Knowledge for better food systems

Australian Conservation Foundation: Corey Watts

 It seems that nobody has really a good grasp on agriculture’s role in climate change policy, and the proposed new emissions trading scheme in particular. The previous Australian Government was, it’s fair to say, recalcitrant on the whole question of climate change; refusing to ratify the Kyoto Protocol or establish “long, loud and legal” national framework to tackle Australia’s emissions, or do much beyond the rhetorical. (Oh, they seemed happy enough to use global warming as an argument for boosting Australia’s uranium exports and embarking on a path towards nuclear power.) Despite a rather lacklustre position in the past, key businesses and farm lobby groups have, to their credit, recently called for action. However, there is still a good deal of confusion in the farming community about what climate change might mean for rural Australia." 

Who are you and where are you based?

I am a policy specialist and campaigner, based at the Australian Conservation Foundation and working mainly on agri-environmental issues. I live in ACF's headquarters – the 60L Green Building - an eco-designed commercial office building - in Carlton, near Melbourne's central business district.

 What kind of organisation are you (eg. academic, business, NGO etc)?

ACF is a membership-based NGO focused on advocacy and policy analysis for a sustainable society. Based on research, consultation, education and partnerships we work with diverse groups around Australia, including governments, Indigenous communities, industry groups, progressive businesses, farmers, the scientific community, and other environmental groups.

What is your broad area of expertise?

ACF has a wide range of campaigns and programmes, from anti-nuclear, to marine conservation and sustainable consumption. All of our campaigners are professionals who ensure our work is grounded in good science. Our 'flagship' areas are: climate change, water and river health, and the future of Northern Australia. Our GreenHome programme helps people to help the environment by making simple changes to the way they live. My personal areas of expertise include: agriculture, food & the environment; conservation on farms; sustainable rural development; and climate change & rural Australia.  “Partly as a consequence of previous federal policy, I would say that our understanding of the climate-food-agriculture nexus and related policy measures are still rather unsophisticated. Certainly, we rarely see the calibre of work you, DEFRA, etc. have produced. Indeed, we’re often forced to rely on European studies!"

Give a range of the projects you are you currently working on.

We are working with CSIRO Emerging Science to finish a proposal to expand the Australian Government's new stewardship programme and pay landholders for the delivery of environmental services. We'll also be looking at ways to link conservation, climate change and drought policy. (Much of Australia is currently in the worst drought on record.) We have just embarked on The Future Food & Farm Project (3FP) which aims to inspire a step-change towards sustainable food & farming systems in the state of Victoria and across Australia. A key product of 3FP will be a detailed proposal for a sustainability strategy for the agri-food sector. 3FP is at an early stage of development. At this stage, we're bringing together state government agencies, farmers, firms and others to join our reference group. ACF is part of the Agricultural Alliance for Climate Change , which brings together farmers, agribusinesses, environmental and other community groups to focus on challenges and solutions for rural Australia in a changing climate. ACF is looking at what governments can best do to enable Australian agriculture to reduce its greenhouse pollution and capitalise on opportunities in a low-carbon economy. For some years now, we've been working with Foster's Group Ltd - one of the world's largest wine producers - to develop conservation strategies for their vineyards. We're now working to design a strategy for sustainable wine production, i.e. across the whole supply chain.

What aspect of your work with relevance to the food-climate change issue would you like to feature?

The Future Food & Farming Project. People might also be interested in GreenHome, our Climate Change section and our Consumption Atlas too.

What do you see as the big questions for the food climate research community at the moment?

For various reasons, Australian research into the food & climate nexus seems to lag behind the UK and other developed countries:
  • We still need to get a better handle on the greenhouse intensity of different aspects of the food supply chain, and develop a package of policy options for governments and industry.
  • We need to develop really strong, well-researched social marketing programmes focused on changing food consumption patterns, and we need a good information base on which to do this.
  • The whole 'food miles' area is wide open for exploration in Australia. Discussion and debate is just getting started and, at the moment, is really taking place in the dark, with very little Australia-specific information to go on.
  • Australia exports around four-fifths of the food it produces. We need to get a good handle on how climate change will affect our export markets, and, what is more, how oil depletion and climate policy might interact.
  • Much research into climate change and food production in Australia seems focused on one or two factors (e.g. CO2 and crop productivity). There doesn't seem to be much effort to explore how climate change might affect whole production systems and which systems are better equipped to cope.
  • There is precious little work on organic or ecological farming systems in Australia.

Is there any expertise you feel you lack and would you welcome help/collaboration with others?

Absolutely! I would welcome input and assistance from researchers and advocates in the agri-environmental arena. Happy to look at collaboration where appropriate too and forge better links with groups overseas. In particular, I would welcome help in the following areas:
  • Environmental services in farming landscapes
  • Agriculture and food industry in climate change policy
  • Strategic approaches to agri-environmental policy
  • Agroecology and industrial ecology (of wine production in particular)

What are the milestones we might look out for?

The Future Food & Farming Project will evolve through three stages over 2008:
  • A paper that discusses policy directions, options and readiness with regards to the sustainability of Victoria's agri-food sector (expected in July);
  • A summit of stakeholders and opinion leaders to discuss and the issues and options raised in the paper (August); and
  • A detailed sustainability strategy for Victoria's agri-food sector, including policy proposals, milestones, roles and responsibilities for government, industry and consumers.

 What are the insights / skills / data (big or small) you can offer to the rest of the research world on food and climate change?

ACF is fairly well connected through the environmental, research, farming and public policy communities in Australia. We can offer to facilitate new relationships and to keep folks abreast of developments. “Climate change is fast becoming one of the biggest headline issues in this country for a variety of reasons: We’re in the middle of the worst drought since Federation (1901) and possibly the worst on record. To some extent this is natural and normal – Australia is “a land of droughts and flooding rains” as the song goes – but climatologists are saying there is evidence of human handiwork in this one.”

Contact details

Corey Watts, Rural Landscapes Coordinator
Australian Conservation Foundation
Floor 1, 60 Leicester Street, CARLTON VIC 3053, Australia Tel: 03 9345 1123
Fax: 03 9345 1166