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Published: 22 Feb 2019

Cows on King Island

Imagine a farm that produces no waste. Where any leftover agricultural biomass is used on the farm as a renewable resource.

This is one of the principles behind “circular agriculture”, a new way of thinking about agricultural production without negative environmental and social impacts. 

The concept of circular agriculture has taken inspiration from the work of Bill Mollison and David Holmgren who first established the principles for permaculture in the 1970s at the University of Tasmania.

This is our agricultural future:

Scarce resources used sparingly, less biomass wasted, renewable energy used, fewer imports needed and energy consumption and greenhouse gases reduced.

According to TIA Director Professor Holger Meinke, the biggest global challenge today is how to feed a growing population both healthily and sustainably.

“Consumers want our farmers to be profitable. They also want food that is healthy and has minimal environmental impacts. We need to work with our farming communities and devise farming practices that will deliver these outcomes,” Professor Meinke said.

“We are doing this in Tasmania. But this is not just a local issue – it’s a global one – and we are actively looking to places like the Netherlands to see what we can learn from their approaches. I also expect that they can learn something from us.”

Right now, the Netherlands is completely transforming their agriculture sector to become a world leader in circular agriculture.

TIA PhD candidate Melle Nikkels, says it’s the most significant change in agricultural practice since World War II.

“In the winter famine of 1945, many Dutch starved. When the war was over, the Dutch government prioritised producing as much food as possible,” Mr Nikkels said.

“This way of working is not environmentally sustainable, so the agricultural footprint had to be analysed.

“Circular agricultural policy aims to have no direct and indirect negative impacts on biodiversity; it places a high priority on animal welfare, with the aim of farmers and society to better integrate.”

How will the diverse farmers in the Netherlands make the change?

“It’s not just up to farmers,” Mr Nikkels said.

“The government is asking everyone in the business community, civil society and government to get involved, to contribute ideas and to take initiatives.

“One incentive they are considering is that farmers contributing to the circular agriculture will get a premium on product.

“Income that is currently only based on production would instead also be based on service to society, such as biodiversity, water security, quality and the smallest possible footprint.”

Can these initiatives have practical implications for Tasmania?  

In a circular agricultural system, resource flows that minimise energy use are given priority. This makes locally produced food more competitive and attractive.

Can we imagine a future where most of our beef sold in Tasmania comes from our farmers on King Island? Or where all our milk is from dairies that incorporate residuals from horticulture as feed for their cows?

What can we do to make our Tasmanian production systems more circular? Let us know what you think by tweeting us @TasinAg.

This article appeared in Tasmanian Country on 22 January 2019.