Sustainable agriculture and food systems

Download our new guide: pdf icon A Fair and Sustainable Food System, which outlines Australia’s fast growing sustainable food movement and provides guidance for funders.

Farming has historically underpinned Australia’s wealth. Our post-war economy was said to be ‘riding on the sheep’s back’ thanks to the enormous contribution of the wool industry.

Damaging farming practices

But the impact of agriculture on our land and water has been profound. Australian farming practices have caused extensive damage to soil, water and biodiversity. The challenge for us is to produce the food and fibre we need with the smallest ecological footprint, so that productive agriculture is integrated into nature as a whole.

Australian agriculture has developed in an environment of low natural soil fertility, limited water, and a highly variable climate – and has overcome these with innovation and world-leading agricultural science.

Agriculture’s effect on ecosystems

Growing crops and pasture continues to displace native ecosystems, compounding the effects of the past. Irrigated agriculture in particular has profound impact on rivers, flood plains and groundwater, taking too much water out and reducing water quality.

Soil health

Many Australian soils are old in geological time, highly weathered and leached, and are less resilient to change than the younger soils of Europe and North America. Their capacity to absorb impacts and return to equilibrium has been compromised by the nature and scale of agriculture in Australia.

Many of the soil health problems in Australia today have their origins in the 100 years after 1850 when the rate of land clearing accelerated on the back of a boom in sheep farming. The decline in soil condition during these years was extreme – severe wind and water erosion, soil salinity, extensive organic matter loss and nutrient depletion occurred across large areas of Australia. Fragile soils were cleared of vegetation and land-management practices were crude. Our current problems are a result of and are compounded by this legacy.

Our challenge for the future

While Australian agriculture has greatly improved, our urgent task is to develop farming systems that work as interactive parts of natural ecosystems and recognise that the environmental costs of land use are not confined to property boundaries. Integrated catchment management is a relatively new paradigm of natural resource management in Australia that takes this into account and offers much hope.

The task for our agricultural scientists, ecologists, water managers, farmers and the community more broadly is to work together to devise productive farming that also benefits wildlife and biodiversity and conserves or even enhances soil and water.

Providing food is the single largest human activity on the planet, occupying over 40% of Earth’s capacity. Building a sustainable food system is essential to a healthy biosphere.


How can we continue to produce the food and fibre we need with the smallest footprint possible?

We need to:

  • plan farms to suit drier climates
  • pay for ecosystem services including developing new markets for ecosystem management
  • remove hidden subsidies so that the true cost of food is passed onto consumers
  • adopt a catchment or landscape approach rather than a paddock approach to farm planning
  • build new industries such as carbon trading
  • establish biodiverse production landscapes
  • unlock the tools of change for farmers so that landscape-relevant information is readily accessible.
Need help deciding what to fund?

The AEGN Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Grantmaking Framework helps to make your funding decisions as effective and strategic as possible. The Grantmaking Framework breaks the issue of climate change and energy down into a number of sub-categories. You can choose the sub-category that inspires you the most and concentrate your funding in this area.

Download the  pdf icon Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Grantmaking Framework  (PDF)

Looking for more information?

Download our  pdf icon Giving Green Briefing Note – Sustainable agriculture (PDF), which tackles the issue in more depth. To receive a hard copy, email

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