‘I am filled with optimism as a result of this project, just from seeing the diverse stakeholders so excited and invested in the process.’

That’s Climateworks’ Senior Research Manager Dr Romy Zyngier reflecting on a three-week consultation with some thirty industry and sector representatives discussing the development of food and land in Australia.

The six workshops organised by the Land Use Futures team, delivered in collaboration with Collabforge and Deakin University, in August and September 2020, brought together a remarkably varied cohort, drawn from conservation, agriculture, research, nutrition, finance, retail and manufacturing and carbon markets to develop a collective vision for the year 2050 that illustrates a sustainable food and land use system for Australia.

‘It was a really interactive, activity-based process,’ Romy says. ‘You know, lots of virtual post-it notes and all that kind of jazz. The first question was, What does a good future look like to you – from your perspective, from whatever industry you’re coming from? We got people talking about what was important to them, and then we moved into a discussion of what mattered when they thought about the whole system. The idea was to break down siloed thinking, and to get people considering the complexities, the pros and cons of certain decisions for a meaningful transformation of the Australian food and land use system as a whole.’

The degree of convergence reached during the ‘Future Series: Transforming the Food and Land Use System’ events still surprises her. Resilience and diversity in regional communities; efficient land management; healthy food and healthy communities; diverse and functional natural systems: they all mattered to participants, irrespective of their backgrounds.

In general, the stakeholders sought better ways to measure natural capital, more evidence about how sustainable practices impacted on agriculture, greater innovation and research; the diversification of land use, and the adoption of circular economic principles to eliminate waste. They emphasised the need for drivers relating to private sector investment, tax legislation and incentives, and investor and consumer demand.

Romy also notes a widespread interest among participants in how Indigenous knowledge and practices might facilitate more sustainable practices.

‘Of course,’ she says, ‘how we get to that good future is the really interesting part – and that was where some divergences started to appear.’

Some participants saw natural capital and carbon markets as the vehicle to the vision they wanted; others were more focused on how the market needed to be constrained and complemented through policies, rules and regulations to deliver specific identified changes.

They debated who should pay for the required changes. Governments? Farmers? Investors? Consumers? Who should take the lead? Was the required transformation the responsibility of industry, government, particular institutions or the government? Was policy more important or did the future depend on cultural change? Should production be intensified or should the focus be on finding ways to produce that bring nature back onto farms? Should it be oriented to locals or serve an international market? Is increasing efficiency a way to improve resilience or the opposite? How, precisely, would and should agriculture evolve?

All of these questions were discussed.

‘It was an organic process,’ says Romy, ‘because of the diversity within the group, people who might not necessarily have much to do with each other. We had to leave space for whatever would happen.’

What impressed her most was the participants’ self-awareness, their determination not to be swayed into a fake consensus.

‘They were quite concerned,’ she says, ‘that the level of agreement that they’d reached might be the result of groupthink. But they eventually concluded that there really was a convergence on what a good future looks like. Yes, there are some divergences on how we get there, but none of them seem to fatally conflict, with the participants recognising that there will inevitably be tradeoffs.’

The process has confirmed Romy’s long-held conviction that dismissal of climate change as only interesting the urban elite entirely missed the real dynamic of life on the land.

‘These questions have a huge impact on the lives of people in rural communities. People’s livelihoods, community health, mental health, wellbeing: all of those are so dependent on climatic variables in rural areas. If you don’t have enough rain, you have to pay more for water or your crops won’t grow or you won’t be able to feed your cattle or you won’t even be able to run cattle on your property anymore. The impact of global warming is much more of an everyday life experience for people who live in rural communities. And one of the things that I think was really inspiring from these workshops was the call for both urban and rural people to work together on climate change issues and for a good future.’

In a separate exercise, the stakeholders tried to characterise the three decades of change leading up to 2050.

‘Each participant generated their own short summary caption of what they thought each decade would look like as land and food use changed. Each person was thinking individually but they were doing that individual thinking at the very end of the workshops, when they’d already been through all that group discussion. And then we used a qualitative method of thematic coding to understand the major themes coming out of each decade.’

That process drilled down on the responses and identified that most participants saw the period between 2020 and 2030 as focussed on establishing national policies on food and nutrition, a carbon mandate and a healthy and sustainable food system, the years between 2030 and 2040 centred on shifting mindsets about land management, the integration of indigenous knowledge and consumer demands, and the final decade a time of farmer resilience, with farmers establishing diversified incomes through natural capital management and carbon farming, indigenous food industries, cultural heritage and eco-tourism, and the supply of renewable energy.

Romy enthuses about the methodology developed for the project.

‘We’ve been doing significant research into the literature and we’re really leading the way in an online co-creation collaboration space. no-one else is doing this – it’s really cutting edge.’

In the wake of the interactive sessions, the team plans to develop three or four narratives about ways to achieve sustainable food and land use vision that the participants co-created. They’ll do that by working on the information from the workshops but they’ll also consult with the program Stakeholder Reference Panel.  From there, they’ll construct a research plan to further investigate these pathways.

Romy herself came to the project from an urban background (‘Melbourne born and bred’), having studied botany and then transitioned into soil science.

‘Soil is fascinating because it’s so complex. You can be a soil chemist, you can be a soil physicist, you can be a soil biologist, and so the interconnection and interplay between all of those elements is just super exciting. I’m really passionate about human and planetary health and sustainability – and soil is the foundation for all plant life. That’s why being fascinated by soil health led me into agriculture.’

Her PhD examined carbon sequestration in agricultural land, looking at the different innovations that farming systems can use to sequester emissions while promoting productivity, cutting costs and reducing fertiliser and water use.

All those questions are, of course, front and central in the current project.

‘Yes, I’m heavily invested personally,’ she laughs. ‘But the bottom line for me is if you don’t have good soil, you don’t have good food – and you don’t have a good future. That’s kind of my personal tagline, I suppose.’