Posted July 1996
Bureau of Resource Sciences
Department of Primary Industries and Energy
As a part of national initiatives to implement sustainable development strategies in Australia and New Zealand, their governments commissioned a report on indicators for sustainable agriculture. The primary goal was to identify a set of practical indicators for use by decision makers to evaluate the sustainability of agricultural systems at regional and national scales, primarily using existing statistical information.
Key issues for Australia and New Zealand are the links between socio-economic and biophysical aspects, including the off-site effects of agriculture. Indicators that reflect such linkages required a conceptual framework and the development of an accepted methodology which goes beyond the existing measures of profitability and success used in the agricultural statistics in these countries, and allows the status of the resource base to be reflected in the overall worth of the industry. Because agriculture plays a very different role in the society and economy of these countries from many Asian countries, not all the issues or indicators selected will be the same for each country.
The Report (Hamblin et al, 1993) identified improved management practices as the most significant factor needed to achieve maximal net social benefit from agriculture. Changes in farming practice and their effect both agricultural and surrounding non- agricultural lands and water resources need to become part of the reporting process in the future.
Taking the overall objectives of the Australian ESD strategy as the framework, i.e.
"using, conserving and enhancing the community's resources so that ecological processes, on which life depends, are maintained, and the total quality of life, now and in the future, can be increased" (Australian Agricultural Council 1991)
the Report saw indicators of agricultural sustainability to be tools for better early warning of deleterious environmental and other changes for trace-back enquires on causation, and for better comparisons between farming practices, management decisions or systems' performance.
The Report considers sustainable agriculture in Australia and New Zealand will have to operate within the constraints of market conditions and political and social expectations. It is anticipated there will be no change in the declining terms of trade for agriculture or the lessening of fiscal protection. At the same time there is an increasing expectation from society for natural resources to be fully considered in valuations, and for the influence of agriculture on other ecosystems to be taken into account.
The study revealed substantial differences in the quality and availability of information dealing with the natural resource status, particularly soils, compared with what is known of the economic situation of farmers and their industry. There was also weak methodological development in the social indicators needed.
Four key indicators were identified, which reflect the desired outcomes for sustainable agriculture in Australia and New Zealand. These outcomes are the nationally-stated objectives of economic viability, maintenance of the resource base and minimising the impact of agriculture on other ecosystems.
Each of the key indicators is composed of a number of major attributes which can be measured by using existing sources of information in most cases. In a few critical areas, data are not collected regularly or on the same locational basis and surrogates have been chosen temporarily.
The on-site financial indicator chosen was the "change in long-term real net farm output (income); that is, the real value of agricultural production minus the real value of farm costs". Attributes of financial performance which are relevant to this indicator are productivity (defined as the ratio of the index of the volume of production to the index of the volume of resources used), and farmers' terms of trade. Changes to the area of land used in agriculture and the number of farms provide additional information needed to interpret farm financial viability.
The on-site environmental indicator selected was the "change in the quality of land and water which affect production of vegetation and animals at levels set by climate and land capability". Selecting attributes which adequately describe this indicator, and are available from regular surveying statistics, presented problems. While much detailed information on natural resource status exists it can seldom be related to specific farm locations or cultural practices, having generally been collected for a special research study. Surrogate measures of water and soil status were chosen; these are water use efficiency of crops and pastures (via stock) and nutrient balance of the farm. The attributes which reflect biological diversity and resilience of the system are the area of native (remnant) vegetation and its degree of fragmentation.
The Expert Group found that most data on soil erosion were taken for special surveys and cannot be related to specific farming practices except where the particular survey addressed that question. The lack of regular monitoring of soil erosion at scales relevant to farm practice has precluded the use of a descriptor of soil erosion in the attribute of land quality. This is an area of deficiency which requires further work and implementation.
The on-site social indicator identified as most important to sustainable agriculture was "change in managerial skills of farmers, landowners and land managers, in finance, farming practice and environmental stewardship". The attributes which describe this include formal knowledge levels, a skills index (currently with few data collected through census statistics), attitudinal approach which can be recorded through membership of landcare groups, and managerial competence. This last is described by the proportion of farmers using farm plans.
An off-site environmental indicator was proposed as "changes to food quality, landscape hydrology and native ecosystems attributable to agricultural practice". The Report attempts to distinguish which off-site effects are capable of interpretation at regional and national scale from those of special local significance. The attributes suggested include food chemical contamination levels (reported by the National Residue Survey), river turbidity and dust storm frequency as attributes of land and water quality which reflect the off-site impact of agriculture, and the change in the length of contact zone between agricultural and non-agricultural lands.
Consideration was given to off-site financial and social indicators. While the overall rate of assistance between trading countries does affect agricultural sustainability it is not easy to identify different categories of expenditure, and the off-site costs from agriculture in current SNAs. Off-site social impacts to and from agriculture are small in Australia and New Zealand where less than 2% of the population is employed in agriculture. Integrated economic-environmental indicators have attractions and the use of land values and water prices were considered as financial indicators which could reflect the condition of the resource base, but rejected it at this stage as being too difficult to assess unambiguously.
These concepts and proposals require testing before any implementation. In July 1993 four State departments of agriculture and their colleagues in associated conservation and water departments agreed to test the scheme within selected regions of their respective States. The aim was to see whether the attributes and indicators selected in the Report will work or not, whether data are available, are meaningful and reflect what experienced professionals and other public assessments tell us of the status and trends in agriculture in those districts. Adoption of this system of reporting is expected if testing is successful, to supplement, rather than replace, the existing national and State agricultural reports and statistics.