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The sustainability challenges facing Australia and China

China has long held food security as an important pillar in the design of its political and economic systems.

This view has been formed through the Cultural Revolution, during which the failure of collective farming led to acute food shortages and instability.  My father is of Hakka heritage, a Chinese ethnic group that migrated from China in several waves due to social unrest. Food shortages in China were so acute that family members in China were sent tins of condensed milk from Borneo where his family settled. In this context, sustainability in China has a different meaning to what we adopt in Australia, where we are exporters of food. Sustainability in China is linked to political, social and economic stability. However, the views on sustainability of these two countries are coming closer together. The long term viability of agriculture using practices that improve the health of the land is a focus for both countries and innovation is key to making this happen.   

Innovation in supply chains and market structure is having an impact on the sustainability of China’s agricultural sector. China’s food security policy is currently designed around avoiding over dependence on external markets by holding large domestic stocks of grain. China now holds 47% of the world’s corn stocks and 44% of world wheat stocks, most of which has been grown domestically. Whilst the silos may be full, they are not effective in providing food security as older crops are starting to spoil and may not be suitable for food or feed usage. In addition, China has developed a significant dependence on the US and South America for soybeans. China is the world’s number 1 soybean importer, accounting for 63% of global soybean trade.

To address this issue, China has moved to address food security via ownership of international supply chains. Food security is enhanced if it can buy grain and oilseeds from the world using its own supply chain. State owned giant COFCO led the push offshore by acquiring global trading companies Noble and Nidera. Both these companies have a global reach and own significant assets in South America where China imports soybeans from. This rapid innovation in market structure is something that western nations can only dream about. It is a beautiful solution that addresses food security, creates a new global trading house and creates a platform for a sustainable structure as China no longer has to risk spoilage of grain through long term storage.

With the food security pillar intact, China is now changing the way its domestic staple crops are priced. Government procurement of staple crops by setting high floor prices has been abandoned and a shift to a market based pricing system is underway. Farm incomes will fall under market based pricing but stability in rural areas will be maintained with subsidies in other areas. This period of change is an opportunity for Chinese farmers to reassess their enterprises and adopt new innovative and sustainable practices. I think some of our broadacre farming practices are highly innovative and could have application in China. One such area is our management of weeds.

Australian farming businesses have operated at the high end of the cost curve for some time now. It has forced Australian farmers to adopt efficient practices and to invest in research to boost productivity.
Timothy Lo, Essay Competition Runner-up

Australian broadacre farmers have been battling increasing herbicide resistance in weeds. Research and extension programs have led to a multi-faceted approach to weed management. The tool kit now includes chemical rotations, selective spraying, crop rotations and management of weed seedbanks. Australian innovators have been active in this area designing seed destructors and shielded sprayers. We have also adopted Dutch technology in the form of Weedit selective sprayers. China recently released its thirteenth 5-year plan on National Economic and Social Development, in which the theme of modernising Chinese agriculture is still a feature. In addition, there was emphasis on improvements to efficiency and quality, increasing use of advanced technology and environmentally friendly practices. The technology used in Australian broadacre farming will have a place in driving sustainability in China as their farms become bigger and are increasingly mechanised. Naturally, this is linked to economic sustainability of farms.

Australian farming businesses have operated at the high end of the cost curve for some time now. It has forced Australian farmers to adopt efficient practices and to invest in research to boost productivity. Weedit selective sprayers are an example of new practices that deliver cost savings through reduction in chemical usage. Chinese farmers are at a similar tipping point through their shift to a market based pricing system. Their farm incomes will fall as their commodity prices move closer to parity with international markets. This is an opportunity to reassess the long term viability and sustainability of their farms through innovation. Innovation that boosts productivity and environmental factors. Collaboration in this area must lead to more sustainable outcomes.

Both Australia and China are increasingly focused on innovations aimed at supporting sustainability within their agricultural systems. Traditionally, the focus of sustainability in China has been linked to political, social and economic stability, in contrast to Australia, which prioritises land management practices and efficiency through scale and technology. However, the views of both countries are converging in the recognition of the need to improve the long term viability of agriculture using practices that improve the health of the land. Innovation is the key to making this happen and the sharing of ideas and developments will benefit both.

Tim is an agricultural consultant from Perth and works in grain marketing. Tim’s essay showed a deep understanding on the challenges facing Australian and Chinese agriculture: While food security is a pressing issue in China, Australia faces challenges in land management.  

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