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Creating sustainable agrifood supply chains and the world of the consumer

Dr Nina Welti, an impact area lead for CSIRO and AgriFutures evokeAG. 2023 speaker, is beaming with palpable optimism. We can all change the world, she believes, and she’s made that her work’s mission – by solving problems to create a more sustainable food system.

Nina Welti, CSIRO Dr Nina Welti, Senior Scientist and Impact Area Lead for CSIRO.

Dr Nina Welti is, above all else, optimistic. That optimism all started with a stormwater pond in Alpharetta, Georgia, in the US. As a member of her high school environmental club, Nina raised awareness and funds in her community to clean up a stormwater pond. She saw the fruits of her labour ten years after graduating, when the pond was returned to wetlands by the students who followed in her footsteps.

“It’s not just me who did something. It was the collective over time – building, doing something together, all galvanised by solving this. And it’s still there, 23 years later,” said Nina.

“We can change things, we can make them better, we can do it. The pond was the beginning of me asking the important questions like: ‘What can we do better? And how can we make it happen?’

“That focus on ‘here’s a problem, let’s find a solution and work together’ is still what I do today, it hasn’t changed at all. And it’s still just as hard and challenging. And maybe it’s in ten years that we see the benefits, but I’ll still be chuffed.”

Dr Nina Welti, fieldwork

Dr Nina Welti

Nina currently leads a portfolio of work as the Impact Area Lead for Trusted Supply Chains within CSIRO’s Agriculture and Food business unit. She aims to increase the value, sustainability and productivity of Australian agriculture, as well as the financial, social and nutritional outcomes of the industry, “so we have a healthy and resilient system for everyone, not just growers”.

She’s also involved with the Trusted AgriFoods Exports Mission, which endeavours to grow the global export earnings of Australian produce by $10 billion by 2030, utilising data-driven verification tools and credentialing technologies to ensure food quality, safety and sustainability. Nina’s contributions are focused in a scientific capacity, where she can put her biogeochemical skillset to best use and “chase nitrogen and carbon around”.

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Agriculture, the key to achieving a net-positive food system

Nina believes that “if you want to have any kind of net-positive ecological improvement, working in agriculture is how to do it”. “That’s where we have the ability to improve practices, the willingness, and the recognition that if we don’t, we won’t be able to feed ourselves. We have to. It’s livelihoods. It’s how we live.”

Nina, who is neurodiverse, believes her ADHD enables her to connect all of the parts of the food system. It’s an essential skill when attempting to provide solutions to a world where consumers are hungry (and hungry) for transparency in their food supply, information to aid purchasing decisions and the ability to consciously contribute more to a changing planet.

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“We’re all consumers,” said Nina. “Consumers are setting the bar high for standards. We want to be connected to how our food is made, grown, and produced. If we want to let that consumer vote happen, we need to turn our food supply chains from a line into a circle, and connect consumers to the producers so that the information and value in dollars, and not just ethical value, is transferred to the producers faster so they can enact those changes that consumers are responding to.”

Dr Nina Welti and CSIRO team

Dr Nina Welti and the team undertaking fieldwork for the SARDI-AWRI project.

One such example is Nina’s work on a SARDI (South Australian Research and Development Institute), Australian Wine Research Initiative and CSIRO partnership studying the transfer of information around grape irrigation. The three-year project involves the development of a biological fingerprint that will travel with the grapes from the producer to the end recipient, “underpinned by evidence and information that we can use from the environment”.

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Nina also sees potential for continuous assurance through the use of simple sensors at a meat-processing facility, for example, to provide a temperature log that demonstrates a cut’s journey and its quality control, or blockchain solutions to retain a product’s sustainability credentials.

“At the core, it’s these technologies that allow information to flow between the people who need it. It can be simple, it can be complex. They’re all fundamentally solving the same problem.”

Nina will further explore the role of technology and how consumer insights are driving change at AgriFutures evokeAG. Down to Earth event in Adelaide, South Australia on 21-22 February 2023, on a panel session with Professor Rachel Ankeny of the School of Humanities at the University of Adelaide, Tom Rutledge, CEO of HelloFresh and Tim Cartwright, CEO of It’s Fresh Produce, and General Manager of Fresh Foods at Drakes Supermarkets.

“I feel like we’re at the crux of where big transformation is happening and that it’s actually possible to create an environmentally, socially-resilient system where value is distributed equitably throughout supply chains,” she said. And there’s a massive opportunity for collaboration between government, science, and industry.

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“All of these pieces are coming together, and we can do it, if we don’t get in our own way. We’ve got the ability to provide the information that’s needed to increase the value of our agriculture sector and provide the funding needed to keep the science going. When we can align those two things, that’s great. That’s magic in my mind.”

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But it all starts small.

“All it takes is one person to believe that you can change the world. It’s why I do the job I do, and working at CSIRO allows me that, Nina said, reflecting on her bold achievements. “13-year-old me would be so proud of 40-year-old me.”

Want to learn more about Dr Nina Welti’s vision for sustainable agrifood supply chains and how we can better connect farmers and consumers? Join us, at the AgriFutures evokeAG. 2023 Down to Earth event on 21-22 February 2023 in Adelaide, South Australia, where Nina will speak on behalf of CSIRO, a Silver Partner of evokeAG. 2023.

Bringing together the best and brightest together to talk about how innovation and technology collide, intersect, connect, translate, complement, and challenge our most important assets – our people, our farms, our soil, our water, and our Earth. Tickets are on sale here.

View the full two-day program, including all speakers and partners involved in evokeAG. 2023.

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