Transcript - The Inaugural Tony Coote AM Memorial Lecture

Delivered by Major General the Honourable Michael Jeffery, Ac, Ao(Mil), Cvo, Mc (Retd)
(Monday 5 August 2019)

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The man

I am honoured tonight to deliver the inaugural Tony Coote AM Memorial Lecture.  He died last year on 8 August 2018 at the age of 79, and tragically, to be followed shortly after by his beautiful and supportive wife Toni.

Tony was an incredible man, and the world is a poorer place with his passing.  He was well known for his humility, generosity and presence.  Whether driving around his farm, sitting at the end of a boardroom or dinner table, listening and generously sharing his wisdom, Tony was a champion of people and ideas and a proponent of what is possible.  He has left a great legacy with his pioneering work at The Mulloon Institute and his vision for how Australian landscapes, and in particular their catchments, can be regenerated, rehydrated and thus better able to produce nutritious food for future generations.

Tony was driven from an early age by his interest in nature, the land and the environment. His was a concern about future generations, and indeed the survival of the human race.  Two factors inspired Tony to make changes to the way he farmed.  

Firstly, Tony’s view of the global agricultural landscape was that it was becoming “critically ill” and was quite quickly being degraded to the extent that it was no longer capable of producing sufficient nutritious food to feed a rapidly expanding population.  This, with serious water shortages was in turn leading to increasing health issues for hundreds of millions of the global population with a consequent impact on local stability. 

History demonstrates that hungry and thirsty people will fight for survival or cross borders to feed and water their children.  

Secondly, Tony also believed there were existing natural land management techniques demonstrable to farmers which would enable them to regenerate their landscapes, including their catchments, resulting in the production of highly nutritious food with a good economic return.

The farmer and innovator 

As an innovator and leader in this field, Tony led by example and began the process of converting the farm he had purchased near Bungendore, New South Wales in 1968, about an hour from Canberra on the top of the Great Dividing Range.  His aim was to run a productive farm on healthy, regenerated land using holistic and organic farming principals. 

Tony quickly realised that as food is a product of the environment in which it is grown, it can only ever be sustainable and nutritious if the soil, water, plant and animal components of that environment are properly managed through well informed and adequately resourced farmers and graziers.

Tony’s passion was infectious and with his wife Toni, worked to regenerate their Mulloon Creek Natural Farm ‘Home Farm’.  They demonstrated that even by rehydrating a small part of that landscape, including the repair of just three kilometres of their creek, they increased the carrying capacity and hence the productivity of their land.

Their enthusiasm for what had been achieved propelled the Cootes to greater things.  Tony gathered people around him including Peter Hazel and Peter and Stuart Andrews, who were able to support the regeneration enterprise and provide information to continue his work on the ‘Home Farm’ to ensure it would be an example for others.  Farmers, scientists and a wide range of innovators and experts provided input along with local farmers.

The Mulloon Institute

The result of this effort was the launch of the now internationally recognised Mulloon Institute.  In 2011, Tony formally launched this organisation as a not for profit charity with Deductible Gift Recipient status with the bequest of the entire 5,700 acres of Mulloon Creek Natural Farms for the continuation of long-term research and demonstration in perpetuity.

The rehydration project has grown to include a very large catchment area of Mulloon Creek. In 2013 it became the Mulloon Community Landscape Rehydration Project encompassing 20 landholders across 23,000 hectares and more than 50 kilometres of Mulloon Creek. 

This project is one of only five global examples demonstrating environmental repair to achieve productive and resilient agriculture that has been recognised by the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network.

Tony Coote inspired 20 of his neighbours to support this idea by rehydrating their sections of the creek and regenerating their landscapes, making this project a wonderful example of what a community working together can achieve. 

My own organisation, Soils For Life, with the expert guidance, cooperation and coordination of The Mulloon Institute, has completed a report on the 20 landholders, who are working collaboratively to rehydrate the Mulloon Creek catchment and in so doing, rehydrating their land.  The land managers were able to establish a baseline assessment of their vegetation condition on their different land types and measure the success of their water being “banked” in the soil.  This ‘banking” process dates to pre European habitation and involves slowing the water flow, giving it time to soak into the soil and be retained there for use by plants over time.  The “banking” technique is not rocket science, it is common sense.

The water being banked moves through the soil and is even drawn uphill and away from the creek. 

The clean fresh water that can be seen in Mulloon Creek, is as a result of the leaky weirs and ponds slowing the flow, and the filtering done by the vegetation.  This process is now being implemented on many properties across the country and Soils For Life has reported on some of these on its website to provide evidence of success for others to follow.  The remediated waterways do not have muddy water filled with silt or precious topsoil.  Instead they have clear water which provides homes for many organisms, including platypus in some cases, and is a testament to the good water resource management practices of these farmers.

TMI ongoing

Tony very generously bequeathed his two properties to The Mulloon Institute with the profits from the egg and beef operations supporting the ongoing research, advocacy and training around these practices.  It has been to his lasting credit and to Gary Nairn, his board and his team, that the federal government recognised the value of The Mulloon Institute by funding it to the value of $3.8M over five years.

Rehydrating more catchments

The Mulloon Community Landscape Rehydration Project concept is readily transferable to other locations and as the recently re-appointed National Advocate for Soil Health, I hope to encourage many more catchment regeneration programs using Mulloon as the teaching model.  Mulloon Creek was visited by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister and Agriculture Minister Littleproud, just prior to the election where the concept made a big impression on the group.

With sufficient catchment projects across the country, our much degraded rivers, streams and even wetlands can be restored and brought back to good health for the benefit of all in the community.  In so doing, the soil will be satiated, water will be saved and far less of this precious resource lost to evaporation.  

Not only is this a proven method of rehydrating the landscape, it brings farmers and other landholders together to work to restore and then maintain their landscapes.

Storing water in the soil will in turn enable vegetation to thrive and cover the land, protecting it from severe sun and wind and reducing the impact of drought and flooding events.

And we desperately need that vegetation, whether it be in the form of trees, grasses or shrubs, they are all important parts of the biome.  What we are aiming to do is to cover as much of the ground, including in our cities, with a mixture of plants all year round.

Carbon

Tony understood the need to keep the ground covered with vegetation and preferably perennials, whose leaves then capture the sunlight and carbon dioxide needed for photosynthesis.  The deep roots structures hold the soil and enable the photosynthesised carbon then to be transferred via the roots and the microbial fungi to the billions of microbes which in turn return essential minerals back to the plants. 

Tony also understood the importance of having enough carbon in the soil to facilitate water being stored in the soil.  Australian soils with few exceptions, have continued to lose carbon as a result of some of our traditional European style farming practices, where rapid run off into degraded stream and river systems carries precious topsoil out to sea.  We have lost about two thirds of our soil carbon over the past hundred or so years.

We know that one gram of carbon in the soil can facilitate the holding of up to eight times its weight in water.  So it stands to reason that if we increase the quantity of carbon in the soil, we will be able to store far more water where it is needed and where it is protected from run off and evaporation.  This eight to one ratio is important to remember when looking for water storage.  The soil can be a great sponge if it is healthy, has sufficient carbon, and its management should be a key consideration in all our water resource management policies. 

Soils For Life

Tony and I were good friends.  We both respected and complemented what each was doing in agricultural landscape regeneration; hence my patronage of his Institute and Mulloon Creek being a Soils For Life case study.  Accordingly, I am very confident that Tony would wish me to say something about Soils For Life in his oration because it has played a very important role in complementing the work of The Mulloon Institute in convincing the Prime Minister to adopt agricultural landscape regeneration as government policy.  I founded Soils For Life in 2011 as I was aware of the increasing degradation of our agricultural landscapes and the need to highlight, inform and advocate for improvement.  I called this process ‘fixing the paddock’ and set about developing an organisation to promote regenerative agriculture.  

Soils For Life has established 25 Soils For Life case studies of leading and innovative regenerative agricultural practices across a range of enterprises, across the country and also established a proven farmer to farmer mentoring program.  We measure economical, environmental, social and productivity performance annually from a startup base line.

We now have 45 startups on our books, well on the way to rolling out the next phase to 100 case studies over two to three years to embrace all agricultural types and geographic locations in Australia.  You can read the reports of the first phase and the latest studies on the Soils For Life website www.soilsforlife.org.au including the excellent Mulloon Creek catchment report.

Let me now define regenerative agriculture for you – I see it as a system of landscape management principles and practices that increase biodiversity, enrich soils, improve watersheds and enhance ecosystem services.

We have noted that all successful regenerative farmers and graziers have adapted a common core management principle, that is successfully integrating the management of their plant, water, soil and where appropriate, their animal assets.  They recognise that failure to manage any one of these assets leads to a collapse of the whole system.

Recent announcements

Like Mulloon Creek just before the last federal election, Soils For Life has now attracted strong Prime Ministerial, Deputy PM and Environmental and Agricultural Minister policy support.

It was very gratifying to have the Prime Minister reiterate at the Drought Summit held in Dubbo on 18 July this year, that we desperately need to improve the management of our water, soils and vegetation and that this needs to be done in generational leaps.  

Very importantly the Prime Minister announced at that same summit, that his Government will support and adopt as a national objective, the recommendation I made in my report as the National Advocate for Soil Health, to former Prime Minister Turnbull, to ‘restore and maintain the health of the Australian agricultural landscape to guarantee a food secure nation and sustainable farming communities.’  Implicit in that statement is integrating the management of our soils, water, plants and animals.

This sets the political direction not only for future governments, but also the various departments who I suggest must be involved in achieving that aim – for example, agriculture, environment, education, health, defence, aboriginal and infrastructure. 

I was further delighted to have the Prime Minister announce funding for Soils For Life over the next four years so it can continue to encourage the widespread adoption of regenerative landscape management. 

And more recently, the Minister for Environment, Sussan Ley, added her support for the role of farmers as key people in the fight to protect and regenerate our environment.  In her response to a question in Parliament, she stated …

“The point that the environment portfolio would like to emphasise is that it and agriculture are not in competition.  We are not in opposition.  We are working together.  We know that between us we can help with one of the key environmental and agricultural outcomes, which is healthy soils.”

I was also delighted to see that she reiterated the importance of healthy soils...

“Healthy soils” can “sequester carbon” and “support life.  They support our precious biodiversity.  They make a difference.  And, in a continent with fragile soils, as Australia is, the more we can work to produce those healthy soils the better, …”

She also reinforced the government’s approach to future drought preparedness to …

“…build that resilience into our farmers, to support our landscape and to love and to look after our environment.”

It may have taken many years and a substantial amount of advocacy and ‘on the ground’ work, but thanks to Tony Coote and other like-minded people across the country, a number of whom are here today, we have finally hit the jack pot with the Federal Government’s decision to support our farmers to restore the health of their landscapes.

Further, the WA government has already seen the importance of regenerating their landscape and improving the health of their soil with the WA Minister for Agriculture, Alannah McTiernan establishing a regeneration component in her department.

I have had meetings with the SA Premier and relevant Ministers and they are considering a similar approach.  I believe that the eastern states will follow the lead of those jurisdictions and the Federal Government.

National Advocate for Soil Health

It was very pleasing that as part of his statement at the Dubbo Drought Summit, the Prime Minister recalled me as the National Advocate for Soil Health, so I can continue my job to advocate for the improvement of the health of our nation’s soil and our catchments.  Even more important was the Prime Minister stating that he will be making this role a permanent one, properly supported by Government and located within the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.  This means there will be a continuation of independent people in this role to keep an eye on our soil and our agricultural and environmental future sustainability.

Of great importance is that the role of the National Advocate for Soil Health, will be expanded to include providing advice on national soil strategies and initiatives across all portfolio areas - education, training, overseas development assistance, science and technology, agriculture, water policy, and most importantly, regional development and national security.  It will also involve advocacy on soils as part of the broader global environmental approach of the Government including in the Indo-Pacific regions. 

I have said before at many events and in many locations, Australian farmers can improve their profitability and the resilience of their farming systems, even in the face of more frequent and extreme droughts, and climate change, if they are well supported in nurturing their soils, including funding to establish carbon sequestration projects.  Good soil management increases water storage, builds soil carbon levels, slows rates of soil acidification and minimises soil lost through erosion.

And the good news is that there is already much work underway by our dedicated farmers and land managers who are striving to regenerate their agricultural land, increase their soil knowledge and technical capacity. 

Our 85,000 farming businesses need support to do this work.  They are already looking after around 60% of the total Australian landscape and taking care of it on behalf of about 23 million urban Australians.

Soil is the lifeblood of agriculture and is fundamental to our survival.  Healthy soils, including our catchments, are essential for healthy plant growth, food nutrition and ecosystem services such as clean water and air. 

Healthy soils help to regulate the Earth's climate and can store more carbon than all of the world's forests combined.

But for farmers to help, they need to know how to assess the health of their soil. They need help to be able to measure what is in their soil, the carbon in particular, the moisture and biological components. And they need to be able to do this quickly and cheaply, and if possible, broad acre.  In this way, they can adjust their inputs, plan their programs to maximize their production without waste and environmental damage.  The University of Melbourne, and other research organisations, are now urgently looking at how to measure soil carbon.

The problems we face with our landscape are not unique.  They are global problems.  It is particularly obvious in India, Pakistan, China, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.  Even California is struggling with its lack of water and degraded soil.

What we are risking is the planet’s capacity to sustainably support the availability of adequate food and water for a future global population of 10 billion by 2050, up from the present 7 billion.

As I earlier mentioned, the social, national and global implications of a lack of food and water will be enormous.  These things underpin our global social stability and security and we have all witnessed changes to these over the past ten or so years.  Some nations are now including natural resources such as soil and water availability in their security threat assessment processes.

In 2015, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation published its World Soil Charter which involved Australia.  The document begins with this statement:  

“Healthy soils are a basic prerequisite to meeting varied needs for food, biomass (energy), fiber, fodder, and other products, and to ensuring the provision of essential ecosystem services in all regions of the world”.

I am very pleased that as a result of the Prime Ministers recent announcements, his Government’s support and that of the State leaders I have spoken to, we are on the way to fully supporting this Charter.

In 2017, Soils For Life partnered with universities, farmer groups and like-minded organisations in a successful bid for a Cooperative Research Centre for High Performance Soils. This is a long term project with the aim of working together to increase soil knowledge, increase the development and use of appropriate technology and get cutting edge soil science knowledge into the broader farming community.  Patently, catchment regeneration must be part of the CRC research.

The thrust is for scientific research to better support what is needed on the ground by farmers, rather than research that is driven purely by scientific curiosity. There is a role for both of course, but this CRC is designed to be farmer support driven.

We hope that as a result of this research, vital elements for productive and sustainable farms will be available for all.  These may include for example, simplified and rapid soil measurement processes and tools that will give results in real time.

I feel that we are at a turning point for soils, catchments and the health of our agricultural landscapes.  So much is owed to Tony Coote, the great team at Mulloon Institute, and others across the country who have led the need for change; change that is now being strongly supported by federal government policy. 

Because of Tony’s passion, his foresight, his courage under adversity and his philanthropic generosity, our nation will lead the world in guaranteeing its long term food security, through inspired farmers and graziers practicing Tony’s regenerative landscape principles.

There can be no more important or finer legacy.

Thank you.