The word ‘sustainability’ seems to crop up in just about every second article on agriculture, usually referencing the environment. But as Federated Farmers Vice-President Karen Williams said at the Waikato Federated Farmer’s AGM, true sustainability must also encompass social and economic wellbeing.
Karen enthusiastically described a future Ag-sector where happy farmers get out of bed in the morning because they are producing food and fibre for discerning consumers who value what they do. They aren’t run down in the media, nor ostracized by members of their communities. These farmers have embraced their environmental challenges, having worked hard over the years to develop a profitable farming system with low impacts on soil, water and the atmosphere, and their farms have areas with high biodiversity values alongside the highly productive farmland.
They produce healthy, nutrient rich food that wards off the ill effects of disease from poor nutrition and give people satisfying taste experiences. They produce fibres that keep people warm or cool depending on the season and this splendour extends into people’s homes where wool provides luxurious and fire-resistant comfort. They have no problem attracting bright, motivated, and long-term staff because pay rates and business opportunities are good, and the culture is supportive and encouraging. Due to a better work/life balance, previous issues with health, safety and wellbeing on the farm have largely disappeared.
To achieve that on-farm panacea, Karen said there needed to be a better understanding of what sustainability really means. It’s most simply defined as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs’ and has its origins in the 1980s to address wide-ranging issues confronting the globe.
“Being truly sustainable, or providing for current and future generations, requires giving effect to social, economic and environmental wellbeings. If we don’t have strength in all three of these pillars, we don’t have a sustainable system,” she said.
This can be likened to a three-legged stool. For a family, a business, a community or a nation, if any of these legs are not strong, the stool will topple.
“We see this play out in some environmental organisations where their myopic focus on the environment (or a selective part of the environment) is often at the expense of jobs and the wellbeing of families and communities.
“In some businesses we see a dogged focus on the financials at the expense of everything else, resulting in poor health, failed relationships, or poor environmental outcomes. And a sole focus on ensuring everyone is relaxed and happy all the time, doesn’t get the crops harvested, the cows milked, or help pay the mortgage.”
Applying this trifecta of sustainable thinking to our farming businesses enables us to identify challenges, risks, and opportunities, and combat or ‘realise’ them with strategies, plans and actions, Karen said.
The financial sustainability leg of the stool is probably well understood. But what about social sustainability? Karen said farmers looking to hone their social outcomes might consider aspects such as asking whether staff feel happy and valued in their jobs; what farm succession looks like; putting value on their own wellbeing and that of their families; and considering whether they could mentor a local young farmer or sponsor them into an education in agriculture.
For the third leg of the stool, the environment, Karen challenged farmers to think about whether the place we farm in is environmentally sustainable. She suggested pondering questions such as; what things would I like to improve or protect on my farm? Are there some greater positive impacts if I work with my neighbours or join a community catchment group? What good management practices could I adopt that would reduce my expenses and improve the environment? Can I host non-farming people on my farm and show them how I’m producing food and caring for the environment?
The so-called ‘triple bottom line’ is well advanced in the corporate world, and we’re now seeing new banking products for farming businesses such as ‘sustainability linked loans’ which connect the cost of debt to desired environmental, social and governance outcomes.
“But also don’t lose sight of the consumer in all this,” Karen said. “The consumer ultimately decides what they want to eat, how much they want to pay for it, and what social and environmental credentials they want attached to it.”
Looking to the future Karen said “as farmers we must listen to our consumer’s preferences as we navigate our future opportunities, but we must also be forthright in owning the narrative on the good quality food we produce, our low environmental impact, and the wellbeing of staff and livestock. If we don’t, others who do not hold farming in high regard will do so.
“Our future success lies in us telling our farming story and basing it around all three of the sustainability principles.”