Man and women who are part of sustainable agriculture research projects standing in a crop field

Sustainable agriculture research: a cool project

Sustainable agriculture is no longer an idealistic aspiration. Charles Sturt University’s former professor of food sustainability, Niall Blair, knows sustainable agriculture research projects like the Cool Soil Initiative are gaining momentum. The former NSW Minister for Primary Industries explains this initiative and also how helping the environment can benefit farmers and business.

What is the Cool Soil Initiative?

“The Cool Soil Initiative is a collaboration of multinational food companies, Charles Sturt University (through the Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation), farming system groups and the Food Agility Cooperative Research Centre. We’re also working with farmers to help them reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. By researching new sustainable methods of agriculture we’re hoping Australian farming can address some impacts of climate change.

“This project is driven by industry. So, it’s not a social experiment; it has the economics behind it. Multinational food companies are wanting change because consumers, shareholders and boards want them to play their part. That support is a great starting point for success. They’re not being told they have to do it by government. They’re not just ticking a box. They are doing it to lead the industry.

“Add some willing farmers and Charles Sturt’s robust research and you get positive environmental benefits and more innovative, resilient and profitable farmers. That’s one exciting initiative!”

How did this sustainable agriculture project begin?

“The original project began with Mars Petcare and the USA’s Sustainable Food Lab. Mars signed up to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions through their whole production and supply chain. Looking at their pet food manufacturing business, somewhere between 40 and 80 per cent of the gas emissions came from grain produced on-farm for pet food.

“That’s when Mars started working in Australia with some farming system groups. They began to look at farming practices that could reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Recently, the project has expanded. Companies like Kellogg’s and the Manildra Group have come on board. And Charles Sturt joined as a research partner to put more science and research rigour into the project.”

Moving towards sustainable agriculture

Professor Blair notes the Cool Soil Initiative is practical progress and exciting change that aims to:

  • help companies meet their greenhouse gas emissions targets
  • drive down greenhouse gas emissions
  • improve soil carbon
  • boost yields
  • increase options and improve profitability for farmers, through changed farming practices
  • drive broader change throughout farming sectors in Australia and around the globe.

“The aim is to boost productivity and sustainability. Very rarely do you get a project that benefits everyone. This sustainable agriculture project is definitely a win for farmers, the food companies and a big win for the environment.”

Agriculture can be part of the solution

“We know agriculture is a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. But we also know it can be a big part of the solution. Rotation of crops, more nitrogen and carbon in soil and increasing organic matter can help reverse damage. In addition, these practices allow us to hold more water in the soil and grow better crops. Moreover, we are improving our soil carbon, which can offset other emission sources, reducing the total farm emission footprint.

“What we’ll be doing on-farm in the next few years will offset the emissions from around 1.2 million cars. It’s like removing those cars from the road.”

Farmers embrace sustainable agriculture

“The beauty of this project is it’s really farmer-centric, focused on giving value back to farmers. We take them along on the journey. As a result, every farmer involved wants to continue, and we’re seeing others wanting to come on board. So it’s not about us telling farmers what to do or how to do it when it comes to sustainable methods of agriculture. Above all, we work together to get a better understanding of what’s happening in their paddocks and soil, and to drive positive change.

“At the moment we’re spread across NSW and northern Victoria. We’ll be working on more than 700,000 hectares of land with 200 farmers. There’s a mix of family farms and large corporate farms.”

Looking under the farming bonnet

“Farmers see what’s happening above ground every day that they’re producing food or fibre. We’re helping them look under ground. Looking under the farming bonnet, we see the workings and numbers that sit behind production.

“A lot of our work is actually validating what farmers have seen for years or decades. We use science to determine the most productive parts of the paddocks and identify things that could change – for great productivity and also profitability.”

“With this information, farmers can make more informed decisions. They can also work smarter to produce some of the best food in the world.”

How Charles Sturt is helping

Professor Blair explains the many contributions Charles Sturt’s research team are making to the project.

  • Digital and spatial data collection will help farmers develop a digital atlas. Technology can measure and track a range of data so they can easily see what’s happening on-farm.
  • Agronomics and soil testing.
  • Bioeconomic modelling to help farmers understand the numbers. Determine whether changes in farming practices will cost more upfront, if yields will increase or input costs decrease, and help identify the return on investment.
  • Testing and validating the Cool Farm Tool. This greenhouse gas calculator came out of the US and Europe, but Charles Sturt is customising it for Australian conditions. Farmers can then compare their numbers with producers around the globe, including counterparts in Russia, the UK or North America.

“And that’s just the start! There’ll also be many more sustainable agriculture research challenges and questions as the project continues and more partners come on board.”

A growing possibility  

“The Cool Soil Initiative group are early adopters and are ahead of the pack, so the sky’s the limit with this project! For example, we’d like to geographically expand and collect data from all around the country. Since Charles Sturt announced our participation, the phones have been running hot with others wanting to get on board. Banks, food companies, farming groups, technology companies. Everyone knows the farming sector’s potential to positively impact climate change and sustainability.

“I also believe some of our sustainable agriculture research will be the baseline for ongoing investigation. That’s something that should certainly make Charles Sturt University really proud.”

You can make a difference

Agriculture is an increasingly complex and sophisticated industry – one that will play a vital role in our sustainable future. Play your part with an agricultural degree from Charles Sturt University. From undergraduate courses to research degrees, however you want to make a difference, you can here.

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The Cool Soil Initiative is a Food Agility Cooperative Research Centre project with Charles Sturt University through the Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation, Mars Petcare, Kellogg’s, Manildra Group and the Sustainable Food Lab.