One of the most fundamental issues facing agriculture is its economic survival. Mixed along with climate change, succession, the division of land, the ownership of property and the weather, the ever-rising costs of production and the demand from the supermarkets for lower prices.
Described by one farmer as the only business where you ‘buy retail and sell wholesale’, farming is under ever-increasing financial pressure.
However, along with all these issues is the disconnect between the producer and the consumer.
In this context, the problem facing agriculture is a lack of awareness by the consumer of on-farm production.
Along with the need to keep the farmer financially viable there is an urgent need to raise community awareness of the importance of food production when 93% of the food consumed in Australia is grown here. (ABS)
While it may be opportune for economists and retailers to search elsewhere for cheaper food in the short term, it is dangerous to assume we can purchase the bulk of our food supply offshore.
Mixed among these issues are those associated with food quality and community health. It is difficult enough to maintain quality standards locally without the concerns associated with the importation for regions where quality assurance may not be guaranteed.
It is counter intuitive to suggest that purchasing our food from another country will in any way contribute to food security. Raising awareness of the need for food security, quality and quantity is crucial to our national and individual survival.
The biggest social and political opportunity for Australian agriculture, indeed for agriculture everywhere, is to make the individual consumer aware of the importance of the producer for their very existence.
The genesis of this opportunity lies in the very soil itself.
In the context of the UN’s declaration that 2015 is the International Year of Soil, it is important to note that according to the NSW DPI, 75% of Australian Agricultural soils contain less than 1% organic material. (Van Zwieten 2007 – ABC Catalyst)
Yet at the same time, according to our National Waste Strategy, we spend $11 billion per year managing 59 million tonnes of waste – and up to 70% of the wasted materials we produce are organic.
When considered in terms of agricultural use, the 40 million tonnes of organic waste this constitutes is not going to raise Australia’s organic soil levels by any great amount when applied as compost. However its application to the horticultural farms producing local vegetables would see all possible compost production from organic waste used within easy reach of urban centres, once an appropriate reuse scheme was in place.
The ability of diverting this organic material back to Australia’s farms as a clean source-separated product brings with it the key to engaging the entire community in a focus on the importance of soils. We all eat so we all need to be involved at some level in food production.
To enable organic waste to be used in agriculture as a clean, quality product, it must first be collected separately from all other waste products.
For this to be achieved we need to use the right tools, the right motivation and the right information.
In communities where such programs have been rolled out successfully, with the correct engagement strategy, it has been possible to have the urban community re-engage with the importance of farming and soil to their daily existence.
Recycling of organic waste, coupled with the message that the process is about helping to sustain agriculture, resonates with every community member, because it is about food, it is about the future and it is about family.
At their very essence, humans understand the importance of food. The reuse of organic material, clearly is not a waste issue, it is a food issue and engagement of the community at this level empowers them to be involved in the food production system.
Encouraging the conversion of organic material into compost and then to soil is the only practical means we have of re-engaging the urban community with the farmer as the producer of their food - it also brings to the conversation the local and national political power necessary to make this increasingly urgent shift.
To date organic recycling programs have not been implemented with a single focus or a single intent. They have been implemented as a waste management or recycling strategy - not as a food strategy.
Waste management programs are generally seen as providing solutions to problems, not in building new opportunities for the community.
The diversion of organic waste to agriculture is indeed an opportunity.
It requires slightly different collection systems, new jobs in composting, new employment positions in getting compost to farms – but very little if any new cost.
The savings made by diverting material from landfill can be channeled into creating new opportunities for the waste industry, the compost industry and the farming industry.
The conditions of the soils of Australia are a national issue of great importance. While farmers may be the guardians of the soils on their farms, it is those soils which feed all of our children and us.
As I said before, the soil is your mother – everything you have been and will be depends on the quality of the food you eat. Yet nationally we have been very poor at developing strategies to protect our soils and our farmers’ ability to continue to produce food.
In 2009 a document titled Managing Australia’s Soil: A policy discussion paper; was produced by the National Committee on Soil and Terrain. After a great number of iterations and public and private meetings, it died in the ditch of political indifference.
A beautifully drafted document, it promised at last to be the foundation stone of new policy to protect our soils and our food in partnership with Australia’s farmers, for the benefit of the entire community.
While this document and its intent need to be revived, there is much we can do now, with the tools we have at hand.
It would seem logical that the first thing we need to ensure is that organic waste no longer goes to landfill. The generation of greenhouse gas from landfill, even in relatively efficient gas-capture systems, has a negative impact on our climate.
The diversion of organic waste can be readily achieved with a simple national law banning the deposit of any organic waste in landfill.
However, experience in other countries has demonstrated that a simple diversion of organic waste from landfill will only encourage the existing waste industry to build multi-million dollar incinerators at the expense of ratepayers, which pollute our atmosphere while losing all that organic benefit and social connection.
At the same time 30% of everything that goes into an incinerator comes out as toxic waste.
We have a better tool in Australia that could achieve the diversion of clean source-separated organic material to farmer’s soils overnight - The Product Stewardship Act. https://www.environment.gov.au/protection/national-waste-policy/product-stewardship
The Act was passed into law in 2011. It has three levels – Voluntary, Co-regulatory and Mandatory.
The Voluntary area is seen as the area where most recycling will happen, however, it has no direct legal force. The Co-Regulatory section is intended to develop as a partnership model between industry and government where the outcome can be covered by regulation but protected by Government
The third area is Mandatory. This places a legal obligation on all parties to take certain actions in relation to a product. This includes arrangements for recycling products at the end of their life. It is currently in use to ensure that computers and TVs are recycled under the protection of regulation by the Federal Government.
The use of national legal obligation means that the Federal Parliament, on behalf of the population, accepts liability for a recycling scheme and guarantees its success by predetermining the outcome.
While there is inevitable resistance to using regulation in such a way because it means change, and there is always resistance to change, it has precedents in history.
For example the Government of Scotland determined that from the 1st of January 2014, all business had to recycle glass, plastics, paper, cardboard and metals and separate out organic waste for collection.
Rather than create chaos, as warned by waste operators, it has generated many hundreds of new business opportunities for waste operators and many, many more jobs in the waste and recycling industries. http://www.bqlive.co.uk/2015/02/03/organic-recycling-firm-continues-togrow-a-year-on-from-new-regulations/
This shift happened because the change was regulated in the Scottish Parliament and the responsibility for the outcome was taken by all of the people of Scotland - together.
Prior to the shift in Scotland, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 2009 passed the Mandatory Recycling and Composting Ordinance, which introduced the law which made recycling and composting compulsory.
In Australia the input cost of farming in Australia rises every year – reducing those cost by any means, which does not affect production has to be a good thing.
The return of all our clean organic waste to our soils, around 40 million tonnes per annum, will mean an overall reduction for some in the cost of farming.
It will also provide an excellent demonstration of the ability of organic matter in soils to increase moisture retention, improve fertiliser efficiency, and reduce chemical runoff to waterways and the Barrier Reef. This will directly impact species health and diversity in our ecosystems.
Linked to agricultural extension programs it will also encourage more farmers to make their own compost and increase the growing realization on-farm that environmental benefit is directly linked to economic benefit.
Engaging the community in the return of their organic waste to our soils as a means of helping sustain agriculture reconnects the city to the soil, in a way that has long been lost to our urban communities.
The Product Stewardship Act could direct all councils to include the source-separation of organic waste as a mandatory element in all tenders for domestic waste collection.
Such regulation would state that organic waste must be clean, source-separated and turned into high-quality, nutrient laden compost complying with the Australian Compost Standard and delivered to a farm within a given distance of the point of collection. Councils could be required to keep records of tonnage, quality and delivery.
Similarly all commercial waste collectors would be required to collect source- separated organic waste, with similar outcomes to the domestic collections. The Australian population and its Parliament through the Product Stewardship Act would protect the entire system under law.
Regulation is often seen as a last resort in a democracy. However, we already use regulation under law when driving on our roads, to constrain behavior and to pursue social outcomes.
The need to preserve our agricultural base is fundamental to the future of our national existence. The soil is the foundation stone of our human economy and the mother of us all. It’s protection and the awareness of the need for its protection should be enshrined in law.
Urban household and business in Australia spend $11 billion dollars annually on the management of waste.
Using precisely the same investment, the same vehicles, the same contractors and a lot more staff, we can separate out our organic waste and recyclables the same way that San Francisco and Scotland now do.
We can divert the funds we are putting in landfill into creating new jobs protecting our soils.
The extraction of organic waste as a clean source-separated product for use on farms, will mean that the ‘yuk’ factor is taken out of our mixed waste – it is when we mix food into our general waste that our waste problems begin.
Raising the awareness of the urban community of the farmer as the producer of their food is key to the nations future and future of us all.
The soil is our mother, it warrants our protection.