EMS in Agriculture – Is it a tool to tackle natural resource degradation issues in the central west of New South Wales?
Environmental Management Systems Officer, Orange Agricultural Institute, Forest Road, Orange NSW 2800
The central west of New South Wales (NSW) has made significant achievements in agriculture production during the past several decades. The region is well known for producing quality meat, wool, grains, pulses and oilseeds. However, there is a great concern of degradation of natural resources in the region. The ground water level is rising, which a major reason for increased spread of dryland salinity in the landscape. The rising watertable has future implications of increased flood risk. Soil acidity is increasing in many areas. Apart from these, the other resource degradation issues in the central west of NSW include: soil erosion, declining organic matter and nutrient status of soils, increased infestation of pests and weeds, soil structural decline and bio-diversity decline.
How do you implement natural resource and farm management strategies in this productive agricultural region, which accomplish both sustainable agricultural development and least environmental impact. This is the challenge facing the communities living in the Central West of NSW.
Environmental Management Systems (EMS) may assist farmers to improve farm profitability, better manage the natural resources and improve their environmental management. A new project funded under NSW State Salinity Strategy on, “EMS in Agriculture " is underway in New South Wales. This is to assist farmers adopt sustainable agricultural practices through EMS process and examine potential for market advantage. EMS integrates management of broad range of issues that present challenges to agriculture. This includes the impact of production methods on land and water, business and risk management, meeting legal requirements and the integration of catchment management objectives into farm management.
An Environmental Management System is a framework to assess, manage, review and improve the environmental aspects of a business’s operations. It is simply a plan, do, check & act exercise, aimed at ensuring that food is produced with a minimal impact on the environment. In simple words, it is the design and implementation of a strategic process to minimise the impact of agricultural operations on the environment. It ensures sustainable production of clean and green food, improved soil health, clean waterways and underground water, conservation of biological diversity in the landscape and a minimal impact on the environment. The EMS is also expected to cover the bio-diversity management on the farm using local and scientific knowledge on bio-diversity.
Adoption of EMS can demonstrate to domestic and international consumers’ markets that environmental considerations have been taken into account during production of any farm produce. This provides assurance to buyers that the food has been produced sustainably.
Roughly 85% of all farm produce from Australia is exported. International markets are now requiring that claims of “environmental friendly” production be backed by a credible third-party validation. For instance, international companies such as Birdseye, Sainsburys, Tesco’s and Safeway stores in the UK, now “strongly suggest” that their supplying farmers use both audits and protocols in order to demonstrate environmentally friendly production methods. Implementation of Environmental Management Systems is one way to demonstrate that such production systems have been followed during different field activities. Therefore, keeping in mind the international food market’s requirements, we should produce and supply both “Clean and Green” food, with these claims verified and supported by the use of well recognised systems. The enterprises that become certified early will have a powerful public image advantage. This can improve market access and reduce production costs including costs for complying with legal obligations.
An internationally recognised Standard, ISO 14001, can be used to guide the development of EMS. Australia and New Zealand have both adopted the ISO 14000 as national standards (Standards Australia, 1996) for EMS. 14000 series is recognised in 170 countries around the world.
As EMS is the best management tool to identify and manage environmental hazards and to address the concerns of the wider community and markets about agriculture. The landholders could get benefit through implementation of EMS on their farms in many ways, however, specific benefits can be itemised in the following way:
Closer and more critical examination of farm management decisions and their impacts on long term farm profitability and environmental performance.
Meeting legal obligations while doing your business.
Reduction in degradation of natural resources particularly land and water.
Economic advantages from efficient use of financial, human and natural resources and from reduced costs for waste disposal.
Improved community image for both the industry and the individual user.
Demonstrate good environmental stewardship in your production system.
Improved relationships with neighbours, regulators, customers, employees and financial institutions.
Improved ability to reach environmental goals set under domestic and international laws, regulations and treaties.
Improved market access into the quickly developing environmentally conscious potential food and fibre markets.
Access to lower insurance premiums and interest rates.
Ability to pick up claims in eco-labelling and marketing.
Following are the 5 basic principles on which an EMS should be developed. The EMS officers would assist land-holders at different stages from planning through to taking action to fill the gaps in farm management decisions for continuous improvement of environmental management.
Commitment and policy refers to putting down a statement in writing of all people working on the farm for their commitment to the environment. The farmers will be assisted to prepare a relevant and straightforward environmental policy. The environmental policy should cover the environmental aspects and their possible environmental impacts. From the list of key issues, farmers will be assisted to prepare a priority list showing which activities have the most impact and how they could make a start to achieve this objective. The environmental policy should take into consideration the legal requirements and other industry guidelines, stating how they could comply with the such obligations while running their business. It will also provide a framework for assessing progress made with the targets and objectives that are oriented towards minimising environmental impacts.
Planning consists of identifying the scope of the organisation’s operations and its major environmental impacts. The land-holders will be assisted to set up objectives and targets to be achieved in the environmental policy taking into consideration the impacts and regulations. They will also be assisted to utilise the existing documents that address some of the ISO 14000 considerations and set up an environmental management manual describing the different procedures and standards.
Implementation phase refers to the start of real action, once the paperwork is finished. The farmers will be assisted to set up procedures and responsibilities of all working on the farm for the achievement of the identified targets. These procedures include communicating and documenting the requirements of the EMS and training staff to identify and meet these requirements. Communication is a vital part in implementation. A communication gap between people working on the farm can turn a highly effective environmental policy into just waste papers. The farmers will also be assisted to document the different activities and improve their document and operational control. Preparation of an emergency evacuation plan and checking from time to time should also be carried out showing your commitment to the environmental policy.
Monitoring and evaluation refers to checking if the management systems conform with the planned arrangements, and if these have been properly implemented and maintained and taking corrective action if not. This is one of the contributors to continual improvement. The farmers will need to monitor if their new management decisions are cost effective and are having a reduced impact on the environment. The different parameters to be monitored could include testing for water quality, groundwater level, chemical handling and use, soil health, vegetation, waste management, salinity and other land and water related problems. It should be ongoing, and conducted primarily by landholders and catchment managers, who best understand the processes involved. The farmers, who could find quite satisfying results from their internal auditing, could go for a third party auditing, which could help them to access the potential international markets.
Review and improvement phase reviews the EMS and the degree of achievement of the targets and objectives set up in the environmental policy. This stage may involve a review of the environmental policy for its appropriateness to the organisation’s targets and the changes in environmental obligations (if any) and expectations.
The first step is to conduct an initial environmental review (IER) and/or a self-assessment of the property. NSW agriculture has developed a template self-assessment guide for the grain growers, which could be used to start up with the EMS and self-assessment. In the initial environmental review, key aspects and their possible impacts are enlisted and a priority list is prepared. For example, the key issues could be soil health, erosion, pest management, chemical handling and usage, grain storage etc, however, the top priority may be improving soil health.
Apart from environmental issues, IER could also assist in identifying some other factors influencing the yield and quality of your farm produce. Further on, this information could be used for assessing the progress of implementation of different resource management approaches. It would be relatively easy for farmers to implement EMS, who have participated in some contemporary extension programs of NSW agriculture and other relevant agencies. For example the property management planning done by landholders in the Farming for the Future program could be of great help for farmers interested in EMS. This may help to improve their long term farm profitability through better management of resources and get recognition for the good work currently and in the past being done.
EMS audits refer to checking to assess if our new management decisions are up to standard and meeting our expectations. The landholders will be assisted to prepare checklist for internal audits. These internal audits can then be used for the management review and for any third party certification / surveillance audits. If possible, a third person (a neighbour or an NSW agriculture officer) should be requested to perform this duty. The checklist should include all significant farm activities.
The next step in EMS implementation process is to make a review of farm activities, incidents, accidents and potential emergency situations. Landholders will be assisted to plan and conduct a management review. This review should also make a good assessment of past and current management activities. This review would help you to make a change to your management decisions, where you think, an improvement is required.
Any activity, we do, has an impact on the environment. Different farm management activities could have variable impacts such as soil structural decline, decline in soil physical, chemical and microbiological properties, decline in biodiversity, increased problems of soil salinity and acidity. The farm activities could have off-farm impacts including polluted environment, pollution of groundwater and waterways, chemical drift from spraying, damage of infrastructure and increased flood risk. An environmental policy is prepared for the property, defining how we are going to manage these impacts. These options could include better decisions about the use of agricultural machinery on the farm, building up the organic matter status of soils through use of organic manures, biosolids, green manuring and through stubble retention.
The environmental policy should be prepared after checking up the legal documents such as the Environmental Protection Acts, State Codes of Practice and any other specific guidelines or standards. The information about these legislation requirements could either be sourced from the web site: www.austlii.edu.au/au/legis or from NSW Farmers and from NSW Agriculture.