This paper focuses on impediments to environmentally sound management practices and how these might be overcome, with an emphasis on the role of environmental management systems, supply chains and civil society. It argues that:•Farmers are under increased pressure to cut costs and improve production but with little opportunity to increase prices. Commonly short-term economic interest has damaging environmental implications.•Current government policy, in Australia and in many other jurisdictions, relies heavily on voluntary arrangements, education and information, as the main policy instruments through which to persuade farmers to adopt better environmental farm management-e.g. the recent push to encourage the use of voluntary environmental management systems.•However, there is good evidence to suggest that these can only make a valuable contribution when combined with a range of other policy instruments, including positive and negative incentives, intervention by third parties and in some cases, an underpinning of regulation.•Arguably, what is needed is a strategy that builds on the strengths of voluntary environmental management arrangements while compensating for their weaknesses by combining them with other, complementary policy instruments. If so, we must engage with a range of questions that have not so far figured substantially in the policy debate.•Although the principal focus has been on the role of government in bringing about on-farm change in management practices, supply chain pressure (at least in respect of agricultural chemicals and practices which threaten food safety) and civil society action are also potentially powerful mechanisms for bringing about change. Government can and should play a role in harnessing such forces in the interests of improved environmental on-farm practices.