The Australian Agricultural Sustainability Framework

Sustainability is at the heart of Australian farming. Producing food and fibre sustainably means practicing responsible stewardship of the environment, taking care of people and animals, and ensuring economic resilience for the community and industry.
The AASF communicates the sustainability status and goals of the Australian agricultural industry to markets and to the community.

Project overview

The Australian Agricultural Sustainability Framework (AASF) is a unique piece of work which enables a central source of information about Australian agricultural sustainability, providing a translation layer between farm practices, markets and the community. While other existing sustainability initiatives reference agriculture or are commodity-focused, this is the first country-specific framework to address sustainability from a whole-of-agriculture perspective.

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

The Australian Farm Institute (AFI) delivered the framework structure (linked below) in mid-2022, informed by industry consultation, an expert reference group, parallel discovery projects coordinated by NFF and an extensive review of domestic and global sustainability frameworks. Work is now underway on data discovery and governance recommendations, as well as review of the current framework’s principles and criteria. The report, Development of the Australian Agricultural Sustainability Framework 2021-22, is summarised here.

The framework

The current iteration of the AASF identifies 17 overarching principles of sustainability (i.e. a desired outcome or ideal state) for the Australian agriculture industry under the themes of environmental stewardship; people, animals and community; and economic resilience.

These principles are underpinned by 43 criteria (i.e. conditions to be met for a principle to be upheld).

The AASF is presented as an ‘continuum’ framework, to reiterate that there is no ranking hierarchy to the principles and criteria and that all elements of the framework are part of a spectrum – there are no ‘hard lines’ between the closely interrelated elements.

Click the image to download a PDF which enables the user to zoom in on principles and criteria. A factsheet demonstrating how these principles align with Australian and international sustainability initiatives will be available soon.

The 17 AASF Principles

AASF-P1. Net anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are limited to minimise climate change

AASF-P2. Adverse impacts to air quality are avoided or minimised

AASF-P3. Soil health and functionality are protected and enhanced

AASF-P4. Landscape degradation is avoided or minimised

AASF-P5. Biodiverse ecological communities are protected and enhanced

AASF-P6. Water resources are used responsibly and equitably

AASF-P7. Finite resources are safeguarded in circular economic systems

AASF-P8. Safe agricultural outputs are produced for public consumption

AASF-P9. Safe working environments are provided for employees

AASF-P10. Fair access to a decent livelihood is provided within the industry

AASF-P11. Discrimination is not tolerated in an inclusive industry
AASF-P12. Farmed animals are given the best care for whole of life
AASF-P13. Society benefits from the agricultural industry’s positive contribution
AASF-P14. Biosecurity threats are assessed, mitigated and effectively managed in systems of continuous improvement
AASF-P15. All industry participants behave ethically and lawfully
AASF-P16. Resilience is protected and enhanced by assessment, mitigation and management of risks
AASF-P17. Unconscionable conduct is eliminated from the supply chain via demonstrated transparency and accountability

Key points

  • The framework is voluntary and there is intended to be no direct cost to the producer for participation. 
  • The aim is to create alignment across existing and emerging programs at a national level and to reduce duplication of industry specific schemes.
  • It has been informed by and aligned with relevant global sustainability schemes and standards.
  • The themes and categories are descriptive, not prescriptive, designed to aid in navigating across the (non-hierarchical) principles and criteria.
  • The AASF is not designed to enforce compliance but to improve consistency and recognition of shared sustainability principles in agriculture. 
  • The framework principles and criteria are high level, to allow for diversity across commodities, geography and production systems. 

Read the report

Development of the Australian Agricultural Sustainability Framework 2021-22


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 for NFF, 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. This project found that 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 the AASF began in 2021.

Reviews undertaken for the framework’s development identified the following key points:

  • There is increasing complexity in the sustainability standards, certification, accreditation market due to proliferation of competing and often overlapping programs; and
    • complexity in the sustainability landscape limits understanding of risks and opportunities for agricultural producers and supply chain participants;
  • Key market risks are emerging regarding market access rules on sustainability standards;
  • 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 can add value to existing comprehensive sustainability frameworks for agri-food industries frameworks by seeking to translate them into a domestic context, ensuring in turn that the sustainability actions and aspirations of Australia are clearly understood on the global stage;
  • There is potential for Australia to lead the world on sustainability communication in agricultural and food industries via the AASF.

AFI’s work for Phase 2 of this project  culminated in delivery of the third iteration linked above. This version of the AASF (V3) is just the starting point for communicating Australian agricultural sustainability, not the end: the AASF can never be static and must continuously improve and respond to stakeholders’ expectations of meeting sustainability goals. 

Why this structure, these choices?

The AASF themes are environmental stewardship; people, animals and community; and economic resilience. Under these themes are nested 13 non-hierarchical categories, 17 principles and 43 criteria describing the Australian agricultural industry’s sustainability status and goals.

Global sustainability initiatives do not usually consider Australian agriculture’s unique production conditions, which has led to the development of domestic commodity-based sustainability frameworks. However, these frameworks (being specific in nature) can sometimes be narrow to the point of excluding issues which are material to global stakeholders. In addition, there is a greater risk of industry capture with commodity-based frameworks, i.e. that they may focus on the positive but skirt around areas of difficulty.

These are the issues the AASF seeks to resolve, by providing a common frame of reference across the entire agricultural value chain, and by offering Australian agricultural industry participants a gap analysis on material concerns.

The AASF principles and criteria are based on globally recognised systems (for example, but not limited to: SAFASAIWBAGRI etc.). The themes and categories of the AASF are grouped under environment, social and governance (ESG) concepts as navigational tools (i.e. not as a prescriptive taxonomy). The categories can and do overlap, and could be housed under more than one theme; some principles could apply to multiple categories.

The principles and criteria listed in the AASF form the heart of the framework and should be the reader’s focus point. The AASF uses these terms as per internationally-accepted definitions: i.e., principles are the fundamental statements about a desired outcome, and criteria are the conditions that need to be met in order to comply with a principle. Indicators – the measurable states for the assessment of whether a criterion has been met – are not set by the AASF at this stage.

Next steps

Further work is required to identify the specific preliminary governance arrangements and data needs required for implementation of the AASF, which will in turn inform delivery of a recommended structure for the AASF’s timely establishment and sustainable operationalisation.

A third phase of work is underway which includes working with key stakeholders to evaluate options for governance and structural arrangements, considering cohesion with the Agriculture Biodiversity Stewardship Package; assessment of how AASF structural arrangements can assist in addressing the national data needs which would enable reporting against the AASF criteria, and delivery of AASF Version 4, including recommendations for regular review and ongoing iterations of the framework.

Engagement with stakeholders throughout agricultural value chains, including from the finance and investment sector and international markets, is vital to build confidence in and willingness to engage with the AASF, and ensure the value proposition is clearly reflective of stakeholder needs. To discuss the AASF with AFI, email us here.

The work to come will also consider systems for maintaining the currency and continuous improvement of the framework (including alignment with national engagement to the Taskforce on Nature-related Financial Disclosures and other major global frameworks) and integration with related market-based approaches, to enable consistency and cohesion across related projects with common goals.

By clearly communicating the sustainability status and goals of Australian agriculture, the AASF aims to not only ensure the industry is well-positioned to maintain access to competitive financial products and maintain or improve markets, but also help Australian farmers future-proof their enterprises and natural capital in a fast-evolving world.

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