Sustainability, carbon and natural capital: Where to begin?

November 7, 2022

How do individual farmers and farm businesses respond to an increasing focus on sustainability in agriculture? Dr Madeline Mitchell shares her thoughts.


Sustainability, carbon and natural capital: Where to begin?

How do individual farmers and farm businesses respond to an increasing focus on sustainability in agriculture? Dr Madeline Mitchell shares her thoughts.

November 7, 2022

A common understanding of sustainability is meeting our own financial, social and environmental needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. Different speakers at the Growing SA Conference explored this in more detail, for example through the industry sustainability frameworks for beef, sheep and grains.

A woman in an orange short smiles at the camera
Dr Madeline Mitchell says sustainability claims need to be backed by credible data.

Understanding and managing carbon and other forms of natural capital is an important part of sustainable farming. Natural capital refers to the renewable and non-renewable natural resources like plants, animals, soils and water that provide benefits ranging from climate regulation to crop pollination and recreation. When we talk about ‘carbon’ we usually mean carbon sequestered in soils and vegetation as well as carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases emitted through farming practices and inputs, like fertiliser and enteric methane emissions from livestock. While carbon credits have attracted attention recently, other benefits of good carbon and natural capital management include access to finance and markets as well as improved production and business resilience.

Farmers are stewards of over half of Australia’s land mass so there’s huge potential for the benefits of implementing sustainable practices to extend beyond the farm gate. For example, many companies in the supply chain have their own environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals and emissions reduction or net zero targets. Given that most of their emissions are outside their direct control, these companies are looking to source lower carbon products and support efforts to further reduce emissions from production. Consumers are also looking to buy sustainably sourced food and fibres that have smaller carbon footprints. The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) has even announced that one of its areas of focus for 2022/23 will be environmental and sustainability claims.

So, the question is, how do we support on-farm practice change and provide credible evidence of outcomes? To begin to answer this question, here’s a schematic of some tools and opportunities that can help us achieve industry outcomes and goals while providing benefits to individual farmers.

A diagram showing opportunities in sustainability, carbon and natural capital

Currently, there is a big focus on addressing climate change and biodiversity loss.. There are opportunities in both formal programs (darker green) and there are potentially equally important informal benefits (lighter green, italics) through insetting (keeping credits to claim a net zero product, managing risk and improving land assets.

Food Agility projects are addressing some of the current barriers to participation in the carbon market or natural capital schemes by developing the tools and technologies we need to measure, monitor and report on sustainability and related carbon and natural capital elements.

  1. Plan and set goals: Identify relevant opportunities that align with production/business goals. Given the growing range of options available, it’s understandable to feel overwhelmed or unsure where to start. Our Sustainable Agribusiness Adaptations project developed a science-based tool to support conversations between NAB bankers and customers and explore options for adapting to climate- and sustainability-related risks and opportunities.
  2. Baseline: Understand current state, for example estimate carbon stocks in soils and vegetation, do natural capital accounts. For large scale producers, the cost of soil carbon baseline can be prohibitive. Our Rangelands Carbon project seeks to overcome this and provide an accurate and affordable way to estimate carbon in Australian Rangelands landscapes.
  3. Implement: Change management practices to increase carbon sequestration in soils/vegetation or reduce emissions.  The Rangelands Carbon project is also aiming to use the newly developed tools and carbon estimates to inform decisions supporting holistic land management and participation in the carbon market.
  4. Measure, verify and report: Collect and share evidence (data) on outcomes to access rewards, like carbon credits, premiums, access to market. The Cool Soil Initiative is a paddock to product partnership bringing together key players in the grains supply chain to work with grain growers to improve soil health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Production, soil and landscape data is used to provide insights back to growers while corporate partners are able to directly invest in the resilience of their supply chains and report on emissions reduction progress.

In summary, while the programs, technologies and tools will continue to evolve, there is a definite trend towards being able to demonstrate environmental and other sustainability credentials to supply chains, consumers, and even financial institutions. These claims will need to be backed by credible data, so it is worth farmers investigating pilot programs and other support to understand their current position and to define their goals and interests in this space.

About the author

Dr Madeline Mitchell is the Science Lead of Food Agility's Carbon & Natural Capital Pillar. She is a plant scientist with broad interests in the social, economic and environmental sustainability of agriculture. While at CSIRO and the University of Cambridge, she collaborated with industry and community partners as well as diverse researchers to understand plant growth and to develop novel food, fuel and fibre crops for the benefit of farmers, consumers and the environment.‍

Dr Mitchell is a member of the Riverine Plains farming system group’s Research Advisory Council and a Director of Cambridge Australia Scholarships as well as Chair of their PhD selection committee. She is an advocate for gender equity, diversity and inclusion in STEM and an alumna of the global leadership initiative, Homeward Bound. Her skills in science communication have been recognised by an ACT Young Tall Poppy Award and selection in the Superstars of STEM program.‍

Dr Madeline Mitchell's presentation at the recent Growing SA conference can be viewed here or you can listen to a podcast here.

The Growing SA Conference was held on Monday 29 and Tuesday 30 August. The following resources and tools were referenced by presenters to help farmers explore opportunities: 

· CSIRO Soil Research – general overview page.

· LOOC-C - to assess options for projects offered under the Federal Government's Emissions Reduction Fund.

· Towards Net Zero CSIRO initiative to develop transition pathways to embed low-emissions technology into Australian industry and agriculture.

· Valuing Sustainability Platform – CSIRO initiative looking to build tools that provide confidence that land management actions lead to positive sustainability outcomes for communities.

· Climate Change in Australia - climate futures tool

· University of Melbourne -GHG emissions measurement tool

Non-project publications

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