When it comes to deciding what to cook for dinner, the conscious consumer is wanting to make more sustainable and ethical choices.
Learning the carbon or water footprint of your standard pantry items is difficult because there are so many variables and providing this information from farm to plate is complex.
So in order to make these values-based decisions, consumers need confidence that products are as ‘clean and green’ as they say they are.
As pressure has mounted on industries to respond, regulators and industry bodies are looking at ways to standardise environmental best practice in the agrifood sector. Australia’s red meat industry, for example, has set an ambitious target to be carbon neutral by 2030.
But ways to cost-effectively demonstrate progress towards environmental targets remains a huge challenge for Australia’s agrifood industry.
Capturing accurate data across a complex value chain
According to CSIRO researchers, an integrated system that automates the Australian agrifood industry’s environmental compliance, could be a future solution. It takes the idea of a carbon calculator to another level by integrating it with on-farm solutions to gather data across a complex value chain.
Take Australia’s largest agricultural business and export, beef, for example. Australia has some of the best environmental and welfare credentials when it comes to beef production, but a challenge to date has been quantitatively and cost-effectively demonstrating that across the value chain.
As CSIRO research group leader Rieks Van Klinken points out, there are a lot of aspects to consider in how beef is produced.
“We need to consider whether it’s rangeland-fed, grass-fed or intensive-fed beef, as well whether the cattle have been moved across the country and how far,” Dr Van Klinken says.
“There’s also the question of the various energy requirements that go into slaughter and processing.”
As the amount of water or energy that goes into the production of beef can’t be measured in the product in the same way that pests or disease might be, the data needs to be collected along the way.
“The question is: can we come up with an integrated and automated data system that can be applied across the whole value chain that isn’t onerous to business?” Dr Van Klinken says.
The first aspect of CSIRO research is focusing on screening Australia’s agricultural export products for likely sustainability requirements now and in future.
Meeting overseas market and trade shifts
CSIRO scientist, Maartje Sevenster, says we’re already seeing strict requirements regarding greenhouse gas emissions for Australian canola exported to Europe for use in biofuel production.
“Australia needs to regularly demonstrate how its canola production meets these trade requirements,” Dr Sevenster says.
But the costs of demonstrating compliance, for canola and other agrifood products, are amongst some of the highest in the world.
Dr Sevenster says there is an exciting prospect to use on-farm sensors to automate the collection of data on energy and water use, and in doing so, give confidence to regulators that compliance is being met.
“It means moving farmers away from manually typing numbers into a spreadsheet to a system where data for a whole farm, processing plant or storage facility can be achieved with one click – or perhaps fully autonomised,” she says.
“On-farm sensors can increasingly generate data on energy and water use, automating the process to help farmers’ demonstrate their environmental credentials up and down the supply chain.”
New data tools will likely drive adoption of more environmentally sustainable farm practices in the industry more broadly too.
“There will be more in it for businesses if they can more easily prove their environmental credentials and gain a return on that investment,” Dr Sevenster says.
Opening up new high-value markets for Australian agrifood exports
Aside from the global environmental and social benefits, a key driver behind the research is opening up more high-value markets, like Europe, for Australia’s agrifood sector.
It’s estimated that $10 billion in additional export earnings could be made in further demonstrating the high quality, safety and environmental credentials of Australian grown food to markets willing to pay a premium for those qualities.
“Australia exports 70 per cent of what it produces, so if we can get more value for that by better demonstrating environmental and other credentials it’s going to be significant for farmers and our economy as a whole,” Dr Van Klinken says.
Dr Van Klinken and team’s research and development is part of a ‘market access’ work package being developed for CSIRO’s Trusted Agrifood Exports Mission.
The work will also involve designing and testing new evidence-based protocols and standards relating to agrifood sustainability, as well as a whole host of other credentials such as pests and disease, and food safety standards that can form a barrier to trade.
Since 2020, geopolitical shifts and the COVID-19 pandemic have further emphasised the pre-existing need for Australia to diversify the markets we export our agrifood products to.
“Different overseas markets have vastly different requirements, that are ever changing, so if there’s a way to simplify compliance to these, it will open access to a whole suite of new markets for Australian agrifood,” Dr Van Klinken says.