JOSHUA GILBERT- Partnerships in Agriculture- the time for mutual collaboration and respect

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 and when they need it. However, 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 asked not only to provide, but also to protect and care for the environment and animals that support the production of food.

Corporations and businesses paved the way for triple bottom line accounting practices, considering social, economic and environmental factors. Now, agricultural corporations and family farmers find themselves at a crossroads, pondering what practical accounting and social metrics should be developed specifically for the agricultural industries. This discussion is brought further to life over the proposed changes to the Native Vegetation Act in NSW, policy which intends to provide farmers with less red tape by allowing self-assessment regarding 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 this matter. Do we as society value 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. This relationship though, is at risk as legitimate concerns from the environmental movement regarding native vegetation fall on deaf ears within farmer associations. Comparable policies within Australia have seen over 300,000 hectares of native vegetation ripped from the landscape in Queensland, despite industry best practice. Australia has also become number three for the worst land clearing rates amongst 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 increasing towards farmers. Recent experience demonstrates to us 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 is a Worimi man from Gloucester in NSW and works in the Indigenous, agricultural and sustainability sectors.

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