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Why farming needs a regional planning approach

tractor on farm
Photo by Charles G on Unsplash

If we are to ensure food security in the face of a climate emergency, we need to plan the management of our regional landscapes the same way we plan city-making, according to agroecologist David Hardwick.

For too long regional landscapes – the places where we grow our food and fibre – have been planned on a single farm level, he tells The Fifth Estate.

Thinking stops at the property fence.

However, rainfall and other aspects of climate happen on a regional scale. And it’s a regional mosaic of trees that ensures rainfall moves across a landscape – a crucial consideration in the current climate of increased heatwaves, unreliable rainfall and longer, more frequent droughts.

Planning has also treated land outside the city boundaries as the “lowest class land”. It’s the “background land” where urban development can expand.

That needs to stop now if we want to keep ourselves fed.

Many food security thinkers are arguing for increased use of technology, genetically-modified crops and industrial inputs as the key to future food supplies. However, Hardwick says ecological agriculture can cope with climate change.

He is partner in a consultancy, Soil Land Food, that works closely with Landcare groups, local authorities, farmers and other land managers, and he is on the board of the Australian Institute of Ecological Agriculture.

Regenerative farming is an “ecological framework” to grow food and fibre – and it can feed the world and look after the planet at the same time. It is also good for regional and rural communities and good for the people doing the farming, he says.

High tech and industrial farming approaches, by contrast, are hard on the planet and impose financial and potentially human health costs on the farmers.

“We need to have a shift in our agricultural approach,” says Hardwick.

Since the IPCC rang the alarm bell on food security earlier this month, there has been substantial media coverage of the idea that swapping to plant-based diets should be part of the solution.

But it’s not that straight forward, says Hardwick. Growing plants for protein, such as broadacre soybeans, can be just as environmentally destructive as intensive animal husbandry.

They key thing that gets lost in the discussion about omnivorous diets versus vegetarian diets is that growing some meat, such as grass-fed animals, in a way that is compatible with regenerative management can be positive for the health of the landscape and for people.

The big problem is how we manage our productive land.

“Industrial agriculture excludes the wider landscape from its management thinking,” Hardwick says.

Land is flattened to enable big machines to work effectively. Trees are removed and whole swathes of country converted to broadacre monocultures of chemical-dependent crops. This is not a healthy landscape, and the result is the loss of the beneficial insects that help control pests, the loss of pollinators and – crucially – an increase in temperatures leading to increased water loss through evaporation.

The same factors that create the urban heat island effect in cities – including loss of trees and other green cover – also apply to farming country.

“At the regional scale, when we lose the forest, the regional climate changes, and it dries out the landscape.”

A strategic approach to agricultural land includes climate in its thinking, Hardwick says.

The bottom line is the IPCC is right to push the alarm button – our current farming and land management planning systems are not coping with the climate emergency or the impacts of industrial agriculture on the environment.

Our farm support systems are also contestable. Hardwick explains that our current financial thinking involves industrial farms being profitable and viable for a couple of good years, and then subsidies to support them for the balance of bad years.

In the drylands, farming is reliant on either rainfall or irrigation. Where farming systems require more water than they provide – which is generally multiple years out of seven – instead of questioning and adjusting the practices around land management and regional land planning, business as usual simply gets propped up by government subsidies.

Hardwick says the market-based paradigm applied to food production is a major part of the problem. With the exception of regulation of private land, governments have left food production to the whims of free market forces.

“The theory is the market will work it out … and let the farmers grow what they want,” says Hardwick. “This works, up until a point where the market fails, and all markets fail eventually.”

He says regenerative approaches mean redesigning and planning for the natural landscape, which can “rehabilitate” the landscape, improve temperatures, restore the water cycle and promote the pollinators.

The challenge is to try and put in place a framework that involves sophisticated land planning at the regional scale. This could include regional targets for tree cover to ensure rainfall and cool crop and grazing lands.

It’s a state policy issue, Hardwick says. But currently the only state planning around regional and rural landscapes is focusing on coal seam gas projects and mining and their potential impacts on groundwater. And even this lens is not taking in a regional view of the landscape and risks to water supplies.

“We need strategic land planning and policy at a regional scale,” he says.

One of the potential visions for the future is taking a leaf out of traditional models from other cultures, such as the village hub surrounded by individual plots of farmland. Instead of our current scenario of individual homes perched on individual farms, people could live together in communities and go out to the surrounding farms to work the land. These kinds of ideas are not even being considered, Hardwick notes.

The climate emergency is a genuine threat. However, emergencies can also be drivers of innovation, he says.

“When you have a major external change imposed on you … you have to adapt and innovate.”

One of the critical needs in addition to regional landscape planning is addressing the ecological literacy gap. Farming is already a complex, highly-skilled occupation and ecological literacy is the added knowledge needed to navigate food production into the future.

There is also a role for the federal government to show some leadership on the landscape planning front, as many of the productive regional landscapes cross state boundaries.

The bucket of funding for Landcare, which successfully promoted wholistic, environmentally restorative thinking and projects, has been getting smaller, Hardwick says.

What’s driving regenerative agriculture now is the grassroots community.

“It’s a citizen-led movement.”

Ultimately, we can feed ourselves into a hotter, drier future but all the biotech in the world won’t deliver from paddock to plate if we don’t ensure proper management of water and soil. Stuff just won’t grow.

There is also a need to address waste of food crops – not only to ensure food security, but because the wasted production is a major source of methane and carbon emissions.

“Modern policy is simplistic; it’s let the market decide. That’s simple but it’s also dumb,” Hardwick says.

“’Technology will save’ us is a head-in-the-sand approach,” he adds.

On a human level, regenerative agriculture and better planning also pay off. The drought has been causing a major rise in mental health issues, including suicides, in rural and regional communities. Hardwick says the regenerative farmers he encounters are generally more positive in their outlook.

“It’s a much more optimistic way to farm … people might be struggling, but most are going forward. It might not be easy, but they have goals for the future.”

Industrial farming is often so focused on the problems of agriculture, he says. Regenerative farming is “about solutions and reframing the lifestyle and the profession in a positive and constructive light”.

“There’s a massive human dimension.”

Food for thought

There’s been a flurry of recent commentary around food security and the implications of the climate emergency.

The University of Sydney held an event last month featuring international expert Professor Halal Elver, CSIRO chief research scientist at Agriculture and Food Mario Herrero, OzHarvest founder Ronni Khan, and FoodLab Sydney founder Dr Alana Mann. You can listen to the podcast and access the reading list for Can we make food security failsafe in the age of climate change? here. Radio National, this week, covered another event held in Canberra, which brought together global experts on climate change and food security. Listen to the story here.

Recent research in the US looked at the impact changing rainfall and weather patterns are having on crop productivity, particularly staple crops. Read the write-up in The Conversation here.

The IPCC’s special report on Climate Change and Land is 1200 pages of uncomfortable facts and predictions. It maps out a picture of problems that used to be considered third world problems now fast becoming issues for first world nations as well.

Humans affect more than 70 per cent of ice-free land and a quarter is already degraded, notes Valérie Masson-Delmotte, co-chair of one of three working groups that contributed to the report.

“Today, 500 million people live in areas that experience desertification,” she told world media.

“People living in already degraded or desertified areas are increasingly negatively affected by climate change,” she says.

That includes Australia. Hardwick notes that parts of our nation’s regional lands are already so badly degraded from poor practices that desertification has occurred.

Soil degradation has a direct impact on the amount of carbon the earth is able to contain, Dr. Masson-Delmotte says.

Co-chair of another Working Group, Jim Skea, highlights the fact that up to 30 per cent of food is lost or wasted.

In future, countries should consider all options to tackle loss and waste, reducing the pressure on land and the resulting greenhouse gas emissions. The options include growing plant-based, or so-called “bio” fuels, says Skea.

“Limiting global warming to 1.5 or even two degrees (Celsius) will involve removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and land has a critical role to play in carbon dioxide removal. Agricultural practices can help build up carbon in soils, but it could also mean using more bio-energy with or without carbon capture and storage, and expanding forests.”

Read the IPCC special report ‘Climate Change and Land

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