Agriculture must act now to play its part in solving the world's sustainability challenge before it's too late, a dairy business breakfast in Melbourne on Thursday was told.
The World Wide Fund for Nature's global commodity leader - livestock Queensland-based Ian McConnel told the Australian Dairy Industry Council breakfast the point at which people could no longer claim ignorance of the crisis the world was facing was fast approaching.
"The world increasingly knows the science behind the environment and climate, at what point do we have the ability to say we no longer have an excuse," he asked.
But he acknowledged that more needed to be done to allow agriculture to use technology, such as genetically modified organisms, to help it become more sustainable.
"The speed of trajectory of change that we need is going to need a rapid level of innovation," he said.
"I do fundamentally believe one of the risks, and one of the risks we have identified internally, in achieving a sustainable future is allowing technologies to make it happen.
"There is no doubt there is a genuine risk in certain markets around the world that we won't be given access to the tools that are needed."
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But Mr McConnel said farmers and other users of those technologies also needed to take responsibility to use them properly.
Problems with GM - such as emerging chemical resistance due to overuse - were real.
"It is hard to blame the community, when we shot ourselves in the foot when given that technology," he said.
There also needed to be greater adoption of existing technologies.
"I don't know if we have the uptake of the technologies that we already have at the level that is needed," he said.
"As we build new innovation, we need to make sure we are getting it either used on farm - and take some responsibility as those developing it - that we are making it usable, easy and affordable."
Farming not blamed for climate change
Mr McConnel challenged the view that farming was blamed for climate change.
"I often hear from farming communities that we in farming and especially livestock cattle are being blamed for climate change," he said.
"What is really interesting is that I get onto the phone to our global climate lead and ask her, .... and (she says) agriculture is not on our radar for now.
"It is the energy revolution that is needed."
Mr McConnel said the only space he heard about farming being blamed for climate change was from within farming circles.
"We tend to read the stories about it and elevate it in our own discussions," he said.
But if agriculture did not act, as other industries resolved their issues, it would become more of a focus.
"But it is fair to say we are being looked at as much as a solution as a challenge in that space and we need to own that solution, especially in land-based agriculture," he said.
Mr McConnel painted a confronting picture of the challenge facing the world.
"Right now we are consuming earth's resources at 1.6 times the rate that we are able to regenerate each year," he said.
"The scary bit about that is by 2030 it will be double on the current projectory, by 2050 on the current projections, we are at a crisis."
The world's population would swell to 9 billion by 2050, with 7 billion living in urban areas, increasingly disconnected from the rest of the population who would need to feed and clothe it.
But agriculture could - and would need to - play a pivotal role.
Many landscapes around the world were managed by farmers, but that also meant 70 per cent of biodiversity loss was attributed to converting land to agriculture, and agriculture used 70pc of fresh water, produced 25pc of greenhouse gas emissions, was the biggest user of chemicals and was responsible for 50pc of top soil loss.
"The stat that's missing at the bottom of that is that it feeds 100pc of us," Mr McConnel said.
The challenge for agriculture was that it was slow moving.
"The urgency may not be in the fact that the planet is going to crash tomorrow in its natural systems but i think there is urgency to start the journey because of how long it is going to take us to get there," he said.
UN sustainable development goals
The need for action was also being driven by the United Nations, governments, environmental organisations and corporations around the world.
The UN's sustainable development goals - a set of agreed goals, signed off by governments among all the UN members - would be refined and expanded next year.
"And there are some confronting things in there for agriculture," Mr McConnel said.
"For example, next year there is a commitment in there that governments are going to push sustainable supply chains to be deforestration free and we will have no deforestation by 2030.
"Currently soy - a major feed source for dairy globally and also beef - are the largest sources of deforestation globally and corporate supply chains are being asked to stop it next year.
"It is a severe challenge and the world is watching."
WWF would be promoting the view that a strong biosphere was needed to have a strong economy and society.
"At WWF we are going into to these discussions about creating a new deal for nature and people," he said.
But there was also a challenge in addressing more issues than just climate change.
"We can no longer afford to have a singular focus on things like climate change," Mr McConnel said.
"We need to look more at life land on land, life below water, clean water, sanitation - these are the goals we are going to focus our goals in agriculture.
"There are unintended consequences of focusing solely on climate change."
Dairy sustainability framework
Mr McConnel praised the Australian Dairy Industry Sustainability Framework as a world leader.
The framework's goals were being copied by the International Dairy Federation and being promoted by groups other than dairy groups.
"The impact of this framework and the engagement that underpins it potentially makes it one of the strongest and engaged frameworks that your industry has," he said.
The framework set up the dairy industry to better meet the demands of consumers looking for more sustainable products.
Mr McConnel said ultimately consumers and voters would be the trigger for more action on climate change.
"I don't think this purely has to be a government policy, I think we can play a role without policy, I think we should be playing a role," he said.
There were some alarming stories around climate change.
"One of the facts that really hits it home for me is that the ice age was only 4 degrees cooler, so when we talk about 1.5 or 2 degrees, we are talking fundamentally about very drastic change," he said.
He challenged the view that sustainable practices meant increased costs for farmers.
"I'll challenge the premise that sustainability costs - partly because there's a million available case studies of farmers who have made more money through adopting practices that build soil carbon, build soil health," Mr McConnel said.
"I think we need to be careful about how we frame the case that sustainability costs more because it doesn't have to.
"And ideally it shouldn't - it should be a win:win because sustainability has three pillars - one being economic.
"The other point I would raise is demanding the consumer pay more as opposed to providing them a product that's worth more."
Products from sustainable systems should be valued for that.
"So rather than saying you pay more for milk and I will become more sustainable, produce a product that has attributes that you have decided consumers are willing to invest in and change the framing of that."
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