Ynm898cs 1379467006

Grasslands under pressure – will agriculture pull through?

Australian agriculture is heavily reliant on grasslands, but we’re doing very little to ensure their survival. Climexus/Flickr

Grasslands under pressure – will agriculture pull through?

Australian agriculture is heavily reliant on grasslands, but we’re doing very little to ensure their survival. Climexus/Flickr

Rising human populations place enormous stress on grasslands and other resources used for agriculture. Land is taken over for housing, roads, growing crops. Do we want to wipe out the natural environment and grasslands simply to feed an over-populated Australia and world?

It’s an implication few politicians have been brave enough to acknowledge is a consequence of their rhetoric. We need to better utilise what we have currently available.

Grasslands feed Australian agriculture

Most Australian livestock is produced on grass. Our variable climate makes that hard work; climate change will only add to the problem as Australia’s rainfall becomes more variable.

Rising energy costs also affect grasslands directly and indirectly as they are embedded in all inputs. These costs will continue to increase as the world tries to deal with climate change, but also as low cost oil reserves decline further.

In future years we could still satisfy local demand but exports would be less. Prices to consumers would increase, but little of the extra money supermarkets make would trickle back to farmers. It may not be enough for farmers to fund the extra inputs (fertiliser, seed, machinery) to maintain existing levels of meat, wool, milk and other animal products.

Existing practices won’t solve these problems, as they have been developed to optimise current levels of production under current conditions. We currently produce enough for 50-60 million people, but that looks like being Australia’s population later this century. Taking advantage of rising affluence in Asia then becomes harder.

Could foreign investment help?

Foreign investment (not just cash) has been important for the development of Australia. But notoriously, many foreign corporations have only treated Australia as a branch office, shifting profits to subsidiaries in tax havens and making major decisions in favour of the home office rather than Australia.

This has been very obvious in agriculture. Australia is a unique environment and to be successful much local research and development is needed, which local firms have more incentive to do. You cannot simply copy what has been done in the USA or Europe and expect it to work.

Even worse has been the limits put by foreign corporations on their branch office staff developing any basic research and development locally; the type of work that leads to useful breakthroughs. To simply argue that foreign investment to buy up and develop farms in a traditional way will lead to great new outcomes is naive.

David Clarke

There is a slow decline in the number of farms and a slow shift to more being owned by companies, but those companies have often grown out of family businesses (as in other industries) and those familial connections are very important in providing the drive and energy required for success.

Corporate models don’t always work well, as medium sized operations can be more efficient - as evident in those large farms that are subdivided into smaller, independent units where facilities are duplicated and innovation is encouraged.

Australia isn’t planning far enough ahead

Economic modelling rarely considers likely scenarios a generation ahead, but in this case it is needed so that better directions can be set. We have to identify potential technologies that will give us higher production for current inputs (more productive plant varieties, improved animal digestion and other currently unavailable technologies). Potential technologies could take a generation to develop, but possibilities need to be identified now.

Feeding a larger population will probably require more irrigated pastures (sown grasslands). But the Murray-Darling and other river systems are already over-committed. Do we want to build desalination plants everywhere just to get the water needed for irrigation to feed people?

Australians have done a great job over the past century in researching and developing solutions that have increased our production of food and fibre. Often significant gains could be achieved with simpler solutions, such as phosphate fertilisers and Farrer breeding disease-resistant wheats. But today the challenges are more complex and need large, sustained efforts.

The decline in support for research and development has already shown a decline in productivity. Livestock industries are more complex than crops as the interaction between soils, plants, climate, livestock needs to be optimised, hence the need for concerted research and development.

Governments need to promote agriculture and food production as one of our major challenges and one that attracts the best and brightest in the country – as was the case some decades ago. Governments will achieve a place in history if they have done the work and put the programs in place that address and solve the major challenges we face.

The new government in Canberra now has the opportunity to set a well-resourced agenda that ensures our grandchildren do have a future and grassland agriculture continues to be part of it.