AUSTRALIA can no longer trade off its ‘clean and green’ reputation without the evidence to prove it, a national fresh produce industry event was told.

Freshcare’s inaugural National Assurance Summit drew stakeholders from across the entire horticulture supply chain for a two-day program focused on addressing immediate and future challenges faced by the sector, as it works to reaffirm itself as having ‘trusted and sustainable’ business practices.

It comes amid the Federal Government’s commencement of its six sectoral plan to lower carbon emissions, with agriculture the first sector to be placed under review.

Electricity and energy, industry, resources, the built environment, and transport are set to follow.

Effecting each part of the horticulture supply chain, panel discussions largely centered around how the industry would navigate Australia’s ‘net zero by 2050’ plan.

Delegates heard a diverse range of perspectives from speakers which included growers, suppliers, researchers, auditors, exporters, environmentalists, retailers, and industry leaders.

Australian Retailers Association’s Director of Sustainability and Impact, Jason Roberston, speaking at the Freshcare Australian Assurance Summit. IMAGE: Supplied

Among them was the Australian Retailers Association’s Director of Sustainability and Impact, Jason Roberston, who said while lowering emissions would be the first step towards a net zero plan, ultimately a change in consumer demands would dictate the future of all businesses. 

“There is a greater desire for transparency about where the product has come from and the type of environmental impacts that they incurred,” Robertson (pictured above) said.

“Transparency around whether or not we are looking out for people along the supply chain – and it’s because there is just a greater awareness around issues around the world, and so now climate change and human rights issues are affecting everyday issues.

“There is such a focus on greenwashing now that, if what you’re saying doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, then that presents a massive investment risk to your business as well.”

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Businesses are increasingly committing to ambitious sustainability pledges. Yet what that means is complicated and opaque, with the horticulture sector among companies struggling to make an action plan.

However, unnecessary additional audits can’t be the answer, said Richard Shannon, who heads up the National Farmers Federation’s Horticulture Council.

Shannon said while the sector was under immense pressure to adapt it was also an opportunity to better communicate its own story.

“We’ve actually got some great claims to be making about what we already do so we need to keep gathering that data so we can do a better job in communicating,” Shannon (pictured) said.

“We need to lift the veil a bit and invite these other stakeholders in, the public, government, retailers, supply chain to see what we do and to be proud about our record of delivering really safe, nutritious food to the public.”

Richard Shannon, head of the National Farmers Federation’s Horticulture Council, speaking at the Freshcare Australian Assurance Summit. IMAGE: Supplied

Robertson said he was concerned about certain language encroaching on the industry which could be misleading to consumers and unfair to growers.

“There’s a lot of talk about ‘social license’ as this idea that you can lose it,” he said.

“It’s only given to you for a period of time so long as you behave and while they have their place, particularly when it comes to driving and gun ownership it doesn’t fit for delicate social issues and for something as complex as the production of food.

“So my main takeaway has been a need for a social contract between growers, producers, consumers, the wider public, but also retail and the whole supply chain and government.

“We need to be more deliberate about maintaining our relationships and informing each other, being transparent because we owe each other duties and obligations to keep that food system fair.”

Comments like these were supported by Lucy Gregg from AUSVEG, the peak industry body for vegetables, who said there was a great need for better education efforts by government and industry.

“Increasing consumption is one of our key our key issues and if we could get every Australian to eat one more serve of vegetables that’s an extra billion dollars in the industry,” Gregg said.

“So I think that’s another topic that’s going to take the whole country to embrace. 

“It’s going to take government, it’s going to take retailers, it’s going to take everyone to understand.

“They’re obviously short term issues, but there are obviously some longer term issues that we need to start addressing not only just for our sector but the long term health and wellbeing of Australians and particularly our children is really important.”

Addressing long term sustainability targets was also a priority the sector was already working towards, Gregg said.

*Freshcare kindly covered travel and accommodation costs to enable Country Caller to report on the Assurance Summit.

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