AASF: Australian Agricultural Sustainability Framework

AASF: Australian Agricultural Sustainability Framework

The second iteration of the AASF is now available to view. Please view the PowerPoint in ‘slide show’ mode: as the framework contains many levels of information, the interactive document has been designed to allow users to ‘dive in’ to areas of interest and ‘zoom out’ to see the context of the suggested principles and criteria. Viewers can choose to progress through the document by following particular threads of interest (click on icons &/or summary slides to navigate) or as a linear slide show (using mouse or arrows to move forward).

Developing an Australian Agricultural Sustainability Framework (AASF)

The AASF communicates the sustainability status and goals of the Australian agricultural industry to markets and to the community.

Development of the AASF has been coordinated by the National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) on behalf of the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE), as part of the Australian Government’s Agriculture Stewardship Package.

AASF V2

The AFI is responsible for delivering the framework structure along with evidence-based recommendations on the implementation, continuous improvement and ongoing governance of the proposed AASF. This work will be complete in Q1 2022 when the third iteration is delivered. It is important to note that this ‘final’ version will in fact be a starting point for communicating Australian agricultural sustainability – the AASF can never be static.

The AASF is a central source of information about Australian agricultural sustainability, providing a translation layer between farm practices, markets and the community. This framework aims to ensure consistency and cohesion across multiple schemes, programs and other initiatives. It does not replace existing industry frameworks or certification schemes.

Following an extensive feedback consultation process on the first version, the second iteration of the framework (AASF V2) is now available to view via the link above. The framework contains many levels of information and is designed to allow users to ‘dive in’ to details and ‘zoom out’ for context of the principles and criteria. If you are unable to access the PowerPoint slides, please download the PDF version (NB – the PDF is also interactive.)

The themes of the AASF are a high-level navigation tool for identification of the sector’s sustainability goals and credentials – i.e., some categories overlap and could be housed under more than one theme. Categories are also a navigational aid. Principles are the fundamental statements about a desired outcomeCriteria are the conditions that need to be met in order to comply with a principle. Indicators are the measurable states for the assessment of whether a criterion has been met. The AASF does not set indicators at this stage. Example indicators from existing programs are included in V2 for illustration purposes only.

The principles & criteria form the heart of the AASF.

To use the interactive document most effectively:

  1. Open the PPT, enable editing and click on presentation mode’ or ‘slide show’.
  2. Navigate the document by clicking to zoom in (preferred interactive method). When you click on the images or boxes relating to each principle, criteria or indicator, the PPT will ‘zoom’ to show more detail. (Use the arrows or mouse to move forward slide-by-slide.)
  3. Click the ‘home’ icon to return to the AASF overview slide. Click the ‘top’ icon to return to Slide 1.
  4. Click the theme icons to be taken back to section overviews (e.g. environment, people, economy).
  5. Click the ‘puzzle’ icon to see examples of where the AASF aligns with global & domestic schemes & frameworks.
  6. Note: some examples are not yet complete; more examples of indicators and demonstrations of alignment are being added and the documents are being updated throughout this feedback period.

This overarching framework for agricultural sustainability will:​

  • help to bolster the Australian agricultural ‘brand’ by demonstrating the industry’s commitment to ongoing stewardship, while proactively identifying emerging challenges (e.g., regulatory, business, market or social licence); ​
  • assist farmers to continuously improve on-farm management practices;​
  • enable consistent understanding of intent through clear language and descriptors (i.e., in domestic and global markets, in government policy, and in industry programs)

The AASF themes are descriptive, not prescriptive, and designed to aid in navigation of the framework. The AASF categories and principles are based on globally recognised systems (e.g., SAFA, SAI, WBA, GRI) and direct the reader to examples of indicators. Targets and metrics for sustainability reporting are currently set by market &/or industry programs.

Supporting information on the design and development process is provided below and is also provided in the Stage 1 literature review download link. glossary of terms is also available.

Feedback on V2 can be submitted to the AFI via info@farminstitute.org.au

Background

Interest in the sustainability of agricultural and food systems is continuously increasing in markets, social and regulatory environments. While farmers clearly want to invest in sustainability measures and build natural capital, these measures usually involve cost to the farming business. AFI’s 2020 report, Recognising On-farm Biodiversity Management, identified the complexity, cost and difficulty of assessing and participating in multiple programs as barriers to participating in current sustainability/stewardship programs, including market-based initiatives.

To reward farmers for delivering biodiversity and sustainability outcomes, the best results are likely to come from an overarching framework that connects current and emerging programs. Based on the outcomes of this research, the development of an Australian Agricultural Sustainability Framework (AASF) is now in progress.

Project process

  • Phase 1: DISCOVERY (2020) – Recognising On-farm Biodiversity Management
  • Phase 2: DEVELOPMENT (2021) – AASF
  • Phase 3: PILOT (2022)

AFI has undertaken Element 1 (Framework Development) in Phase 2 of the AASF project in 2021, in parallel with work on Financial Systems & Accounting Systems led by KPMG (Element 2). Four further connected elements of this phase, including benchmarking industry programs, aligning measurement frameworks, engagement and legal analysis, are informing this major piece of work. More information on the other project elements is available on the NFF website.

The process for developing the AASF involves intensive research and extensive consultation throughout the year. In the first quarter of 2021, AFI reviewed existing schemes and worked with a specialist expert reference group (ERG) of subject matter experts to ensure a rigorous peer review process informs development. This group of academic, industry and NGO experts represents a cross-section of the best experience and insight available on the topic of verifying farm sustainability and biodiversity (see Appendix in the literature review). The ERG has provided invaluable feedback and advice to the research team on the relevance and suitability of existing systems, industry opportunities and gaps, as well as emerging global sustainability reporting trend and requirements (see examples below).

Findings so far

The literature review identified that:

  • There is increasing complexity in the sustainability SCA (Standards, Certification, Accreditation) market due to proliferation of competing and often overlapping programs;
  • There are already well-established sustainability SCA schemes in the market which have both strong consumer credibility and established certification programs;
  • Key market risks are emerging related to new or proposed market access rules on sustainability standards, and 
  • Certification programs remain limited in terms of costs for monitoring, effectiveness at achieving target outcomes, the potential for elite capture, and standards inertia.

The AASF aims to manage market access risks while reducing both the complexity of the SCA landscape for sustainability initiatives and duplication of scheme targets. It should also avoid arbitrarily increasing the number of SCA sustainability schemes, competing with the SCA industry and seeking to set standards independently of international bodies. As such, it is important not to present the AASF as another set of industry standards.

The first iteration of the framework was made available via the AFI’s website, and 36 stakeholders organisations were directly invited to participate in consultation. AASF V1 was presented deliberately as a ‘raw product’ (i.e. in an incomplete state) to ensure stakeholders were able to genuinely contribute to areas of ambiguity. Key feedback points from AFI’s consultation included:

  1. The purpose and objective of the AASF must be explicitly communicated every time the framework is presented
  2. Any materiality assessment conducted as part of the AASF development should be clearly identified
  3. The ‘Principles, criteria and indicators (PC&I)’ structure of V1 resonates well with stakeholders
  4. It is important to highlight where the AASF PC&I intersect with existing frameworks/schemes (both domestic and global)
  5. Key terms used in V1 need to be defined and language could be refined further
  6. The pillar structure (Environment, Socioeconomic, Governance) of V1 works well overall, but is limited in portraying interdependencies / overlaps – and some PC&I could be grouped under different pillars
  7. While underdeveloped in V1, the Governance pillar offers an opportunity to spotlight Australian agriculture’s strengths in compliance (e.g. biosecurity, food safety, worker conditions) 

Feedback on this 2nd iteration will be used to refine the 3rd and final iteration, which will be delivered early in 2022. The final version will not be a static document. The AASF will provide a regularly updated snapshot in time to enable harmonisation of Australian agricultural sustainability activity with evolving market and regulatory expectations. 

Ownership and governance of the AASF will be a crucial recommendation at completion of this project, to ensure the framework will be an independent, responsive tool to help ensure Australian farmers are recognised for their efforts in stewardship of our resources.

Note on AASF V2 structure & language

This framework has not been created in a vacuum. It reflects the rapidly maturing sustainability schemes already operating in Australia and globally, mapping of existing industry-level sustainability goals into a catalogue of basic sustainability principles and criteria for the Australian agricultural industry.

By developing a common set of sustainability principles for the agricultural sector that can be used over time to align sectoral and supply chain language towards a common understanding of sustainability deliverables, the AASF will communicate the overall status of Australian agricultural sustainability.

To reflect the different needs of heterogeneous stakeholders, this framework uses an ESG (Environmental, Social & Governance reporting) structure under the 3 themes and sustainability framework language in the principles & criteria to clearly direct users to material principles and criteria.

Some of the many frameworks, schemes and programs which have been considered are noted here. In particular the AASF seeks to strongly reflect the SAFA, SDGs and SAI, as well as leading Australian industry sustainability frameworks.

Global standards and frameworks:

To be successful, the AASF must be concordant with global standards to leverage stewardship efforts in the global marketplace and enable progress towards international sustainability reporting obligations. While an AASF should clearly not seek to match every existing global sustainability framework, program or scheme, some directly relevant and related global programs have been considered in design and development of the first iteration, as noted below:

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