tool in many industries, yet has not been widely adopted within agriculture. In Australia and overseas, whilst there are a number of approaches that serve to facilitate environmental management for farmers, few of those programs fully embrace the principles of environmental management systems.
This paper discusses how increased adoption of environmental management systems can be used to address consumer and regulatory requirements for improved environmental management. The benefits that can accrue to farmers over and above market advantage are also discussed. Finally, ways to encourage adoption of such systems are examined. Ultimately, it appears that a combination of cost sharing, encouragement through various means and legislation would produce the best climate to encourage the use of environmental management systems on farms.
As agricultural production has become more effective throughout the world thus providing more food, the focus has shifted from finding enough food to attention to how the food was produced – including issues such as food safety and environmental impacts (Clark, 1999).
The public perception of farmers and farming has altered radically (Lovett, 1991), as agriculture has declined as a contributor to gross domestic product. Disapproval of agricultural management strategies that degrade the environment is now expressed strongly. Market signals indicate that consumers all around the world are less willing to turn a blind eye to such impacts on the environment than in the past, and are gradually starting to demand far more environmental accountability from users of national environmental resources.
Farmers form approximately 2% of Australia’s population yet control 75% of the total land resources of this country. It has been estimated that over 70% of all agricultural lands in Australia suffer from some form of environmental degradation (Conacher and Conacher, 1995). Thus, whilst not being a large part of the Australian population overall, farmers have influenced the environmental condition of three-quarters of this continent through their production of food for the wider community. Should they have to bear the cost of environmental management alone, and what is the best way for them to proceed in this management? Should they undertake more proactive environmental management merely to pursue fickle markets, or because there are inherent benefits from the use of systematic environmental management?
What has driven the change in consumer perception of agriculture? With the growth in the use of synthetic chemicals after World War 2, pesticide residues in foods and food safety were major concerns. Since the 1990’s in Australia, food safety is no longer an optional “extra” – consumers expected foods to be safe, but distinguishable in terms of quality (Peters, 1998). Now it is not merely residues that consumers are concerned about – they are also concerned about diffuse chemical exposure, the impacts of farming on the environment and non-target organisms, including humans (Copeman, in Roland and Bradford, 1998), animal welfare, social and ethical issues (see Llanos/Reuters, 1999).
Genetically modified organisms are another important emerging concern, influencing food purchase choices. Many of the major supermarket chains in the UK have either removed, or are in the process of removing, all GMO products from their shelves in response to a significant consumer backlash against these products. A recently released British poll (Daily Record, 11/3/99 – cited in Anon, 1999a) indicated that 90% of consumers surveyed would switch supermarkets and/or travel up to twice as far to shop in order to avoid genetically modified foods.
Many of our trading competitors provide subsidies for farmers to withdraw land from production for environmental purposes such as biodiversity conservation (for example, the set-aside policies of the UK). Other competitors provide farmers with assistance to maintain their farms even whilst they are unproductive, and by Australia standards, highly inefficient. Often it is the management subsidies, and not agricultural income, that means these farms stay in business.
It has been predicted that the value of commodities exported from Australia will decline by 2.6% to $63.1 billion in 1999-2000 (Anon, 1999b), with declining commodity prices blamed for this fall. The CSIRO (1998) claims that the downturn in terms of trade have largely been offset in Australia by increases in farm productivity and efficiencies. Such efficiencies have come at an environmental cost. How long such productivity increases can be maintained in the light of subsidisation, resource degradation and associated remediation costs is uncertain.
Much of the population in developing countries is being fed by traditional, low-input polycultures (Liebman, 1987). Such systems usually operate on an agroecological footing. Conventional farmers are now starting to use similar approaches to manage their farms in response to the downturn in profitability. For farmers to adopt such approaches now means that higher levels of management are required, not the use of a ‘set-and-forget’ approach to management commonly used in the developed world. The principles of proactive management approaches are embodied within an environmental management system, an EMS.
The increased demand for productivity in Australian agriculture comes on top of the urgent need for increased environmental management in one of the world’s more hostile environments to conventional agriculture. Of all Australian lands, only 10 million out of the total 780 million hectares are unencumbered by climate, soils, terrain, erosion or other uses (such as residential, national parks etc.), and suitable for agriculture (Gilpin, 1980; Rose, 1994).
As a result of past management practices, changing legislation and community expectations, Australian farmers must now deal with the following issues in their business management:
It’s not often that the environmental management of farms directly affects the majority of consumers (ie. the city dwellers). However, the exceptions to this are often spectacular. The dust storms that hit Melbourne and Adelaide in the late 80’s attracted huge media attention, yet erosion was a problem that farmers had been addressing for years. When such impacts are felt, there is usually demand for more stringent or even new legislation. This is happening now – environmental issues are perceived to be having an impact on food quality, safety and/or availability, and so consumers are requiring greater environmental stewardship. This has not been in response to the need for farmers to take a more proactive stance in resource management to ensure continued viability of farms – it is because of a perceived threat to food safety or supplies.
There has been a rapid rise in environmental management legislation (Brown, 1996) from just over 100 pieces of such legislation in the 1960’s to over 400 Acts in the 1990’s. Much of the past legislation concentrated on industrial or urban environmental impacts, with little specific attention to farming. For example, mining in Australia uses only 0.04% of the total land surface, yet faces major environmental constraints and expectations (Goldney and Bauer, 1998), which are often backed up with significant planning instruments and environmental bonds. Other recent legislation has a wider international focus (eg. the Montreal, Kyoto and Rio conventions). In the past, Australian agriculture has had to address few such legislative restrictions.
The exceptions to this rule are found in the more intensive production systems such as feedlots, piggeries, dairies and poultry production sheds. Here, new development applications are often assessed using fairly strict criteria. In response to these criteria, The Feedlot Manual (NSW Agriculture, 1997) has been developed to assist feedlot producers to meet the legislated requirements of operating such production systems. However, given current trends, ALL Australian farmers will be under increased pressure to demonstrate their environmental management to satisfy of consumers and regulatory bodies alike. To do so they will need to manage their farms to meet increasingly stringent environmental performance parameters, and to provide ‘proof’ that they have done so. For many farmers, this is seen as a disenfranchisement of their right to manage their own land as they see fit.
The desire for agricultural industry self-regulation for environmental management was expressed strongly at the EMS in Agriculture workshop in Ballina (see Carruthers and Tinning, in press). Under the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (Australian Ecological Sustainable Development Steering Committee, 1992), governments at all levels are encouraging self-regulatory approaches to management. There are two main reasons for this. The first is that self-regulation is seen as more satisfying for those in business. Where industry groups work together, they can use their superior knowledge of the factors that affect that industry to develop more realistic targets for resource management than could be achieved by some external party (who may not fully comprehend the restraints on that industry). Secondly, self-regulation is a far cheaper option for regulatory agencies, largely eliminating the need for surveillance and compliance checks.
Self-regulated approaches, directed by industry groups, are seen to be preferable both from an industry point of view, and under World Trade Organisation ‘requirements’. Such self-regulatory approaches are often drivers for the use of EMS in many businesses. In addition, the desire to go beyond legislative compliance, expressed by many resource managers, including farmers, means that an EMS can strive to achieve far higher goals that those that can be, or currently are, legislated requirements (see Morrison, 1999).
To address food quality concerns, many agricultural industries now encourage growers to use QA schemes. In addition to ISO 9000, there are about 200 QA schemes that can be applied to agricultural produce in Australia. Some of these schemes incorporate Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) principles, others do not. Occupational Health and Safety issues are sometimes covered peripherally in QA schemes, as are some environmental issues.
Many of the quality management schemes available to Australia farmers are poorly linked, and frequently do not acknowledge the existence of other management approaches. At present each farm enterprise might require a different QA scheme, each with its own requirements for documentation and audits. As diversification of enterprises is seen as one way to increase farm sustainability, the current multiplicity of QA approaches could actually be seen as working against the adoption of more sustainable practices. Conflicting QA requirements provide a powerful disincentive to try alternative enterprises, as the spectre of duplicated documentation, audits and similar is raised by this prospect.
Currently, none of the available QA schemes allow farmers to fully demonstrate their environmental management commitment in addition to their management of quality parameters. The use of environmental management systems (EMS) is widely seen as one way for managers of all businesses to both address legislated environmental requirements and demonstrate their commitment to do so to the public. By incorporating existing QA practices into an EMS, farmers could develop a fully integrated management approach for their business, to address both environmental and quality concerns under the one package.
A management system has been described as a way of moving information around inside an organisation to allow the right management decisions to be made at the right time, using the right information (Sheldon and Yoxon, 1999). Thus, an environmental management system is a systematic approach to dealing with all environmental management aspects of a business, and to provide the correct information to allow those issues to be managed effectively. As with any management system, an EMS is directed to achieve measurable performance (Shillito, 1995).
In 1996, an international standard in environmental management systems, the ISO 14000 series, was ratified. Businesses throughout the world have developed environmental management systems based on this standard. A properly developed, implemented and certified EMS can demonstrate to both domestic and international consumers that environmental considerations have been taken into account during production of any product, including farm produce. Use of an EMS also allows a business to develop and direct environmental management programs that are relevant and practicable for that business.
EMSs operate in similar ways to QA systems, in that they also follow the “Plan, Do, Check, Act/Review” cycle. In the case of an EMS, the performance parameters are in the environmental arena, whereas for QA the target is quality and for HACCP (used conventionally), microbial and food safety. To ensure sustainable management, any EMS must be developed based on legislation that clearly details the sustainability parameters required. In some ways, use of EMS can be seen as extending QA approaches right back to the beginning of the production cycle, and taking it past the end of consumption. In addition, an EMS should aim to achieve continual improvement of the process, thus ensuring that better information is used each time to direct decisions about management of environmental impacts.
EMS and QA systems can utilise tools such as HACCP to identify and potentially control business risks. It is interesting that ISO 9000 is currently being rewritten to embody the approach used in ISO 14000 - that of developing a management system that is workable for the business as a first priority, then ensuring that the system will pass “inspection” as a secondary priority.
Apart from ISO 14000, there are several other environmental management approaches that are currently being applied to agricultural management throughout the world. These include The Eco-management and Audit Scheme (EMAS - a European Union regulation), self-auditing and action plan programs (the Linking Environment And Farming from the UK, the Ontario Environmental Farm Plan approaches and the US Farm*A*Syst program), industry best management practices, codes of practice and industry standards. There are a number of examples of the latter three approaches currently in use in Australia.
In December 1996, Australia and New Zealand adopted ISO 14000 verbatim as AS/NZS 14000 (AS/NZ ISO 14001, 1996). The series deals with the following areas - environmental management systems; environmental auditing; environmental performance evaluation; life cycle assessment; environmental labelling, and environmental aspects in product standards. ISO 14001 is the only part of the Standard against which certification can be sought. It contains 5 basic principles on which any EMS should be developed. These are commitment and policy; planning; implementation; measurement and evaluation; and review and improvement (Tibor and Feldman, 1996).
ISO 14000 is a process approach, rather than a prescriptive standard. That is, it does not specify the particular environmental outcomes to be achieved, but provides a series of directions to firstly determine environmental targets, then to develop environmental programs to meet those targets. However, there is also need to know whether (and how well) targets have been met and if not met, where things have gone wrong. This necessitates the development of ‘criteria of performance’ – Shillito, 1995). Performance measurements are essential to demonstrate improvements in management performance (Shillito, 1995). The need for either preventive or corrective actions become clear when monitoring of outcomes is undertaken. The final stage is therefore the review of the system to ensure it is working (ie. achieving performance with the stated objectives) and taking action to bring the system back into line if it is not meeting these objectives.
One of the requirements of ISO 14001 is a commitment to continual improvement of the system, but not of environmental performance per se. Many environmental groups often see this last feature as a weakness in the standard. However, if the health of both the environment and human populations are the paramount issues of consideration in the EMS development, then improvement in the management systems should always result in the improvement of environmental performance (Bell, 1995). In addition, this requirement for continual improvement of the system requires reflection about the types of impacts a business is having. Such reflection must be placed in the light of expectations of environmental management of both the business and wider community. Adjustment to the system is required to ensure such expectations are met.
ISO 14001 specifies that certain documents need to be developed and maintained, and that there be a process developed to keep track of the documents. There are elements of the standard that deal with the need to identify any current legislation, codes of practices, best management practices and similar. Records must be kept of any monitoring done. These allow the checking of the systems, to see if the management practices imposed are achieving the desired outcomes. Therefore, use of ISO 14001 to develop an EMS for a farm offers significant opportunities to allow farmers to meet the environmental management and reporting requirements of both consumers and regulatory bodies alike.
The first farm in the world to be certified against this Standard is a cotton farm at Narrabri in NSW, owned by Oakville Pastoral Company. This farm has obtained considerable benefit from the use of ISO 14000 as a management tool, not only as a marketing edge. Savings in production practices have added value to the benefit of ease of entry into certain markets. Significantly, the farm does not receive a price premium for its cotton. Rather, the product is easier to sell into markets looking for a high quality “green” image product whilst not wanting to pay any higher prices for that product (Mike Logan, manager of Oakville Pastoral Company, pers. comm). Recently, a grain farm in the UK has also been certified against the ISO 14001 standard.
The Eco-management and Audit Scheme (or EMAS) has been widely applied in the European Union, and to a lesser extent worldwide. The scheme opened for participation in 1995 (Tibor and Feldman, 1996). EMAS prescribes a number of steps that must be taken to achieve environmentally sound management, including the development and implementation of a formal EMS, auditing and verification of the system and environmental performance, the documentation and publication of a “Register of Environmental Impacts” and annual environmental performance evaluation reporting.EMAS is therefore more prescriptive than ISO 14000, and requires higher levels of public disclosure on environmental performance.
EMAS was developed to facilitate the adoption of EU-wide environmental policies to protect the environment, whilst still allowing sustainable development for industries, free trade and regional differences in management. There has been considerable Government and non-government pressure to adopt EMAS. Chiefly, this has been to allow competition and recognition in the EU marketplace, to achieve participation in Government procurement programs and to obtain ‘deregulatory’ benefits such as reduced regulatory inspections and audits, more rapid licence processing and reduced licence fees (Tibor and Feldman, 1996). Such influences have contributed to the uptake of this management approach.
A self-evaluation/Best Management Practice approach is followed in the Ontario Environmental Farm Plan (EFP). Ontario farmers decided to ‘get ahead’ of regulations in order to set the agenda on environmental management issues on farms, rather than to have to play catch-up with ever more stringent government regulations. The release of the document “Our Farm Environmental Agenda’ (OFA, 1992) set the scene for a dramatic advance in collaboration between farmers, regulatory bodies and researchers, in order to develop a self-audit process and systems to assist farmers improve their environmental management.
A preliminary workshop introduces growers to 23 modules on environmental management on farms. Following these self-assessment modules, farmers can go on to develop full action plans, which are peer reviewed. If the peer review panel approves the action plan, farmers may then apply for an incentive payment of $1500. As of November 1998, over 14,000 farmers in Ontario had completed the first round of workshops in the EFP development process.
The Linking Environment and Farming program from the UK is another example of a self-audit process that allows farmers to manage environmental issues. This program is part of the European Initiative for Integrated Farming (EIF), where an alliance of non-government organisations in seven countries have formed partnerships with stakeholders to promote the concept of integrated crop management (LEAF, 1997). In the UK, 1600 farmers are currently participating in the leaf program, with around 10, 000 farmers in Europe involved (Pierce, 1999). In some cases, completion of the LEAF audit and compliance with ICM protocols is required for product entry into supermarket sales and qualify for various subsidies.
LEAF was initially developed as an integrated crop management approach, but has been expanded to cover all aspects of farming. Presented as both a paper audit and as a CD with interactive text and eco-ratings (LEAF, 1997) the audit responses are used by the farmer to develop an action plan to address issues identified. The LEAF program and ICM allows farmers to assess and optimise their levels of inputs for maximum profits, rather than “going blindly for high yields” (David Richardson, LEAF chairman cited in Pierce, 1999).
LEAF offers community education through demonstration farms, and the LEAF audit. Farmer-to–farmer support has been found to be a vital area in encouraging the implementation of the integrated management approach (Richardson, 1997). Some of the major agri-food companies, such as Birdseye in the UK, now “strongly suggest” (ie. virtually require) that their supplying farmers complete the LEAF audit, in order to gain entry to that market (Caroline Drummond, UK LEAF coordinator, pers. comm).
This program is similar to the LEAF audit, and was used as the basis for the initial Ontario EFP. Many US States now have on-line self-assessment and action plan development packages, supported by links to on-line regulations and best management manuals. Some US food processors now require evidence that farmers have followed such practices before they will purchase commodities. The Farm*A*Syst program has been developed to allow farmers to determine their level of risk, based on legislated performance standards, or currently recognised best management approaches. The flexibility of the program suits many farmers, and provides direction as to where improvements can be made, without the fear that regulatory agencies will “punish” poor performance. As with the LEAF and EFP programs, Farm*A*Syst is a self-paced program which provides direction, not specific goals for farmers to meet.
One of the most organised and longest running approaches to agricultural management in Australia is the organic standard developed by the National Association of Sustainable Agriculture Australia (NASAA). The primary aim of the Standard is to “improve and develop organic agricultural production of abundant food of high nutritional quality along with fibre without contaminating or degrading the environment” (NASAA, 1998). The standard provides a prescribed series of allowable inputs, with a prohibition on use of synthetic chemicals. NASAA has auditing and certification approaches that provide assurance that a certified grower is following particular practices. The Organic Produce Advisory Committee (1997) has also developed a National Standard that can be used in collaboration with the NASAA standard.
The cotton industry in Australia is currently developing a suite of Best Management Practice (BMP) modules. This proactive approach has arisen largely because of the negative environmental image generally associated with cotton farming. As the cotton industry has realised, governments can meet community expectations of environmental management through either increasing stringent legislation or by the provision of regulatory frameworks to assist industry self-regulation. The BMP approach is being developed to meet the latter option (Slack-Smith, 1999).
The cotton BMP manual currently deals with the most problematic areas of cotton farming - the use of chemicals. Three levels of auditing are envisaged, ranging from self-auditing through to a full third-party independent audit (Slack-Smith, 1999). The cotton industry BMP management committee sees the audit process as a way to ensure the credibility and public acceptance of the program outside the industry.
Codes of practice to address environmental management are common for many heavy industry sectors. Those developed in Victoria in collaboration with that State’s EPA often have many of the same features as an EMS – setting of environmental performance standards, monitoring progress, reporting, community consultation and management of environmental performance (Cumming, 1997). Many of these codes have been developed as a result of direct regulatory pressure. Such codes are becoming more common in agriculture.
The Queensland Farmers’ Federation released their Environmental Code of Practice for Agriculture in 1998. This Code has been endorsed under Queensland’s Environmental Protection Act 1994, which places a ‘general environmental duty’ on ALL residents of the state to demonstrate responsible environmental management. Compliance with the Environmental Code of Practice for Agriculture is achieved if farmers manage their properties in a way that enables the expected environmental outcomes to be met (QFF, 1998). The QFF Code has been adapted for industry specific sectors. For example, the Queensland Fruit and Vegetable Growers Code of Practice (1998) provides a series of principles, consistent with the QFF code, to be followed during fruit and vegetable production. The QFVG code can provide evidence of duty of care (due diligence) if followed correctly, and supported by appropriate records. The Code deals with land, soil and water conservation and management of biodiversity, air and noise pollution and wastes.
The NSW Government recently released a policy for sustainable agriculture (State Government of NSW, 1998). Whilst this has yet to be translated into codes of practice, it lays the groundwork for coverage of issues that should be addressed. Integrated management is one of the issues targeted in the NSW policy that was not addressed specifically in the Queensland Codes mentioned above. Inclusion of specific reference to integrated management should mean that use of a systems approach to environmental management is facilitated.
In Australia, both the viticulture industry and the cotton industry are currently developing environmental management approaches that will embody the principles of ISO 14000. However, in general, the lack of adoption of EMS approaches within agriculture worldwide is marked.
This lack of adoption is puzzling. The use of EMS appears to provide an ideal vehicle for farmers to enhance their business management, whilst at the same time allowing for self-regulation, providing enhanced marketability of their products, savings in production costs, improved environmental performance, better public image, and the potential to integrate currently existing QA, O.H. and S. and financial obligations. Part of the reason for slow adoption might be the situation observed with adoption of QA. There was a lag phase between QA standards being ratified, and their adoption. EMS adoption currently is where QA adoption was about 15 years ago. However, it appears that there are a number of other reasons for slow adoption of EMS approaches by farmers.
So what’s holding farmers back? There are many potential factors inhibiting adoption of environmental management, some of which are identified by Goldney and Bauer (1998). One of their observations is that farmers, like many other managers, often focus on dealing with the single issues they face, rather than using systematic management (the reductionist versus holistic approach). Farms in the past have been treated as collections of different enterprises, each with specific issues, rather than as integrated systems (ie. the agroecosystem approach – see Hecht, 1987). In addition, agricultural industry leaders and the retail sector have not clearly stated what is required of farmers in order to meet the increasing demand for demonstrably “green” products. Finally, it could be that there are so many pressing resource management issues that farmers don’t know where to begin.
Discussions at the first national workshop held to consider the use of EMS in Australian agriculture (held in Ballina, NSW in May 1999) pointed to a number of factors (see Carruthers and Tinning, in press) that could encourage farmers to adopt EMS approaches.
Australian farmers have been overloaded in the recent past with QA schemes. Some of the more commonly used approaches are based on ISO 9000 and HACCP principles. Schemes such as SQF2000, Cattlecare, Flockcare, plus various “checking” programs or systems designed to increase productivity (eg. Topcrop, MEYcheck etc) are currently being used in Australia. There are also a number of animal health programs (such as the Johne’s disease checks and tick quarantine areas) as well as various vendor declaration schemes. Many supermarkets and other major purchasers now have their own QA programs that are often imposed in addition to programs that the growers might already be using. It is no wonder that some farmers, particularly those with multiple enterprises, have chosen the easiest path – not adopting any formal QA schemes at all. In many cases, meeting QA specification does not provide price premiums. Farmers do not accept that entry into a market is a ‘reward’. As a result, many farmers see the use of EMS as just another market entry hurdle they need to jump, for no improvement in prices they receive.
Therefore, one of the clearest ways to demonstrate to farmers that adoption of EMS is valuable is through pricing. It has been shown that consumers were willing to pay more for environmentally assured produce (Sainsbury’s, 1998). As a result, increasing numbers of farmers are adopting organic production as a way to access price premiums paid for organic goods. It is suggested that world sales of organic produce will increase from $11 billion in 1997 to around $100,000 billion in 2006 (Jones, 1999). However, such premiums are the exception rather than the rule for agricultural products. Premiums paid for products grown using environmentally sound methods would send a clear market signal that there are rewards in adopting such practices.
However there is also evidence that, as is the case with food safety, many consumers expect that ‘sustainability” is a parameter that WILL be included (Scott, 1998) in all production methods, and thus they are not prepared to pay a premium for commodities grown in this way. In addition, price premiums appear to work well where there is a high degree of consumer ‘involvement’ but not in areas such as bulk commodities (Scott, 1998). Thus, grain growers realistically should not hope for price premiums as “rewards” for environmental stewardship, whilst grape growers potentially could.
As an alternative to increased prices for environmentally assured produce, preferred supplier/assured supplier programs have been used to good effect overseas for environmental purposes. Linking market entry to use of approved environmental management practices would also be a clear signal to farmers that there are rewards for adopting such management regimes. This strategy requires the dedication of the retailers to ensure that they only source produce from suppliers who are clearly able to demonstrate that they have followed agreed, ‘environmentally friendly’ practices. Such programs are increasingly common overseas, but have yet to be widely used in Australia. The stewardship programs detailed by the US EPA (1998, and outlined below) provide of the range of approaches that can be used.
Just as the impending introduction of the Australian Food Standards Code provided direction for growers when adopting HACCP based food safety programs, so too could provision of an environmental management code support the adoption of EMS in agriculture. Confusion is created for farmers seeking advice to change practices as in Australia there are numerous agencies who oversee resource management. In NSW, at least 6 State departments have a role in regulating and/or supporting agriculture. Federal and local governments provide other layers of bureaucracy. The provision of a number of sustainability “check-points” that could be addressed by farmers, and endorsed by all regulatory bodies involved in overseeing agriculture, would at least provide farmers with the basic areas that would need to be included in any EMS used. Such checkpoints could be developed with local catchment management authority, farm industry groups, the community and farmers, and build on existing suggested indicators (such as those provided by CSIRO, 1998). These ‘checks’ could be used to form the basis of an EMS, rather than farmers having to develop systems from scratch.
Such check points could also form the basis for granting environmental operating licences or approvals (for example, clearing vegetation, water extraction, new developments), and for qualifying for various incentive payments, tax concessions or regulatory relief (such as mandatory environmental compliance audits as conducted for some intensive industries). Cross compliance has been used effectively in other situations. A recent example of the potential for the use of regulatory relief arising from harmonised QA approaches comes from a collaborative approach between the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) and the Thai Department of Health. These two agencies recently agreed to have a reduced number of inspections on ‘risk foods’ imported from Thailand to Australia (Anon, 1999c) provided that food is inspected by qualified inspectors in Thailand, and accompanied on import by a compliance certificate. A similar system could conceivably be used to ease the entrance of farm products into many markets on environmental grounds. To qualify, however, a credible and robust inspection process of the production systems would be required. An externally certified EMS allows for such a process to occur.
Land rate/tax relief is a process receiving more attention from local councils to encourage environmental management. For example, the Logan City Council in Queensland provides a reduced rate scheme for land withdrawn from production for conservation purposes. Federally, the Bushcare program administered by Environment Australia provides assistance for farmers who wish to fence out remnant vegetation patches to protect them from livestock. Paris (1998) recently reviewed similar schemes. However, at present few incentive programs apply to the development of whole farm planning approaches. For example, to qualify for tax rebates under the Australian Natural Heritage Trust, the development of management plans is not mandatory (Anon, 1998d).
In the future, linking such rate relief or rebate systems to the development and implementation of environmental management systems could prove a powerful tool to encourage the adoption of systematic management of farms.
The recognition of related or identical standards or principles, a process known as harmonisation, is another way in which adoption of systematic management approaches could be enhanced. Rather than the situation that is now apparent with commodity focused QA schemes, where there is little or no harmonisation between schemes, recognition should be given to farmers who employ management approaches that can work equally well for QA, food safety or environmental aspects of the farm. Such recognition must come from the market – farmers are well aware that they are often following exactly the same steps in ensuring minimal environmental damage from spray applications as would be required to ensure products meet required residues limits. Such steps would include use according to label directions, calibration of spray equipment, correct timing of sprays and attention to withholding periods. Asking farmers to prove such practices to three different auditors is not conducive to promoting adoption! For example,the WTO/GATT Sanitary and Phytosanitary agreement calls on countries to use harmonised measures, based on international standards, guidelines and recommendations, developed by relevant international, organisations, including the Codex Alimentarius Commission (Garrett et. al., 1998).
However, whilst the use of harmonised procedures is to be encouraged, that is not to say that every farmer can, or will want to, follow exactly the same procedures as others. This is where the use of a set of process principles (as supplied by ISO 14000 and similar approaches) comes in. The process is provided through the standard, but the user determines the final make-up of the system. In this way, farmers can follow a common set of principles when developing individual management approaches, yet have different targets and outcomes. The process to achieve improved management however, will be the same in both cases – planning, doing, checking and acting.
A number of basic principles should form the underpinning of any approaches to farm management. Shillito (1995) details 9 principles for integrated management – unity of purpose; continuous improvement of the system; design; feedback; benchmarking; encouragement of innovation; ownership of the system; removing barriers to unification and provision of criteria for success to be measured. Such features are entirely compatible with both QA and EMS approaches.
Determining what indicators should be used to determine sustainability is a process that has occupied much time in Australia (see Alexandra et. al., 1998). Internationally, a recently released draft report (CERES, 1999) provides some direction at an international level for businesses to measure their progress towards sustainability. However, when implementing an EMS, the indicators used should also reflect the particular targets for that business. Thus any adoption of recommended indicators must be flexible enough to meet the needs of particular management regime imposed. Provision of a suite of suggested indicators that suit the requirements of regulators, consumers and retailers to demonstrate environmental management would again provide direction to farmers wishing to adopt EMS approaches.
In today’s terms, demonstration of responsibility is increasingly based on record keeping. Unfortunately, the concepts of traceability and documentation are fairly foreign to many Australian farmers. By contrast, amongst many of our trade competitors, there is a tradition of recording and reporting on farming in order to qualify for various subsidies.
Where records need to be completed to satisfy customer requirements, they should be developed in consultation with both farmers and the end-users. Many industry groups, to ease the introduction of QA documents into general use, have provided pro-forma records manuals. Similar approaches could also work well in EMS adoption. The records to be kept must be relevant, to gain farmer and community acceptance. Such records should be aligned with the types of indicators referred to above, and must be able to be used to provide information for farmers to improve their management practices. For this reason, such data must be easily obtained, inexpensive and robust.
Generally, EMS development and auditing services currently available in Australia are priced well beyond the means of farmers. The prospect of being charged $1000/day for either EMS development or certification auditing is an immediate barrier for farmers considering use of EMS. To reduce the cost of EMS development, agricultural industry groups could develop generic EMS guidelines that could be customised by individual farmers to meet their specific needs. Such guidelines should be developed in consultation with regulatory agencies and retailers/consumers in order to ensure that they will meet all statutory and customer requirements. The approach taken by Sainsbury’s in providing general production protocols to farmers is a good example where assistance to farmers to adopt more systematic approaches can be provided at minimal cost.
Many Australian farmers view the adoption and implementation of EMS as a costly impost on their time, as currently there are few market rewards (perceived or actual) for doing so. In addition, they also believe firmly that if the community wants them to adopt more environmentally friendly practices, then the community should pay to help them do so. A classic example is that of buffer zones to protect people from chemical spray drift. Creation of buffer zones removes farm areas from production. To use land for alternative enterprises can also lower productivity, or at least reduce it for some time. Either option can mean a loss of income for farmers. The possibility of land rate reductions to assist in making such choices was discussed above. Another option is to take a percentage of the rates charged on urban dwellers and use that money to directly compensate farmers for their loss of production.
The Murray Darling Basin Commission has released a document that examines the potential for cost sharing for on-ground works to prevent environmental degradation (MDBC, 1996). The concepts of both “user pays” and “beneficiary compensates” are explored. Here the user would be the farmer, the beneficiary is obviously anyone who either eats or expects that farmers will manage environmental resources well. The right combination of these concepts is required. Binning and Young (1997) provide a useful outline to determine where responsibilities, and thus costs and benefits, might lie for resource management.
With cost sharing also comes responsibility. Just as shareholders expect a dividend from their share holdings, so too may community members expect to see some return for their tax dollars being spent in supporting farmers in their resource management. Traditionally farmers have expressed their desire to be left alone to farm their land (the right to farm movements). How willing are farmers to provide accountability for the their management practices? Use of a verified EMS can provide farmers a vehicle to demonstrate their claims of environmental management.
Currently, National Heritage Trust funding is provided to assist in dealing environmental issues (Anon, d, 1998). Such works have been funded by the sale of public assets. How long can such funding continue?Instead, should Australia be looking at the imposition of ‘environmental taxes’ in a similar way to the Medicare levy? Environmental costs must eventually be factored into the marketplace (Goldney and Bauer, 1998) if management of the environment is to be placed on a sustainable footing.
Many of the examples of industrial adoption of EMS have shown that whilst the adoption was initially in order to meet legislative requirements or attempt to capture market advantages, the real benefit was realised from significant savings in production costs (Sheldon and Yoxon, 1999).
Similar benefits can be realised in the agricultural context. In many cases, as farmers have begun to adopt more strategic, long-term environment and business management planning, they have realised the benefits beyond merely providing market compliance, and have achieved savings in production costs. For example, many of the farmers who have begun to use one or other of the various crop checks systems to improve yields have seen marked benefits in water use efficiency. As irrigation water now has to be paid for, efficiency gains equate not only to improved yields, but also direct savings in water use charges, reduced accessions to groundwater and reduced environmental impacts. The same story has been repeated for chemical use efficiency, with one farmer advising that the adoption of integrated pest management procedures resulted in savings of $10,000 per year, as well as fewer neighbour complaints about pesticide drift. The benefits of EMS adoption must be presented to farmers, regulators and consumers alike, through positive “good-news” stories, in the media and through retail outlets.
Chasing the top end of the market is risky in that markets are often fickle and frequently small. Meeting market demands might be a ‘spin-off’ benefit, but the real benefits for farmers using an EMS is that they develop truly robust management systems that allow the user to have more control over their production processes. For this reason, it is often better to implement better management practices in order to become a more efficient business than gain a particular niche market. Improved environmental management will reduce business risks as well as ensuring a sustainable resource base on which to continue farming.
Many banks and financial institutions are starting to request that environmental management plans be submitted along with business management plans. These data often form part of the required ‘non-financial’ disclosures upon which financial institutions base their analyses of business risk associated with either lending money to or insuring a business (Dibley, 1999). The development of such plans, as part of an EMS can provide ‘proof’ that environmental matters are being addressed as a matter of course. Again, publicising the requirement for environmental data as part of a loan application will reinforce the use that can be made of an EMS by farmers.
Finally, to follow the life cycle analysis, using proactive environmental management approaches should mean that less of a farm’s income goes to correct or redressing environmental problems created through poor management. In the future, it is possible that the prices paid for land will not only be set by the production potential of that land, but also its intrinsic environmental value and whether there is the need for environmental remediation.
The overall education level of farmers is gradually rising (CSIRO, 1998), but the baseline education level has been low in the past. More than 50% of farmers in Australia are yet to adopt improved environmental practices (CSIRO, 1998). As farmers start to engage in more tertiary education, the potential exists for them to participate in education in both sustainable resource management and the use of management systems.
Promoting communication is also an issue. Goldney and Bauer (1998) point out that there is a significant amount of knowledge held by farmers who already operate at best practice levels. However, within the Australian community, such knowledge is often not, or only poorly, valued, and the information exchange to disseminate such knowledge is poor. Assistance with disseminating environmental management expertise held by farmers can be achieved in many ways. Again, retail outlets can assist in drawing such matters to the attention of both farmers and consumers.
In the US, one supermarket retailer, Wegmans, has embarked on a joint education campaign for its produce suppliers and consumers alike. Wegmans preferentially source produce from farmers that utilise integrated pest management (IPM) production methods. Together with Cornell University, Wegmans have developed a suite of management practice guidelines for their growers, and regularly provide farmers with information to assist them with IPM practices. But they don’t stop there. Consumers are provided with information about the program through in-store radio broadcasts and with written material in weekly “advertorials” in local newspapers. IPM-grown produce is clearly labelled, with a small panel explaining what IPM means in terms of food and environmental safety (J. Kovak, Cornell University, pers. comm, 1997). The program has grown to include over 40 types of produce (US EPA, 1998) and is being extended to cover other environmental issues such as water and soil management. Such collaborative programs could work equally well in Australia, and both growers and consumers can be exposed to information that they might otherwise not receive (or value).
Farmers, like everyone else, like the “feel-good” factor. They appreciate recognition for work they do, but frequently bear the brunt of community concerns about environmental management. Existence values (see MDBC, 1996) are increasingly expressed by many people. Such values are the belief that certain areas of land (whether wilderness, conservation areas or similar) exist, and are important national estate. In some cases, such areas may be present on farmland. Therefore, the potential exists for farmers to be seen as stewards of such areas, provided they demonstrate responsible management. Recognition, and encouragement, of such roles for farmers from the community can be a powerful incentive for farmers to adopt more proactive management of such areas. The IBIS, Landcare, Rivercare and Banksia awards presented in Australia are examples of such public acclaim programs for farmers and other resource managers, but such awards receive comparatively little media attention in the national media.
The US EPA recently published a number of case studies where food companies (either processors or first line receivers of farm produce) have worked with their suppliers to achieve greater environmental stewardship (US EPA, 1998). In some cases price premiums were paid, but in most cases, it was the provision of support (either education of growers and/or consumers, advice, ‘hardware’ such as tillage equipment or funding to make changes in the form of low interest/no-interest loans) that enabled farmers to alter their practices. These changes were not without “costs” for farmers however, because many of the companies providing such support then required more formalised record keeping and took a greater role in determining management practices on-farm.
In the UK, Sainsbury’s have not only adopted their own environmental management system, but now also require their farm produce suppliers to follow certain production protocols, in an effort to meet customer expectations of environmental stewardship (as assessed by regular surveys). Integrated crop management protocols are now in place for 97% of UK, and 48.5% of international, fresh produce crop types. Sainsburys plan to have all their producers following verified schemes by 2001. Sainsbury’s have also initiated programs with the British Farming Wildlife Advisory Group to encourage suppliers to manage biodiversity on farms and to address wildlife conservation issues. Farmers are supplied with a Farm Biodiversity Action Plan, which build into the UK Biodiversity Action Plan. Over 125 Sainsbury’s suppliers have begun to develop new habitat areas on farm as a result of the program (Sainsbury’s, 1998).
The growth of assured supplier programs currently underway in Australia (to ensure both quality and consistency of produce supplied) is yet another area that could be exploited to encourage the adoption of EMS approaches designed to redress environmental issues. Copeman (1998) calls for joint initiatives between food growers, processors and consumers, with support from government and industry as a strategy to reduce pesticide use and risk. Similar approaches to environmental management though the use of EMS should assist in improved resource management.
Use of an EMS can address many environmental concerns currently being expressed by governments, regulatory bodies, communities, and consumers. However, to ensure that goods produced by such systems are differentiated in the marketplace, they must be clearly labelled in order to allow consumers to distinguish and preferentially purchase such goods. In Australia, supermarkets and other retail outlets have been slow to pick up on this area.
Eco-labelling schemes have been applied to a variety of products (for example, canned fish, dishwashing detergent and so on), yet similar product differentiation does not occur to any large extent for fresh or processed agricultural products. The exception is for organic products. However, in some cases the claim to be organic may not backed up by any of the certification schemes currently available and thus, consumers cannot verify the claim to be “organic. This lax approach to organic labelling is creating confusion for consumers, and credibility problems for the product.
Labels must be provided only for goods that have been produce in sustainable ways, and only for goods that can verify production practices. The record keeping procedures required under ISO 14001 assist in meeting such requirements. Labels must also be backed up by adequate consumers and supplier education to be meaningful (as demonstrated by the Wegmans example above).
Credible verification and traceback programs must back up eco-labels. Copeman (pers. comm., 1999) notes unverified “green” claims are no longer convincing. Further, self-regulation of such claims often holds very little weight, with consumers voicing a growing desire for third party verification of any claims made. Auditing therefore seems not to be an optional extra when using EMS approaches purely as a marketing ploy, but a necessity. The Cotton Best Management Practices referred to above are now being developed to allow for independent verification (ie. audits) of compliance with the practices (Slack-Smith, 1999), to circumvent the suspicion associated with any “in-house” checks.
In the same way that AQIS is responsible for approval to market Australian organic produce with recognisable “organic” labelling overseas, an independent body, such as Standards Australia should be able to oversee labelling of “sustainable” produce within domestic markets. A similar approach to that used by the Heart Foundation (for example a “green” tick of approval) could be used to differentiate sustainable agricultural products. The production methods used for such commodities would need to be verified, and the use of a recognised approach to EMS, such as ISO 14000, backed up with the use of sustainability indicators and parameters as outlined above should be the basis for such production systems.
Much of the resource base we have used to produce food in this country is seriously degraded, and we are facing a loss of productive areas in many regions of Australia. Now is the time for all sectors of the agrifood industry to address environmental issues collaboratively.
Whilst the use of marketing advantages can initially be used as a “hook” to draw farmers into using more systematic and proactive management practices, the need for robust systems that deliver production efficiencies and improved decision making (ie that provide direct benefit to farmers) is pressing. A systems approach when dealing with land degradation process is far more likely to succeed the single issues ‘crisis’ management techniques, because critical information is supplied in a systematic way to address specific issues of concern (Goldney and Bauer, 1998). Thus, in order to move towards more sustainable production, Australian farmers need to be encouraged to adopt more systematic approaches to managing their farms.
Ultimately, if society as a whole expects farmers not only to redress environmental degradation, but to provide community amenity as well as growing food, then either food prices will need to rise to provide the resources for this management or cost sharing arrangements must become more common. It is time for society, and the agrifood industry, to put its money where its mouth is.
Food safety is no longer a negotiable item in Australia and worldwide – we can only hope that within the very near future environmentally sound production methods will be considered in the same way. Environmental management systems provide a credible means for improving environmental performance whilst addressing farm profitability and management. However, significant hurdles must be removed to provide practical schemes that farmers will want to adopt.