I am the daughter of two people who love the land. Over the course many years they have held the land as if a delicate ornament – fragile, beautiful, and unique. A one off gift to bestow their children. A place that will nurture them as they nurture it. A landscape that will produce food. A backdrop for family milestones. A panorama with endless horizons where one can breath deeply and feel peaceful.
Yet, I am troubled.
I am troubled by the challenges that come with this gift.
As the weatherman tells me from the TV screen that daytime temperatures will not dip below 40 degrees this week, I feel the crease of anxiety furrow my forehead. The sky outside is azure blue. A colour so beautiful to the eyes, yet troubling for the soul.
The heat is oppressive. And the knowledge that this part of the world – my little spot – will become even hotter and drier worries me deeply.
I am a future farmer. But this land that I cherish will bring many challenges. The intoxicating heat on the other side of my window juxtaposed with food sitting cool inside my fridge offers up an enigmatic and perplexing scenario. A confusion met with deafening silence on these issues that ripple across the world.
One of my favorite writers popped up in my inbox this week. His concern is palpable, and one I share for our common future.
“The trouble begins where everything begins: with soil. The UN’s famous projection that, at current rates of soil loss, the world has 60 years of harvests left, appears to be supported by a new set of figures. Partly as a result of soil degradation, yields are already declining on 20% of the world’s croplands.
Now consider water loss. In places such as the North China Plain, the central United States, California and north-western India – among the world’s critical growing regions – levels of the groundwater used to irrigate crops are already reaching crisis point. Water in the Upper Ganges aquifer, for example, is being withdrawn at 50 times its recharge rate. But, to keep pace with food demand, farmers in South Asia expect to use between 80 and 200% more water by 2050. Where will it come from?
The next constraint is temperature. One study suggests that, all else being equal, with each degree Celsius of warming the global yield of rice drops by 3%, wheat by 6% and maize by 7%. This could be optimistic. Research published in the journal Agricultural & Environmental Letters finds that 4°C of warming in the US Corn Belt could reduce maize yields by between 84 and 100%. The reason is that high temperatures at night disrupt the pollination process. But this describes just one component of the likely pollination crisis. Insectageddon, caused by the global deployment of scarcely-tested pesticides, will account for the rest. Already, in some parts of the world, workers are now pollinating plants by hand. But that’s viable only for the most expensive crops.
Then there are the structural factors. Because they tend to use more labour, grow a wider range of crops and work the land more carefully, small farmers, as a rule, grow more food per hectare than large ones. In the poorer regions of the world, people with less than 5 hectares own 30% of the farmland but produce 70% of the food. Since 2000, an area of fertile ground roughly twice the size of the United Kingdom has been seized by land grabbers and consolidated into large farms, generally growing crops for export rather than the food needed by the poor.
While these multiple disasters unfold on land, the seas are being sieved of everything but plastic. Despite a massive increase in effort (bigger boats, bigger engines, more gear), the worldwide fish catch is declining by roughly 1% a year, as populations collapse. The global land grab is mirrored by a global seagrab: small fishers are displaced by big corporations, exporting fish to those who need it less but pay more. Around 3 billion people depend to a large extent on fish and shellfish protein. Where will it come from?
All this would be hard enough. But as people’s incomes increase, their diet tends to shift from plant protein to animal protein. World meat production has quadrupled in 50 years, but global average consumption is still only half that of the UK – where we eat roughly our bodyweight in meat every year – and just over a third of the US level. Because of the way we eat, the UK’s farmland footprint (the land required to meet our demand) is 2.4 times the size of its agricultural area. If everyone aspires to this diet, how do we accommodate it? …
When I say this keeps me up at night, I mean it. I am plagued by visions of starving people seeking to escape from grey wastes, being beaten back by armed police. I see the last rich ecosystems snuffed out, the last of the global megafauna – lions, elephants, whales and tuna – vanishing. And when I wake, I cannot assure myself that it was just a nightmare.
Other people have different dreams: the fantasy of a feeding frenzy that need never end, the fairytale of reconciling continued economic growth with a living world. If humankind spirals into societal collapse, these dreams will be the cause.” By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 11th December 2017
The dirt track I head down to become a food producer of the future is littered by rocks and obstacles. So I must keep my footing and my eyes keen. I am woefully underprepared to meet these challenges. Despite foraging for new knowledge, skills and ideas each and every day – I do not feel properly equipped. Yet, these are the hands, head and heart that will be growing food, fighting for the land, and roaring these issues into the hot summer winds.
In the farming game – life is a bit of balancing act.
Sipping a glass of cabernet sauvignon may seem a simple enough act, but getting fine wine into your evening glass takes a few steps. Grape vines are carefully tended to over the summer months. Weeding, watering, trimming, fertilizing, checking for mildew and insect pests can be time consuming and use precious resources. As the grapes ripen, the farmer monitors sugar levels, acidity, grape colour and flavours. The window of time when the grape chemistry is right for picking is narrow. As temperature alters the grapes sugar levels, chances are your glass of red was picked in the middle of the night when cooler temperatures are kinder on the fermentation process.
Many kilometers from Australia’s wine growing regions are livestock farmers who also keep a close eye on the weather channel. Rainfall not only fills the dams which thirsty stock depend on, but also ensure a green covering of vegetation on which the stock can graze. When the weather is cold or hot, livestock rely on a stress-free environment with adequate shelter. When the conditions are just right, livestock can then be moved between paddocks, mustered, marked in yards, and trucked off for sale.
Whether it’s a dryland crop, a tasty wine drop, or a future lamb-chop – farmers take part in this game of balance in order to produce nutritious and sustainable food and fibre.
However, the rules of the game are changing. Seasonal weather patterns that farmers have long depended upon are becoming more variable, and with that comes uncertainty. The seasonality of rain and temperature which dictate the germination of seeds, the wheat’s growth, and the cattle’s feed availability are changing. This also brings changes to the hatching of insects, the flow of rivers, and the transport of stock and goods (a dirt road turned to mud or an extended heatwave can put the brakes on truck movements).
Unlike paying car rego, final exams or AFL grand final – farming deadlines are not definitive dates. Instead, food and fibre producers rely on patterns. So if these patterns are changing the rules of farming, then we need to be best prepared, and that means pulling out all stops and finding new players, new equipment and new skills. And I think Aussie farmers are up for the task.
In Australia, farmers make up less than 1% of the population, yet we provide 93% of food consumed here. Yes, we have a lot of land, but we are also the driest inhabited continent on earth, 20% of the country is classified as desert. Our ability to feed ourselves, and feed ourselves well, is only possible through continual betterment of farming systems that grow more, efficiently use nutrients and water, improve food quality, and diversify our businesses.
Aussie farmers are doing remarkable things to improve their practices and reduce their footprint on the environment. Our livestock have greater survival rates and are producing less methane. Soil sensors are providing real-time data that we can immediately respond to, and drones are gathering aerial imagery of crop health, helping us to water better and control weeds more accurately. And this is happening out in the paddocks today!
We are also seeing farms and rural communities embracing renewable energy and helping our nation transition away from fossil fuels. From Barcaldine to Broken Hill, Coober Pedy to Karratha, around the country clean energy projects are popping up. Australia is the sunniest and one of the windiest continents on Earth – there is huge potential for solar and wind energy to be running our businesses and providing farmers with a secondary and stable source of income. Farmers have long fed and clothed the world – now it is time we help power it as well.
As an industry, we have built a powerful foundation of wisdom and awe-inspiring technology. Engine improvements in agricultural machinery mean we have more power and use less fuel. The cotton we grow in Australian uses 90% less chemical than it did only a decade ago. We are using drones, satellites, robotics and genetics to improve production efficiencies. We are better educated, networked and connected than ever before. We should be proud of the quality and quantity of food and fibre we are able to grow here – and these advancements are only set to continue.
We know the challenges that climate change presents farmers – not only in Australia, but around the world – are changing the rules of production and land management. If we can’t rely on patterns, we need to equip ourselves with research, investment and engagement at all levels – in order to be adaptable and make sure that the players on the field have the right skills, knowledge and support structures in place.
My vision is a future where farms have long range weather forecasts and advanced telecommunications so they can make well informed decisions. They are powered by renewable energy, supported by our communities and where no produce is wasted unnecessarily. And we can achieve this as the advancements we see in Australian agriculture in sensors, automation, engineering and genetics are incredibly impressive. And as we come to realise the urgency for this change, we will see a surge of inventiveness that will create solutions that are languishing in their infancy, or even yet to be dreamed of.
So this National Agricultural Day, let’s celebrate Australian agriculture, and cheer on the players who are adapting to change, seizing new opportunities and producing our food, fibre and energy that we can all be proud of.
Although I've been told “don’t be a farmer” on numerous occasions, my dream has always been to be a farmer.
And I don’t want young people being told not to be involved in farming.
I want them to be told that agriculture is exciting. It is dynamic. And those involved with the improvement of this industry are making a meaningful contribution to food security, the protection of natural habitats and wildlife, and the vibrancy of rural communities.
And that means we need to change the story.
The Far West of NSW is where I call home. This is a beautiful part of the country, yet the ecosystem is fragile – an eggshell of interdependent and symbiotic relationships. And the combined challenges of feeding a growing number of people on the planet, with reduced environmental footprint, on a backdrop of social pressures and climate change, asks more of farmers than ever before, so the protection of these delicate environments, rural communities, and food production systems is paramount.
And I believe a key to sustainable farming and protecting these places we love - is engaging people in the farming story, and getting passionate and bright people to join our team.
We need all hands-on deck, and here’s why.
The global population continues to climb at an astonishing rate, and with it ascends one of the most instinctive needs of human existence: the need for food. At the same time, arable land, pastures and forests are disappearing – and at a rate that far outpaces the Earth’s ability to restore and replenish such diminished areas.
Food producers are acutely aware of what is being asked of them. After all, they are on the front lines. As emerging economies fuel middle-class growth, protein consumption per grows in strides. Society is progressing, but not without its challenges, and a great strain is being put on the food system’s ability to adequately nourish everyone.
Now let’s throw climate change onto the farmer’s plate – who are already trying to produce more, with less. Floods, bushfires and altered rainfall patterns are pretty bad for farmers. Particularly for those who walk the tightrope of life like farmers in developing nations.
When I’m not in a dusty sheep yard at home, I’m often found in the lush ricepaddies of Southeast Asia – as well as being a farmer, I am also an agricultural researcher. Because as land managers, we need to continually seek new information, a better understanding of how our world works, and human interaction with it.
And it shocks me when the farmers that I work with in Southeast Asia – tell me the number of days that the dry season is extending each year, or describe to me the insects that they had never seen before, that are now eating their crops. They know precisely how their climate – and their world – is changing.
So, we know there are big issues facings us – yet an even bigger problem is when young people are told not to get involved.
I work with young Cambodian researchers on soil fertility and water management on farms – and I have been told stories of how their parents wept when they said to them they are going to work in agriculture. You have no social standing if you work in agriculture. It is mundane, repetitive and only for the unskilled. And these are not perceptions confined to Asia, but are alive and well here in Australia.
But what if we changed that image?
In Australia, farmers make up less than 1% of the population, yet we provide 93% of food consumed here. Yes, we have a lot of land, but we are also the direst inhabited continent on earth, 20% of the country is classified as desert. Our ability to feed ourselves, and feed ourselves well, is only possible through continual betterment of farming systems that grow more, efficiently use nutrients and water, and improve food quality.
And the global agricultural industry has also successfully addressed the call for innovation. Our livestock have greater survival rates and are producing less methane. Soil sensors are providing real-time data that we can immediately respond to, and drones are gathering aerial imagery of crop health, helping us to water better and control weeds more accurately.
And this is happening out in the paddocks today!
My vision is a future where farms have long range weather forecasts and advanced telecommunications so they can make well informed decisions. They are powered by renewable energy and no food is wasted.
But we are all responsible in creating that future – and we need to inspire people and encourage others to help create it with us.
As an industry, we built a powerful foundation of wisdom and awe-inspiring technology. We now have flood tolerant rice, that can survive weeks under water. Engine improvements in agricultural machinery mean we have more power and use less fuel. The cotton we grow in Australian uses 90% less chemical than it did only a decade ago.
Yet this story is largely unknown. And while the perception remains that farmers are as weathered and dull as a dam in a drought. Our natural resources will continued be plundered. Food will continue to be scraped into the bin because there is no understanding on the time and energy that went into producing it. And a blind eye will be turned on our industry, at one of the most crucial times.
So we also need to work at changing the story. We are using drones, satellites, robotics and genetics to improve production efficiencies. We are better educated, networked and connected than ever before. We should be proud of the quality and quantity of food and fibre we are able to grow here- and these advancements are only set to continue.
Trust me, there is nothing boring about this industry!
We need to promote agriculture as the exciting and dynamic industry that it is, encouraged young people to look beyond the Great Diving Range and explore what opportunities lie in rural and regional Australia. That young people who have grown up with technologies like computers and smart phones, who communicate daily with peers across the world, are given the platform to help shape this industry, because they have a vested interest in designing truly sustainable production systems.
A wonderful example of this are the Young Farming Champions. Lynne Strong’s programs, which include Young Farming Champions, Art4Agriculture and Young Sustainability Ambassadors, are cultivating change makers – she is building the capacity of young people in agriculture who are shaping their industries and sharing their stories in order to connect others to the land and the food system.
Building the capacity of those who work in agriculture, and engaging and inspiring others to work alongside of them is one of the greatest investments that can be made in our common future.
The Mekong River Basin is known to be is one of the most dynamic, productive and diverse in the world. Just the mere mention of its name conjures images of fishing nets being thrown by weathered hands, brightly clad women stooped low transplanting rice seedlings, and barefooted children with broad grins riding rickety bicycles. The mighty Mekong River provides life and livelihoods to over 65 million people. Most of the inhabitants who call it home are rural poor with livelihoods directly dependent on the availability of its water for their production of food. Poverty is widespread in the basin, with the people in Cambodia and Laos being among the poorest in the world. Within this, the agricultural labour force is the poorest sector of the population, many earning less than US$1/day, and constituting up to 34% of the national population.
Cambodia’s landscape is a scenic timeline of an erratic history; from the vestiges of mysterious god-kings, to colonial imprints left by the imperialistic French. Sweepers for landmines still work alongside the road verge as one gazes from a bus window travelling from palm-lined beaches, past mosaic rice paddies, and ending in present-day city mayhem. It is a country rapidly transforming – a tug-o-war between traditional beliefs and saffron robed monks versus prestigious cars and the latest phones. The younger generation speak of the future and of politics in hushed tones, and groups meet to discuss how deforestation is leading to changes in the weather and what can be done about it. It is in this complex and intoxicating place I have chosen to undertaken part of my PhD.
Today I am bent low over my field trial site at the Cambodian Agricultural Research and Development Institute (CARDI). I am planting maize. With a small stick I make a shallow hole in which I drop three small golden seeds. There are half a dozen Cambodians working alongside of me, persevering with the slow work without complaint as the temperatures creep to mid-thirties with 80% humidity.
Over the past few weeks I have been working with the CARDI Soil and Water team, preparing organic amendments such as rice straw, livestock manure and biochar. Our trials will determine how these treatments influence soil moisture retention and nutrient availability. We have leveled the ground and made beds for planting – this field layout designed to aid the application, movement and drainage of irrigation water. The equipment used here is synonymous with hard-yakka – pushed by hand with small motors rotating tillage blades to loosen the soil surface, then dragging wooden planks to level the soil.
Once our crop has emerged we fly a drone over the field to assess its development. From aerial imagery we can determine plant health and vigour in response to the organic amendment treatments. The Cambodian agricultural research team are keen to learn how the latest technology can be used to improve nutrient and water management, and give new insight into field characteristics.
My PhD research is situated within a larger project by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research (ACIAR). This project – “Improving water and nutrient management to enable double cropping in the rice growing lowlands of Lao PDR and Cambodia” – addresses the questions; What are the key constraints limiting crop productivity? And, how can these be overcome to enable successful dry-season cropping? The support and guidance offered to me by the research team and local partners has been invaluable. My teachers are not found in stuffy lecture rooms, but wear sun-faded shirts, mud covered boots and quite often we share no common language.
Every day I learn more of the complexity of agro-ecological systems – how each individual component is connected to another. If the rain doesn’t fall, then the soil here in Cambodia dries like cement, exacerbating its inherently low fertility and constraining crop development. This results in little grain yield to sell at market and less plant biomass to feed to livestock. Less money in the farmer’s pocket means they search for off-farm employment – it is often the men who leave first, or young family members sent to the factories or who head across the border to Thailand or Vietnam. Those left behind work longer and harder. The interrelationship between the environment and with those who live so closely with the land is clear – a healthy landscape is essential to produce healthy food, adequate livelihoods and sustain vibrant communities.
Improving in-field crop management practices holds the potential to increase grain yield, household income, the regional economy and food security. Doing this by incorporating agricultural residues into the soil means that nutrients are recycled, soil organic matter increases, and the need for synthetic fertiliser inputs is potentially reduced. It is well recognised that the nutrient- and water-holding capacity of soils can be increased by the addition of organic amendments, thereby enhancing soil fertility and increasing crop productivity. Crop residue mulches, livestock manures and biochars have been found to suppress weeds, elevate levels of beneficial trace metals and exchangeable cations, increase crop nitrogen uptake, lower soil temperature, and enhance soil surface aggregate stability and permeability which improves crop root movement for access to nutrients and water. On hardsetting Cambodian soils, applying organic amendments can ease its cement-like characteristics by lowering soil tensile strength, reducing runoff and subsequently improving microbial conditions.
Farmers in both Australia and the Mekong Basin are facing environmental, social and political pressures to improve nutrient and water productivity. Farmers also have the desire to improve profit margins by reducing input costs whilst increasing yields. My research in both Australia and Cambodia is investigating two farming systems at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of social capacity and access to technology and new information, however sharing similar production challenges related to water and soil management. Both systems are striving for improved production with reduced environmental footprint. By understanding the building blocks of any farm – the soils, nutrients, water, and their dynamics influencing plant growth – we can transfer knowledge between farming systems, and ensure the best interactions with them.
As climate change impacts become more pronounced and the global population rises, there will be changes to the way food and fibre can be produced and managed. The impacts will be felt across the globe in varying degrees, and are expected to affect managerial and enterprise efficiencies. Projected impacts of climate change include changes to rainfall and temperature patterns, carbon dioxide levels and other climatic variables, that if realised, are likely to affect forage, food and fibre yield, animal welfare, and proper ecosystem functioning. The magnitude of these effects emphasises the importance of developing a greater understanding of our natural world, of how the climate is changing, and finding adaptation strategies farmers can effectively and efficiently embrace.
After a long, hot day in the field, there is no greater reward than sitting under a shady tree with my Khmer colleagues – reflecting on the good work achieved and discussing the obstacles still to be overcome. With a cool drink in hand, a local dish to sample, and an ever-effervescent group laughing loudly at lost translations, it is hard for me not to love what I do. Although there is no misconception to the challenges that face the agricultural industry, I feel hopeful about the future when amongst this group of young Cambodian agriculturalists.
Ensuring vibrant and sustainable food systems and improving the transition towards these, is not only highly desirable for our communities and natural environments, it is a must.
A new FAO report released has warned that the world’s future food security is “in jeopardy” due to increased pressure on natural resources, climate change and persisting inequality. Despite our significant efforts in reducing global hunger over the past 30 years, it came with a heavy cost on the natural environment as food production and economic growth expanded. If this continues, we will soon surpass our planetary boundaries as forests disappear, groundwater sources deplete and biodiversity crippled.
It is estimated that the burgeoning global population will likely hit nearly 10 billion people by 2050. This increase in humanity’s rank will intensify pressures on our limited natural resources as global demand for agricultural products rises by 50%. Additionally, more people will transition to a diet with fewer cereals consumption and higher intake of meat, fruits, vegetables and processed food which ultimately drives the vicious cycle of more land degradation, deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. To make matters worse, global climate change is also amplifying the challenges we face that affect our food production which include increase frequency of droughts and floods due to erratic variabilities in precipitation.
Additional efforts are warranted to reach the target of ending hunger by 2030. Major transformations listed below may be vital to deliver sustainable food and agriculture production:
I)Push to invest and retool food systems
Without emphasizing the importance of restructuring the food systems, more than 600 million people will still be undernourished in 2030 and would not be sufficient to eradicate hunger by 2050 at this current rate of progress.
Improvements in productivity and resource-use efficiency
As the Earth has limited scope of land and water for agricultural purposes, to meet the rising food demand through production increase would come mainly from improving productivity and use resources efficiently
III)Produce more with less
Primary challenge is to deliver sustainable food and agricultural production whilst maintaining and enhancing the livelihoods of local farmers and ensure food accessibility by vulnerable subgroups. Thus, a “twin-track approach” is essential which combines investment in social protection and pro-poor investments in productive activities in hopes to raise income-earning opportunities sustainably especially among agriculture and rural economies.
Overall, the world will need to transition towards a more sustainable food systems which encompasses but not limited to:
More efficient land and water use and other inputs
Sharp reduction of fossil fuels usage which leads to drastic drop of greenhouse gas emissions due to agriculture
Greater biodiversity conservation
Reduction of waste
All these are dependent on more investment in agriculture systems, research and development, to promote innovative ideas, to support increase in sustainable production and tackle with issues like water scarcity with better solutions. It is also equally critical to create food supply chains with better connection between small-scale farmers to urban markets – with measures to ensure sustainable access for consumers to healthy, nutritious, affordable and safe foods such as food policies to cope with inequalities.
This article is adapted from FAO’s website and the full article can be accessed through this link: