Feedback on the Farm Biodiversity Scheme

Teresa Fox, AFI Researcher

According to the Environmental Performance Index, Australia ranks quite poorly for environmental management for biodiversity and habitat (EPI, 2018). Recent natural disasters – including drought, the 2019–20 bushfire crisis and flooding – have further damaged this continent’s fragile biodiversity. 

Australian farms have an important role to play in improving and protecting biodiverse ecosystems; however, the sector must strike a delicate balance of improving environmental outcomes while concurrently remaining profitable and increasing productivity to meet growing demand.

The Australian Government announced funding for the implementation of an Australian Farm Biodiversity Scheme (FBS) as part of the Agriculture Stewardship Package in 2019. The proposed scheme aims to reward farmers for managing biodiversity on-farm through market-based mechanisms. The AFI is conducting Phase 1 of the project to develop an FBS, focused on discovery via desktop and consultative research. The outputs of this phase will underpin the practical development and trial of a scheme to be developed in phases 2 and 3. 

In this discovery phase of the project, consultation has been vital to identify the primary objectives of an FBS along with barriers to implementation. Twelve open forums and three webinars were held online between March and May, with most meetings focused on particular regions to establish points of difference between geographic areas. In addition, the project team met virtually with key stakeholders and conducted interviews with topic specialists. Altogether almost 500 individuals have contributed their thoughts to the project to date.

Forum participants discussed both the aims of an FBS and the specific attributes which would make a scheme successful. Although each region demonstrated emphases on specific considerations and some unique points were raised, commonalities were readily apparent. For example, participants articulated the importance of biodiversity in landscapes and its role in maintaining healthy, functioning ecosystems, but many questioned the specific focus on biodiversity (rather than overarching goals like sustainability). Given the broadness of the term biodiversity, many also noted the need to clearly define what would be covered and for associated language to be clear and consistent. Another strong point from forum feedback was the need to consider how a national scheme would fit in with existing industry schemes and BMP models. 

Participants also noted a scheme should be built from the bottom up rather than the top down, meaning farmers should be extensively involved in the development and implementation of a scheme as well as the assessment, collection and reporting. The importance of expertise and involvement of cross-disciplines in designing a successful scheme was stressed, with transparency and authenticity highlighted as key principles to enhance adoption. 

All forum participants agreed on the need for a scheme to be long-term and have bipartisan support in order to maximise benefits to both the environment and participating farmers or land managers. 

A primary concern raised consistently across all forums was additionality; i.e. how to ensure farmers already implementing biodiversity improvement practices would not be disincentivised from participating in an FBS. 

The interview process also uncovered some interesting points; e.g. strongly held views that industry-run biodiversity or sustainability programs have little credibility in the market with consumers or environmental groups. Interviewees noted that the future of an FBS turns substantially on whether reliable objective metrics of biodiversity can be developed. Another barrier to participation identified was in the interaction with finance; i.e. where a commitment to a scheme by a farmer requires a covenant to be placed on a title (or otherwise restricts the future options for land use), the valuation of the land is likely to be reduced by a lender. In addition, the design of a biodiversity scheme is taking place in a context in which many of the global food companies already have sustainability requirements in many of their supply chains. The relevance of an FBS to international schemes and accounting methodologies was extensively discussed in both interviews and forums.  

The feedback will be combined with the desktop review and catalogue of international and domestic schemes to identify key critical success factors required for an FBS. Phase 1 of the project, which will make recommendations for a strategic development of a pilot trial, is set to be completed by early July. 

A webinar recording can be viewed on the AFI website and more information on the project can be found on the National Farmers’ Federation website at nff.org.au/programs/australian-farm-biodiversity-certification-scheme-trial