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Many agribusinesses, whether it be through their own corporate mission and vision or as a consequence of changing consumer preferences, are integrating sustainable practices into the way they do business. Three Western Australian outfits reveal how they have adapted the way they work in the past 12 months in an effort to be more sustainable, and what’s on the cards in the future for continual improvement.

In a large tin shed on a small farm in the Peel region of Western Australia, thousands of tiny crickets line hundreds of plastic trays stacked one on top of each other.

It’s the home of Grubs Up, WA’s first edible cricket farm and one of the state’s most cutting-edge future food operations. “We produce, process and manufacture high-protein crickets for human food and animal feed,” says Grubs Up owner Paula Pownall.

Unsustainable farming practices past and present have contributed to a range of environmental issues, including deforestation, soil degradation, water shortages and climate change. As the world grapples with these issues, there has been a consolidated push to invest in food production that has a smaller environmental impact and better social outcomes.

A 2013 report published by the UN identified insects as an abundant, nutritious and low-impact food source that is needed to feed a world population forecast to hit 9.8 billion by 2050. Entomophagy – the human consumption of insects – may seem off-putting to some, but is a common practice in many cultures, with as many as two billion people worldwide regularly dining on insects.

Advocates argue that the sustainability case for insect farming is strong. According to the UN report, cricket cultivation produces fewer greenhouse gases and uses less water than traditional food production, and it doesn’t require land clearing. It’s also more energy efficient – cold-blooded crickets need 12 times less feed than cattle, four times less feed than sheep, and half as much feed as pigs and broiler chickens to produce the same amount of protein.

Pownall, who left a local government role in mosquito management to start Grubs Up in 2015, recognised the potential for insects such as crickets as a sustainable source of human nutrition.

Her crickets live in a climate-controlled environment that ranges in temperature between 28C and 34C, and are fed on fruit and vegetable waste sourced from local fresh produce shops. “The good thing about insects is that you can vertical farm them,” she says, meaning insect farmers require much less space than other farmers.

At the end of their eight-week lifespan, the crickets are placed in a fridge, where they enter into a hibernation-like sleep before dying a humane death. They are then rinsed and dry-roasted “long and slow”, says Pownall.

The roasted crickets can be sold whole or turned into cricket powder, a high-protein product that can be used as a protein supplement or a 50/50 substitute for regular flour. “You can sprinkle it on salads or add it to your roasted meat,” says Pownall. “I use it in banana bread and have it in my breakfast smoothie every morning.” Cricket powder appears in other Grubs Up products, including a cricket energy bar made with cacao and a cricket hazelnut dukkah.

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An eco-friendly ethos underpins the entire Grups Up operation. “We want every part of our business to be as sustainable as possible,” Pownall says. “That’s why we use recycled egg cups to house the crickets, and we use recycled foods to feed them. We turn all their manure and exoskeletons into fertiliser, so there’s minimal waste in our whole system. We want to walk the talk.”

In 2018, Pownall participated in AgriStart’s Harvest 2.0 Accelerator, an innovative program designed to help ag-tech start-ups advance their business to the next phase. Another Harvest 2.0 Accelerator alum is P&A Pan, a second-generation vegetable business run by Vange Panagiotidis at Carabooda, north of Perth.

Panagiotidis’s parents began growing tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, cabbage and cauliflowers after they arrived in Australia from Greece in 1955. As customer preferences changed over the decades, the Panagiotidises switched to baby-leaf greens such as spinach, rocket and radicchio.

For Panagiotidis, sustainability means increasing output while minimising inputs like water and chemicals. At the end of the day, he says, sustainability “brings our costs down”. In 2018, the farm installed a 25kW solar unit that reduced energy costs by 40 per cent a month – a saving which covers the cost of the system.

Since completing the Harvest program, Panagiotidis has invested more energy into improving efficiency and on-farm value-adding. One concept he is exploring is the cultivation of microherbs – two-leaf greens that are grown intensively in climate-controlled sea containers. Panagiotidis is investigating two options: a soilless product and one grown in a biodegradable coconut husk pot. At this stage, the concept is “a work in progress”, he says. “We’re trying to supplement our business without buying more land or more machinery.”

Intensive farming requires excellent soil health, a pillar of agricultural sustainability. Regular soil testing every six months allows Panagiotidis to take a more targeted approach to soil conditioning. Fertilisers are custom-blended based on test results “instead of buying something off the shelf and throwing it on”, he says. “We might go around six times a year on 50 acres. If we’re not looking after our soil health, we’re in trouble.”

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Soil health is also crucial to the Kitto family’s 11,000-hectare broadacre operation located 100km from Geraldton in WA. As well as wheat and canola, the Kittos grow lupins, a legume traditionally cultivated for animal feed that is emerging as a valuable source of human nutrition. Lupin flour is high in fibre, protein and minerals including iron and potassium, while it is also low in carbohydrates and gluten-free.

Recognising the potential of Australian Sweet Lupin (ASL) in the human food market, the Kitto family formed Golden West Foods to mill ASL for human consumption. In 2017, they launched My Provincial Kitchen, a new value-adding arm to the operation selling lupin flour and premade mixes for pancakes and brownies.

Lupin, a valuable product in its own right, is also a rotational crop that helps with weed and disease control. “We can’t keep growing wheat and canola on the same soil all the time here,” says Kitto. “We need to break it up … to keep our soil in good health.”

Over the years, the Kittos have gradually adopted more sustainable cultivation methods on their farm. They now practice minimum tillage, where crop residue is retained as mulch and protects soil from wind blow events, and stepped away from raising livestock, which was too damaging to topsoil.

At Carabooda, Panagiotidis is optimistic that advances in technology will make his operation even more sustainable in the future. Aerial infrared imagery taken from a drone, for example, can provide crop growers with data about crop condition and soil health they need to develop more precise soil conditioning and spraying regimes.

“All businesses should be doing business as sustainably as possible,” says Pownall, whose focus is on scaling Grubs Up and developing consumer products. The agri-innovation precinct in the nearby Peel Business Park at Nambeelup is part of the first major project of Transform Peel, a $49 million initiative created by the Peel Development Commission to drive economic growth and innovation in the Peel region, one of the state’s fastest growing areas. The precinct will provide entrepreneurs with the opportunity to engage in crucial research and development across “branding, collaboration, innovation and investment,” Pownall says. “It will help us build production capacity.”

Sustainability is a priority of the Peel Business Park development too. The Peel Integrated Water Initiative (PIWI) is researching the provision of a sustainable and reliable water resource that is ecologically sound for the Peel Business Park and Peel Food Zone. The initiative includes the proposal for a managed aquifer recharge project in the region, while LandCorp’s Industrial Lands Authority is working with a service provider on delivering an industrial microgrid in the park with one megawatt of solar photovoltaic panels and two megawatt hours of battery storage. This microgrid is expected to become one of the largest of its kind in Australia and is planned to deliver renewable energy to the first phase of the business park, with views to expand as the park grows and develops.

To ensure the construction of common-use infrastructure including research facilities, cold storage, warehousing, packaging, distribution and incubator space within the agri-innovation precinct within Peel Business Park is successful, the Shire of Murray recently secured $21.75 million through the Commonwealth Government’s Regional Growth Fund.

Shire of Murray’s Manager of Economic Development David Arkwright says the shire “will be actively working with the district’s agricultural sector and younger generation to introduce new concepts and technologies, whilst reviving Murray’s food sector knowledge base in order to position it as an exciting opportunity for enterprise and employment”.

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