Sustainable future

Dr Jim Radford, from the College of Science, Health and Engineering, explains what a sustainable environment looks like and what we must do to get there

By Dr Giselle Roberts

COVID-19 has exposed us to the fact that our global food system is sitting on a knife’s edge. In recent months, in many parts of the world, lockdowns saw food production and provision grind to a halt. Panic buying stripped supermarket shelves bare. Prices skyrocketed and food supply-chains struggled to keep up with a surge in demand.

And while Dr Jim Radford is clear that, as far as food security is concerned, Australia has been in a strong position during the crisis – most of the fresh food we eat is produced here, including meat and vegetables, dairy and cereals – he acknowledges that COVID-19 has been a wake-up call. “It has shortened the distance between paddock to plate in a psychological sense,” Radford says. “COVID-19 and the bushfire crisis have shown that the fundamental environmental systems we depend on can be disrupted so easily, and when they are, it poses a threat to our way of life.”

Radford understands the intricate links between human society, the environment and food production. A Principal Research Fellow in the Research Centre for Future Landscapes, he is an expert at finding solutions that enhance environmental and social sustainability. After completing a PhD on endangered bird, the white-browed treecreeper, Radford worked in the non-for-profit conservation sector for nine years before joining La Trobe in 2016. Late last year, he received funding from the National Landcare Program for a project that aims to improve environmental performance and climate resilience among agricultural producers.

If there was ever a time when we needed experts like Radford, it is now. Around 58% of Australian land is managed by farmers; land that is often nutrient-poor and drought-ridden. Adopting smart, sustainable farming practices that work in tandem with our ecosystems is not just an optional extra, it is essential. Conventional farming, along with high use of pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers, often drives the land too hard. We need practices that improve water retention and soil quality, reduce the use of chemicals, promote biodiversity and keep our farms viable for a sustainable future.

Radford says that a shift to sustainable farming can be thought of as a gradient. “At one end, some farmers might decide to reduce their fertiliser load or their use of chemicals,” he explains. “Others might add organic compost, use cover crops to fix nitrogen, or pioneer crops to penetrate the soil to increase water infiltration. At the other end are fully organic farmers or holistic grazing managers, who rotate stock daily through very small paddocks, and are returning exotic pastures to perennial native grasses.”

“What we are seeing is that those who work with nature find there is less need for chemicals,” he says. “For example, sheep grazing in a healthy chemical-free environment on native pastures tend to have minimal disease loads, further reducing the need for drenching and other chemicals.”

Radford acknowledges that smart farming is a long-term investment. “Case studies are often held up as shining lights of sustainable farming, demonstrating that it’s profitable and there are huge benefits for the environment,” explains Radford. “All that may be true, but the payoff may take three, five or even ten years. In the meantime, there is a drop in production and income. So we have farmers who might be willing to try out new approaches, but just can’t afford to take their foot off the peddle for two seasons to make that transition.”

Bridging schemes or incentives are needed. But Radford is also trying to shift the mindset: to turn sustainable approaches into natural capital. He and his team will soon work with 50 farmers to integrate the financial performance of the farm, with production performance (the meat, wool, grain or vegetables produced) and environmental performance (the soil, water, pasture, native flora and fauna) using ‘natural capital accounting’.

“We’re not assigning a monetary value to environmental performance,” Radford clarifies. “We are, however, using accounting standards that allow farmers to demonstrate that they are managing their land in a way that is increasing natural capital. Perhaps their soil carbon and ground cover is increasing, or their stocks of native fauna are on the rise. They are producing meat or wool, but they are also maintaining or increasing the natural capital of the land itself.”

Radford explains that farmers can use these assessment measures to show investors, financiers and consumers that they have adopted practices that ensure the long-term viability of their business and the quality of their produce. “In this way, smart farming becomes a business proposition, not an altruistic endeavour,” he says. “If agricultural producers are building and maintaining capital, they are a lower risk for lenders and insurers. By retaining resources on the land, they are also better positioned to weather variations in temperature and rainfall, and the vicissitudes of climate change.”

Radford’s team are also interested in the flow-on benefits to the birds and the bees. “Are we seeing more native birds, lizards and insects in the landscape because of these practices? How are threatened species, or even the common ones, supported by regenerative practices? Have we seen an increase in pollination services? We will be investigating the broader impact of regenerative farming on the environment,” he says. “We hope this is a win-win situation: that we can achieve sustainability and productivity while also maintaining Australia’s natural resources and biodiversity.”

“COVID-19 has brought home the close relationship that human society has with the environment,” Radford adds. “When environments are exploited, when they dysfunction, it can have an unforeseen impact. While that impact has been very direct in the case of COVID-19, it reaffirms that we need to enable nature to flourish in landscapes that are human-dominated and productive. Otherwise, it will hit us hard.”

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Find out more about Dr Radford's research by watching the video below.