Supporting farming as an environmental act

How do we capture and value the public good that comes from farmers investing in a healthy environment?

Dr Jacqueline Williams from the University of New England’s Australian Centre for Agriculture and Law (AgLaw) wants to know, and so does the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which has awarded Dr Williams an eight-week fellowship to explore the question.

The OECD’s Co-operative Research Programme Fellowships are awarded annually to support international researchers who can inform policy around use of natural resources.

With the €5165 ($7500) fellowship, Dr Williams will travel to Penn State University in the United States, where she will be hosted by Ted Alter, Professor of Agricultural, Environmental and Regional Economics. While staying at Penn State, she will study two policy instruments that might aid the development of an sustainable agriculture standard in Australia.

“Australian farmers invest more than $3 billion a year in natural resource management, but as far as policy is concerned that investment is effectively invisible,” Dr Williams said.

“Why is it so hard to have a standards system for acknowledging work that produces effective on-farm sustainability?”

“The key is government recognition – that is what gives a standard its power.”

“Farmers would say they are ready for, and want, markets for sustainability indicators like carbon and biodiversity. There is a demand for clean, green products produced within sustainable agricultural systems, but currently the appropriate governance structures for recognition, validation and consequently trade are lacking.”

In the USA, Dr Williams will look at two policies, the National Sustainable Agriculture Standard and the Framework to Evaluate the Sustainability of Agricultural Production Systems, to assess their effectiveness and suitability for building an Australian standard.

She hopes that her enquiry will lead to domestic policy that supports farmers who, of their own volition, have moved to practices with less environmental impact, but who have not been acknowledged for their work.

“A whole lot of farmers manage their farms sustainably, they are almost organic, but not quite, and yet they are delivering significant ecosystem services that are of public good” she said.

“Their methods are not recognised by any sustainable agriculture certification system, and not rewarded by the conventional high-input, high-output system, so they fall through the cracks. And yet these are the sort of farmers that society insists that it wants.”

Dr Williams will travel to the US in October. Her report on her findings will be published by Springer as one contributing chapter in her forthcoming book titled  ‘Natural Resource Governance in the Antipodes: The Australian Experience’ in 2018.

IMAGE: Dr Jacqueline Williams, Senior Researcher, Australian Centre for Agriculture and Law