Chip in City, says Farrer medallist
Farmers need to manage the Australian landscape including rivers, wetlands and estuaries in ways that are ecologically sustainable – and city dwellers need to pay to do so.
This was the message from leading agricultural scientist, Dr John Williams, a former Chief of CSIRO Land and Water, who delivered the 2005 Farrer Memorial Oration at the University of Sydney.
In a speech titled Sustainable agriculture in Australia – some ways forward, Dr Williams (pictured) said the agricultural community should not be expected to produce cheap, clean food and fibre, as well as provide a free service to maintain all the ecological functions of the landscape.
Dr Williams said there is sufficient knowledge now to shape the re-thinking of our farming systems.
However, to do so would require “radical change” to current land use.
“It is a demanding journey to build an agriculture that works for the climate and soils of the great south land,” he said.
“Unfortunately farming based around annual crops and pastures does not work well in the Australian landscape.”
The problem was that annual crops and pastures leak far too much water into the ground, leading to rising salt levels in valley floors, rivers and wetlands, soil acidification, soil nutrient depletion and the delivery of increased nutrients to groundwater, streams and wetlands.
“The challenge is to build agro-ecosystems that generate wealth from food and fibre products and which have within them flows of water, nutrient and carbon that are well matched to the flows that can be accommodated in hydro-geochemical cycles of the ancient continent.”
He proposes that change should incorporate:
- Commercially driven tree production systems for large areas of the current crop and pasture zones,
- New farming systems made up of novel mixes of annual and perennial plants,
- New cereals, pulses, oilseed and forages able to substantially reduce deep drainage and nitrogen leakage, and
- New land assessment tools that best locate trees, other perennials, high-value annuals and native vegetation and match them to water targets and biodiversity goals.
These tools should help identify land which should be farmed and those areas which should be used to protect native biota.
Dr Williams said the future form of sustainable agriculture would be “a mosaic of new and old agricultural enterprises.”
He added that ecosystem services are essential to urban societies and hence need to be recognised and paid for as a fundamental part of the economy.
“The agriculture of the future will be paid not only for the goods and services it produces but will be remunerated for services delivered through its management of healthy landscapes, rivers, wetlands and estuaries.
“Agriculture will broaden its perspective to be seen as the custodian and manager of the life support systems for society as a whole,” he said.
Dr Williams said the search for sustainable agriculture began in Australia with William Farrer, who in 1886 had suspected English wheat breeds were unsuitable because they were especially vulnerable to rust fungi.
He said Farrer’s search for varieties more suited to Australian conditions began the “long journey that farmers and scientists have trodden for the last 125 years”.
Dr Williams was also awarded the Farrer Memorial Medal by the Chairman of the Farrer Memorial Trust and Director-General of the NSW Department of Primary Industries, Mr Barry Buffier.
The medal is for distinguished services in agricultural science in Australia in the fields of research, education or administration.
- JOANNE FINLAY
This story appears in Agriculture Today.