Four ideas to take Australia forward: co-operating for sustainable food and agriculture

30 August 2023

At last year’s BCCM Leaders’ Summit, the leaders of Australia’s top 100 co-operatives and mutuals came together to discuss how our business model can help provide long-term solutions to entrenched problems in the Australian economy. Against the backdrop of climate change, natural disasters, a global pandemic, war in Ukraine, rising interest rates, and the consequent global economic downturn, the leaders discussed four areas where the co-op and mutual sector can take Australia forward.

The four areas were co-operating for sustainable food and agriculture, addressing a just energy transition and climate change, securing affordable housing for all Australians, and creating a sustainable care economy. In this first article of a four-part series, we look at the discussion and proposed solutions around co-operating for sustainable food and agriculture.

The executives and directors attending the 2022 BCCM Leaders’ Summit proposed that a deeper partnership between co-operatives and government is necessary to increase food sustainability and mitigate climate change. They called for the onshoring of production and processing activities, infrastructure improvement, protection of Australia’s viable land and water resources, and investment in technology.

The co-op and mutual leaders noted that the interruption to global supply chains caused by the pandemic and its long shadow indicated a need for increased Australian manufacturing. They agreed Australia can improve its food security independence and sustainability by increasing onshore food production and processing activities. There was consensus that a lack of onshore production facilities and the difficulty securing the necessary materials and goods disrupt manufacturing and Australia’s domestic and global exports. Australia currently exports numerous food products for offshore processing and value-adding. Offshore companies then sell the modified product back to the Australian market. The leaders believed government investment in co-operatives and mutuals as part of the solution would strengthen primary producer communities through job creation, local ownership, and distribution of profits back into regional ecosystems.

The leaders also discussed problems in domestic transport, freight, and port facilities as hindering sustainable growth in regional communities. They singled out railway infrastructure as critical for moving products to market in the cleanest, greenest way possible. They also cited the need to upgrade container processing facilities at wharves. They believed long-term government investment must factor in regional and small business needs. In addition to long-term infrastructure planning incorporating rail, workforce planning and incentives such as housing, medical, communications, hospitals, and schools must be provided.

While acknowledging the importance of dealing with the significant amounts of methane and nitrous oxide, two potent greenhouse gases released by livestock farming, leaders of primary producer co-ops and mutuals noted their concern that environmental, social and economic pressures are contributing to viable agricultural land being repurposed for housing, mining and other interests. This repurposing includes the trend of foreign-owned investment funds purchasing land and water rights, which increases the cost for local farmers to buy or lease additional land for their business. They called on the government for support to recognise and keep viable land available and healthy for domestic food production and minimise reliance on international producers. They added that government support for co-ops and mutuals to develop sustainable agricultural practices will create significant opportunities for Australia.

In response to such challenges, executives and directors of co-ops and mutuals believe the uptake of existing and new technologies will be crucial in moving agriculture and food production onto a long-term sustainable footing. However, they cannot do it alone and call for more support from state and federal governments through subsidies and grants for emerging, green-based primary producer technologies. For example, technologies that explore energy options, improve energy efficiency and have a positive financial impact at the farm gate.

Primary producer executives and directors maintained that co-ops and mutuals would benefit significantly from additional government incentives, investment and support, particularly in establishing new co-operatives and mutuals. They added that the government can assist co-ops and mutual in managing risks they face in business by actioning recommendations made by the BCCM in policy, legislation and regulation to help regional economies.

You can read the BCCM’s policy platform for governments to support a strong economy with a solid co-operative and mutual sector, Blueprint for an Enterprising Nation. You can read the BCCM’s roadmap for sustainable, producer-owned agriculture, Co-operative Farming: Blueprint for future proofing Aussie farmers.

Leaders of co-operatives and mutuals can be part of the conversations shaping our sector at the 2023 BCCM Leaders’ Summit. Book tickets online to be part of an influential network of industry leaders and participate in a discussion to develop shared opportunities and improve business practice.

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