There are many ways innovation can help make agriculture more sustainable- both as a long term industry capable of feeding the world and to preserve the planet for many generations to come. The agricultural landscape in China and Australia is vastly different.
China is a country with massive population growth. It is a huge importer as well as a huge producer/exporter of food, but the risk of food shortages is very real. Australia has space and a small population, yet the agricultural industries in both counties face similar challenges to their long term sustainability. Some of these challenges include the uncontrollable forces of nature, scarcity of natural resources such as fresh water and productive soils, wastage of produce and profitability for farmers. Innovation can help to address these issues.
Innovation is finding a way to make more from less, and leaving a lesser foot print on the earth. Scientific innovation is booming ahead to help agricultural industries become more efficient. In the grains world, new varieties are constantly being bred that can better withstand stresses such as heat, lack of moisture, insects and fungal diseases, and also be higher yielding without excessive additional inputs. Not only can this research and development help to tailor specific varieties better suited to certain areas, this can help to reduce the reliance on chemicals that can be very unsustainable environmentally speaking. Ground and water contamination and other off target impacts are huge issues for the long term. A fantastic example is genetically modified cotton. Adding an insect resistance gene means it can now be grown without heavy insecticide application. According to the Cotton Australia website, this innovative technology has reduced the insecticide applications on Australian farms by nearly 90% per year. 50% more cotton is being produced on the same amount of land as 40 years ago with these newer, better varieties. This technology can be used to greatly increase sustainability if it is used and developed with the right intentions in mind.
Cultural practices in farming can also help. Research, development and new ideas can help to sharpen our practices to ensure everything from fertiliser application to irrigation to sheep worming is done at the right time, with the right product and right rate to maximise productivity, profitability and sustainability. Higher yields/production with less inputs means there will be more left for future generations and more produce off the limited amount of arable land the world has- the population can grow but fertile land unfortunately cannot! Similarly, technology is another great tool that is being used to increase the efficiency of agriculture and make it more sustainable by using less, but using smarter. Some of these technologies include moisture probes to closely monitor crop usage and requirements, irrigators that are more efficient reducing water usage and electronic ear tags in cattle to customise feeding. Innovation at the ground level is helping farmers around the globe to become more productive by using better varieties and using their resources smarter.
However, it is not just the actual production part of agriculture that needs to be addressed. We must look harder to be serious about sustainability. There are constant cases of produce being wasted, which is a direct waste of all the resources that have been poured into it. Every year there is a surplus of something-this year it is cereal grain and milk. Wheat is at an all time low price, and the dairy industry is in crisis in many countries due to world surpluses. Farmers are getting paid less than the cost of production in many cases, and sometimes there is literally no market for the excess produce. This seems obscene when globally we need to be making more food, and next year there could be an enormous drought/flood/fire that wipes out a large portion of the world crop. We must be greater innovators at the next step up and find ways to transport, store, process and better distribute EVERY grain and every drop of milk, because the time for its use will never be too far away in a long term scale. Better storage facilities at food and fibre processers, transporters and even on the farm level. This would help to buffer farmers against market volatility, and buffer the global community against food shortages. Innovative ideas here would help to ensure that farmers get paid fairly for their produce, and are -as a family and business- sustainable. When a fair return is achieved, farmers are less likely to engage in high intensity, unsustainable practices that will strip the prime land of its fertility in their short live times – something they can be forced to do just to remain profitable. Often the focus is solely on increasing yields and production, but the wastage at the other end renders this output improvement a waste of time and resources. Efforts must be made to innovate and improve the rest of the ‘food chain’ too.
All the innovation in the world cannot stop the forces of mother nature- droughts, floods, insect plagues. These devastating forces will be with us forever, so the best we can do is adapt where we can. Great advances have been made with selective breeding and genetic modification, and cultural practices to reduce risk, improve yields and increase sustainability-but there is much more to be done. We must also carefully preserve every grain and drop of milk to help survive the tougher times, and be able to pay our farmers fairly. Globally our farmers are doing a great job of growing our food and fibre, but they need more innovations to move forward towards a more sustainable future. Sustainability isn’t about making as much as the ground will allow you, it is about making enough to sustain the world’s population, financially supporting the farm business and country’s economy, and minimising the impact the practises are having on the earth to a level that there will be plenty here for the future generations. Together, with global innovation, we can achieve this.
Ellen Grinter won the NFF's essay competition. Ellen is an agronomist and farmer from Kaarimba in North Central Victoria and a passionate member of the Victorian Young Farmers Club. Ellen’s essay focused on how innovation is “finding a way to make more from less and leaving a lesser footprint on the earth”.