Building on a recent Climateworks webinar, our Food, Land and Oceans team is kicking off a new article series. In it, we’ll explore opportunities for Australia to transform our food and land use systems to meet the challenges of climate change, protect biodiversity and improve health and wellbeing.

Global forums are shining a light on food and land use systems and championing their transformation to achieve more sustainable outcomes. The UN Food System Summit in September this year highlighted that global food and land use systems are under pressure. Our current use of food and land will increasingly contribute to, and be affected by, a myriad of challenges. These include population growth, biodiversity loss, soil erosion and climate change. 

The impacts of a changing climate are already being felt. And, as many of us experienced with empty supermarket shelves during the coronavirus pandemic, our food supply chains are vulnerable to disruption. Turning current trends around will require transformational shifts in how we grow our food, care for our lands, and manage our supply chains.

Championing the need for systemic change, the UN Food Systems Summit, held during the UN General Assembly in New York on 23 September 2021, called for action to ‘transform the way the world produces, consumes and thinks about food’. Such a shift has the potential to generate more equitable, sustainable and healthy practices – a large measure of which will directly support the global Sustainable Development Goals. 

Climateworks participated in this global dialogue through a recent webinar. It was an independent pre-summit dialogue which highlighted challenges and opportunities for Australia’s food and land use systems. As an agriculture powerhouse, Australia has both an imperative to act and an opportunity to seize. At the event we heard from Paul Polman, co-chair of the Food and Land Use Coalition, who said: ‘what happens in Australia matters to the world’. 

So what is happening in Australia and why do food systems matter here? Australia faces unique challenges and opportunities in supporting food systems transformation, given our export-oriented agricultural industry (70 per cent by value of product), our highly-variable climate and geography (the most arid inhabited continent) and our agricultural industry profile, with nearly 50 per cent of Australia’s land mass managed by farmers, encompassing over 85,000 farm businesses and supporting over 300,000 jobs. This means our food and land use system intersects with many places and many people. 

Yet, in part due to its scale and complexity in Australia, this system has failed to attract the level of coordination, investment, strategic policy and leadership needed to ‘marry up’ its many intersecting parts. Only by working together can these elements coordinate a sustainable land use future including drought management, ambitious climate change targets and water policy. In addition, the many existing and emerging policy levers, financial tools and agricultural technologies and practices have lacked scale and implementation, even though many farms are innovating in their approaches to sustainable agricultural practice.

Part of the reason for this slow uptake was on show during our webinar. While there is broad consensus on the need to align with more sustainable land and food systems, there are divergences around how to achieve this transformation. They include what role markets, regulation and particular on-farm solutions should play. Our webinar discussion centred around this sizable question – what will it take to transform our food and land use systems? 

In this article series, we’ll unpack a few of these topics, responding to questions asked by audience members. We’ll invite you to share, discuss and get in touch with us to keep the dialogue going. 

First, we will focus on natural capital  – which can be defined as the world’s stocks of natural assets including geology, soil, air, water and all living things. During our webinar, the panel discussed how natural capital is becoming a highly valuable and sought-after asset class in its own right, with a rapid shift among business leaders to focus on nature and nature-risk, meaning attention is turning to how nature is measured, valued, accounted for and disclosed. 

Second, we will explore soil carbon – one aspect of natural capital  – which many audience members asked questions about. 

Third, we will discuss consumer demand and the complexity around its role in food system sustainability. As highlighted during our webinar, some view consumers as demanding ever-lower prices. While others note that consumers are increasingly concerned with product provenance, and are prepared to pay a premium for quality, sustainable and locally produced food. Overall, choices by consumers about what we eat will affect the demand for land to meet consumption of food in Australia and internationally. 

Finally, we will explore how land use strategy (planning, governance, decision-making) will be pivotal in what it takes to accelerate change at the pace and scale we need to achieve sustainable land use, drawing on issues raised in the webinar around how we strategise, plan and make decisions about land use in Australia. 

Stay in touch: the next Food and Land Use systems article in this series will be published in two weeks. We hope you find it informative and useful – please share, discuss and offer your feedback. Visit our Food, Land and Oceans page to read the latest articles

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