Inclusive research systems to co-design responsive food systems for rural communities
We aim to flip the food systems research paradigm to one that is lead by civil society & farmers for the public good
Lead Applicant Organization Name
Charles Sturt University
Lead Applicant Organization Type
If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.
Applicant Collaborators: Riverina Local Land Services; FarmLink Research Limited & The Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation. Additional Partners who participated in the vision workshops : Murrumbidgee Landcare; Yarkuwa Indigenous Knowledge Centre; NSW Department of Primary Industry; AgriPark; FarmLink Research Limited; Institute for Land, Water and Society; Holbrook Landcare; Dairy Australia; Meat and Livestock Australia; Grains Research and Development Centre; Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR); Nicon Rural, Swinburne University; University of Sydney
Website of Legally Registered Entity
How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?
Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?
Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?
Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?
Riverina Region of Southwest NSW.
What country is your selected Place located in?
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
Personal Connection: As people, we are intricately connected with our local community. We live and raise our families in the Riverina area. Our co-location with multiple institutes means that people know each other - we socialise, we see each other at the University coffee shop, at the Wagga Wagga market days and festivals, students know us and see our work - there are genuine collaborative relationships established here because of the nature of rural campus in a small town.
Institutional Connection: Charles Sturt University is a young, regionally based University in Australia with 8 regional campuses. The Wagga Wagga campus has a long-term status as a centre for agricultural education, training and leader in extension and food systems research. Wagga Wagga is located on the unceded lands of the Wiradjuri people - and we continue in their tradition of creating and sharing knowledge on these lands.
We consider our connection with our local communities as core to our values as a University - as a rural University, we have a crucial role as an enabler of regional development, employment and community vibrancy.
We have six regional consultative committees and graduate ~9,000 number of students per year across the disciplines of agriculture, animal science, health, social services, theology, philosophy, psychology, business, IT and policing studies.
The Wagga Wagga campus is located in the Riverina region and on campus we have established the AgriPark. The AgriPark is shared place where research, collaboration, innovation, and sustainability co-habit. AgriPark supports multiple stakeholders to work side-by-side to tackle complex global issues. The space is used by NSW State Department of Primary Industry (DPI); the National Wine and Grape Excellence Centre; The Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation; the Food Agility Cooperative Research Centre; AgriTech Incubator; and AgriFutures Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
Charles Sturt University Bachelor of Agricultural Science students on campus in Wagga Wagga. Students study in this same space and the teaching and research facilities include a University farm with sheep, cattle and animal handing facilities, Equine Centre, largest rhizolysimeter in the Southern Hemisphere, state-of-the-art laboratories, modern glasshouse facilities and a phytotron building.
Located halfway between Sydney and Melbourne and west of the The Great Dividing Range, the vibrant Riverina region is renowned for its flat alluvial plains, warm to hot climate and an ample supply of water for irrigation as it sits in the in the drainage basin of the snow-fed Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers. The Riverina is one of most productive and agriculturally diverse areas of Australia - supplying national and international markets in wheat, canola, beef, lamb, wool, wine, fruits.
Farmers, producers and private land owners are key to biodiversity and ecological sustainability in our region, as most land is in private ownership. Researchers, farmers and civil society dialogue and collaboration is key to rethinking our food system. This photo is from local producer Louise Freckelton, Highfield Farm & Woodland. Mt Adrah NSW (used with permission).
Charles Sturt University Farm looking toward the campus buildings on the hill. AgriPark is located on the campus and is a centre for collaboration. AgriPark supports international agricultural companies, local grounded agribusinesses, food producers, innovative small-medium enterprises, civil society and academic researchers to work side-by-side to tackle complex global issues.
Aerial view of Charles Sturt University campus farm. The landscape is typical of the region.
Farmers and farm workers are a group at high risk of suicide in Australia. The entire sector has been challenged by environmental, sociodemographic and economic pressures - declining rural populations, financial pressures, severe drought, and changes to the traditional sociocultural norms and gender roles - are key social factors that put farmers at higher risk. Creating a sustainable food system must include planetary wellbeing and farmer wellbeing as mutual goals. Photo Louise Freckelton.
In the Riverina, 45% of people had high-school as their highest qualification, 25% a technical certificate, with just 12% holding Bachelor degrees. 85% of people were Australian-born, making it less culturally diverse than the Australian norm (66%). The ABS does not collect data on food insecurity but the Hunger Report of 2018 indicated rural people were more likely to experience hunger (25%) and 58% of Aboriginal parents had gone without food in the past 12mths.
All of the Riverina is currently classified as experiencing drought, with around 50% in intense drought. This has brought major challenges to our farmers and producers, and also pushed issues of food security, farmer livelihoods and the sustainability of rural towns onto the national political agenda. This photo is from local producer Louise Freckelton, Highfield Farm & Woodland. Mt Adrah NSW (used with permission)
Local farmers are key to our approach in re-thinking and re-designing research and food systems in the Riverina Region. This photo is from local producer Louise Freckelton, Highfield Farm & Woodland. Mt Adrah NSW (used with permission).
The Riverina Region is located on the unceded lands of the Wiradjuri people, and we would like to acknowledge them as the Traditional Custodians of the land and waterways and pay our respect to Elders past, present and emerging.
Climate, Topography, Biodiversity
The vibrant Riverina region is renowned for its flat alluvial plains, warm to hot climate and an ample supply of water for irrigation as it sits in the in the drainage basin of the snow-fed Murray and Murrumbidgee Rivers. The Riverina is one of most productive and agriculturally diverse areas of Australia - supplying national and international markets in wheat, canola, beef, lamb, wool, wine, fruits and vegetables. In 2017–18, the gross value of agricultural production in the Riverina region was $2.5 billion: ~20 % of the total gross value of agricultural production for the State of NSW.
Vegetation in the Riverina was once almost entirely eucalypt woodland, forming a transition between the higher rainfall coastal margin and the arid central interior. With agricultural expansion, native vegetation has been cleared nearly entirely - negatively impacting biodiversity and causing a decline in the native fauna. A number of endemic species and endangered species are found here - for example, the swift parrot and bridled nailtail wallaby. Habitat clearing continues, as does degradation and salination.
Drought: The entire Riverina is classified as drought affected and ~50% is under “intense drought “ conditions (see https://edis.dpi.nsw.gov.au/).
The population of the Riverina region is made up of mostly Australian-born citizens (85%). In Wagga Wagga, the largest inland town in NSW, nearly 40% of people are aged under 25, 5% identify as Aboriginal and 20% of households are classified as low income. 21 % of our town population is not connected to the internet, with higher rates in smaller satellite towns.
Farmland consolidation, and technological innovation is driving significant rural change with consistent decline in the number of farmers, and smaller towns are experiencing outward migration, affecting social cohesion.
Diet and Rural Food Insecurity
Australia has one of the highest concentrations of supermarket duopolies (Merrett, 2019) and the rural diet in Australia is marked by a dominance of highly processed foods. In Wagga Wagga, there are <3 independent green-grocer stores and most food is trucked in to the main supermarkets with high-food miles.
Australia does not currently have a national measure of food insecurity but NGO statistics show that food insecurity is more common in households outside capital cities (25%) and that close to 70% of rural Australians are overweight or obese (Food Bank Australia, 2018).
The People Here
The people of the Riverina and Wagga Wagga are proud with strong rural social identity. Sporting events, agricultural shows and community festivals are plentiful throughout the year, and in 2019 Wagga Wagga hosted it's first LGBTQI+ Mardi Gras.
What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)
What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
1. Environment: Extremes of a new climate are a reality here. Water access & river management of Murray-Darling (MDB) River network is critical issue. Farmers received no water allocation for irrigation in 2019. 2019-2020 summer saw bushfires consume 10 million hectares of forest and agricultural land with >800 million animals killed in NSW alone (to see comparative size of 10 million hectares https://interaktiv.morgenpost.de/australia-area-burned-interactive-comparison/). Due to prolonged drought, 55 towns in Australia, most in NSW, have either totally run out of water or have a few months supply left (Barbour et al, 2020).
2. Economic: Our regional population is expected to grow by 30% by 2050- and economic opportunities are primarily in agriculture, health and education sectors. The entire Riverina economy is dependent on natural resources, but the new weather extremes are unpredictable, causing massive economics fluctuations and requiring federal financial assistance and grants to farmers.
3. Culture: Small towns are shrinking & pushing growth to regional centres such as Wagga Wagga due to consolidation of agricultural land and farmers leaving the sector(NSW Govt 2018). The declining population is impacting on the well-being and community cohesion of remaining residents.
4. Technology: New facilities & improvements in telecommunications are needed - parts of the region still have no, limited &/or slow telecommunications. New agricultural machinery is often able to collect vast amounts of data but without human capital able to interpret it in the context - the data is useless.
5. Policy: The divestment in public agricultural research and development since the early 2000s has required local producers to pay for private agronomic & livestock advice, often focused on productivity at the expense of environmental management issues . The MDB River Management Plan is hugely controversial & unpopular in our communities. 2019-2020 has seen protests at Federal Parliament House & a Royal Commission into mismanagement.
6. Diets: Food consumption levels in Australia are increasing per capita with high domestic demand for processed food products. This is related to burgeoning diet-related diseases, with 1 in 4 Australian children obese and 70% of rural Australia overweight or obese. Access and Affordability of a health food basket have been identified as major barriers in rural areas.
2050 Challenges: Resilience of the Food system and Food security for Australia in relation to an extreme and new climate. Due to ongoing climate change impacts, loss of productive land to urban sprawl and mining interests, loss of skilled labour and underinvestment in research and development (Millar & Roots, 2012). Scarcity of resources may exacerbate social inequity (e.g. closure of no-water rural towns (Barbour et al 2020).
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
Our vision is for inclusive research systems that can co-design responsive food systems for rural communities, grounded in a clear ethical articulation of who the food system is for. We plan to address the challenges by:
1. Re-imagining the agri-food research system to question old assumptions as a powerful tool for change. We can transform the research system by reconstructing diverse research teams; enabling change for research leadership & developing new views of what constitutes research issues/themes. We draw inspiration from the changes in medical research and Australian indigenous studies that transformed their research systems over the past 50 years based on ethical, moral and values-based concerns.
2. Break the taboo by starting the conversation about our food system with farmers and rural civil society to create change from the bottom up. We have begun this process in 2019 through a series of workshops and conversations designed to share perspectives across themes, disciplines, people and develop an understanding of what is locally considered the boundaries, ideas, perspectives on the nexus of our food systems - research systems - agriculture systems in our region.
3. Acknowledge that this is a fundamental worldview issue and we draw on the work of de la Sienra (2018) who notes that positivist views that assume knowledge will change behaviour and attitudes is misplaced- instead the power of embodied learning, emotions, introspection and deep social relationships are the basis for transformation.
Our co-location in Wagga-Wagga, stakeholder relationships; willingness to embrace all knowledges and de-centre our own perspective means we working through a world-views lens - rather than assuming we know what is best for this region and the food system.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
In our future, the research system has internalised and created a norm of starting with stakeholder collaborations. Researchers are educated in the ethics of agricultural production and food system creation, and can articulate how their own cultural value positions and ethics inform the work that they do.
Food systems are widely conceived of as being for the public good and we have largely reversed rural food insecurity and rural diet-based health issues due to our cross-sectorial collaboration.
Whilst our region is adjusting away from a pure productivist agricultural practice, we have born witness to significant positive environmental and agro-ecological changes in our regional environment.
Politically conservative and politically progressive farmers do not always agree in our future, but there is a robust, supportive and inquisitive community atmosphere about what it means to do good agriculture under our new climate reality.
Technological advances, especially of big data, have been embraced, but concerns about data openness, data sharing and cultural intellectual property have meant that uptake is a patchwork. The food systems researchers ensure that all use of data is evaluated through an ethical and social lens. Researchers regularly use future casting to support imagining unintended consequences - it is no longer accepted to plan silo research.
Farmers are key leaders in their adaptation and researchers and civil society regularly debate and explore how our new food system is performing against social indicators.
Our new set of indicators and measures of the food systems reflect a values-based starting point.
Our rural economy is stable and agricultural policy underwent major review with the phased introduction of universal basic income (UBI). We have seen a slow shift in our migration patterns, and farming and rural livelihoods are increasing in popularity.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
We discuss our vision for transforming the research system to be led by civil society and farmers for food systems transformation.
Static infographic of how the old productivist research systems is no longer working for the food system of today. Changing the research system is essential to food system change.
The paradox of our region is that we are a major producer of grains, meats, fruits and vegetables - contributing 20% of the NSW state agricultural output. Yet, for the people who live in this region, they are more likely to experience food insecurity and more likely to experience diet-related health issues than their urban counterparts. This is in part because of the silo-natured of research that underpins the food system.
Flyer for the first workshop in 2019 on research practice change
First Practice Change workshop in 2019. Participants created systems maps and used large cards to identify stakeholders and potential different futures of the agricultural and food systems research. A large emphasis was on 'who is the research system serving' ?
Representatives of the regional farming systems groups (farmer-driven agricultural organisations) with the Acting Director of The Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation, Associate Professor Marta Jover-Hernandez. 2019 at the first 'Practice Change' workshop
The current global food system is grounded in agricultural research that has largely followed a WW2 productivist model. But the world and our global challenges have changed - how do we provide equitable food systems that support farmer livelihoods and well-being and planetary care ? We propose that flipping the research system is a great place to start. Let's get to root of this problem!
Prologue: What did you eat today? If you are like any of the other 6 billion people on this planet, you probably ate 1 of the 3 crops – rice, wheat and maize – that dominate more than half of plant-derived calories consumed worldwide (Zimmerer, 2017). And like more than 50% of the worlds population now living urban centres, in your entire lifetime you’ve maybe only eaten 1 or 2 varieties of these crops. Or of any crop for that matter. Want to know why? Blame an agricultural researcher.
After World War 2, there was a massive global push to produce a lot of calories quickly. Agricultural Researchers were King - and they were asked to solve the big picture questions of the day (how do we feed all these people after a world war?) through a simple reductionist approach- Breed better plants! Produce more food! Make it calorie rich! Make it profitable! And then tell the farmers how to do it. So that’s what was done. The community had little say in this food system, and little to no influence on the research that underpinned this food system.
Fast forward 70 years and our global, regional and local challenges have changed. But the research system has stayed the same. It’s time to flip that system and create the food system(s) that our region wants and needs for a sustainable 2050.
Our approach is to initiative change in our direct sphere of influence - that is, how research forms and influences the food system. Our vision is to change the process, the deep systemic roots of the system. As researchers, we are also humans who live, work and eat in our regional food systems. For us , changing research means changing what we do at work in our daily lives, who we talk to, how we collaborate and how we design our research for food systems.
The food system of the Riverina Region is not a given - it is the result of one possible future that was imagined and designed by the humans that live here. The research system that underpins our current food system is also designed by humans and reflects people’s politics, values and power dynamics. It is therefore malleable and changeable.
We are concerned with the questions of: Why is that most agricultural innovation research sits on the shelf (or more commonly, on a server somewhere)? Why is that ethics and moral concepts of do-no-harm is taught to medical science students but not agricultural science students?
Drawing on the work of Haysom et al (2019)- we believe this is because the research system(s) that underpins the food system need to fundamentally and systemically change to include equitable and diverse knowledge positions and generation, collaboration (not consensus), situatedness, and openness to multiple views of reality.
What does this all mean in non-jargon terms?
Our vision is to:
- Support leadership by Riverina civil society to inform, shape, engage with our regional food system
- Support leadership by Riverina Farmers to inform, shape, engage with our food system
- Acknowledge and build a multi-level approach to food systems change, with a focus on the wealth of human and social capital in our Riverina region for food system change
We will create transformational change:
- To inspire others through evidence that food systems research paradigm change is feasible & scaleable.
- To use our experience and process to agitate for change - for example in the research grants funding model that is currently a time-bound output-model to ‘something else’ (process focused not output focused)
- To see researchers as humans and research policy as therefore malleable, changeable and grounded in human values.
Talkin’ about a (Research) Revolution
We began practical steps towards this Vision in 2019 and it is community rooted. In addition to multiple conversations, meetings and relationship building with our diverse stakeholders, we’ve held two systems thinking workshops focused on creating systems maps and visions for food systems and research systems in our region. Our boundary is around the research system component of our local food systems. Quotes below are from our workshop participants.
1: Food Systems are underpinned by (old) research systems: The current food system and the agricultural practice that supports it is based on implicit world-views and everyday judgements.
These are that productivist agriculture provides (a) food security (b) healthy, nutritious foods and (c) rural economic well-being and that research will provide ‘good’ techno-engineered solutions to agricultural issues. These are “the boundaries that circumscribe our understanding” (Ulrich and Reynolds 2010) and define both the research and the food system in the Riverina area. “ [The current system]..disenfranchises farmers - a big group, growing larger, many of whom have a real story to tell”
Our vision is to change the composition of research teams from ‘pure scientists’ to collaborative teams of multi-disciplinary and community people. “Nature of Research teams -> engineers-> Marketers -> anthropology-> Social scientists “ This approach will influence all 6 themes as issues are not “solved” in research silos.
2: Ethics: Who and what are Australian food systems and thus research for ? We are now asking our food system to deliver nutrition (diet), improvement to soil health, climate mitigation, carbon sequestration (environment) and sustainable livelihoods (economy) to our farmers and rural communities. But in the face of climate change, water restrictions, increasing input costs, declining numbers of farmers and rural labour, high environmental externalities - we must the core question of ‘Can and should Australia continue to export food and feed itself?’ (Millar & Roots, 2012). This question is almost taboo in Australia - “the agricultural policy community in Australia closed to those who disagree with the prevailing economic approach”(Botterill 2005, p.216).
Our vision will create a cultural shift by opening the conversation on who the food system is for and how we design research to meet multi-factored goals ”[we need] research focusing on the improvement of planetary health. What I mean by planetary health is focusing on both the animal, the human and its impact on the environment and how they all work together. Going one step more than One Health and focusing on the planet and impacts on the environment.”
3: Diversity of Perspectives on the nature of the issues and thus solutions in the current food system. Our area is politically highly conservative and there is little or no agreed starting point nor agreed boundaries to problematique of our food systems or even whether there is a problem to start with. “Politicians (National Party) - They think they own the rural agenda, sometimes useful, sometimes not”. The rural agenda and National Party has a huge influence on agricultural and water policy. Wagga Wagga is the home town of Deputy Prime Minister of Australia and his direct electorate. We are positioned to influence policy and getting our issues on the federal agenda.
4:The Paradox: Rural food insecurity, rural obesity (diet & culture), supermarket duopoly and export-oriented agriculture (policy) are all key paradoxical features of our region. Our community is physically and economically close to agriculture, yet we have some of the poorest diets and access to food in the nation. “[research should]… help eliminate hunger, food insecurity and malnutrition … reduce rural poverty – Ensure inclusive and efficient agriculture & food systems “. An inclusive research system would not allow these facts to be considered externalities to agriculture and food systems- they are not. They are the core of ‘food systems’.
5: The economy of the Riverina is changing due increasing populations centred on the major towns, reduced numbers of family farmers and national and global demand for the foods we produce here. We need to think the connection between agriculture and employment, as technological advances are feeling a steady decline in the need for farm labour. ”…Have profitable non-agricultural businesses and attractive good metropolitan areas lifestyle outside”
Economic opportunities associated with the landholdings of Local Aboriginal Land Councils are flagged as key to economic independence for Aboriginal communities and to regional sustainability (NSW Government (2017). “Aboriginal Groups [need] access to traditional resources for health outcomes need for economic engagement”
It’s 2050, and I’m 72 years old. This will be my final year as a researcher. Am I the last of the old guard? Or was I the first of the new guard? It’s hard to know as the whole research system, the whole food system, has changed so much over my life. What have been my proudest achievements? Our work on breaking research silos has been adopted by many universities and governments, and the centring of values, morals and ethics to agricultural science and food systems is now near universal. Several countries took our idea further, and created civil deliberative democratic food councils to purposefully design inclusive, equitable food systems. I truly believe I made the world a better place for my children and grandchildren
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