Since beginning AgriEducate almost two years ago now, I continually ponder why agriculture deserves ‘agvocates’ and why it needs greater attention. After all, surveys suggest people check their phone up to a hundred times a day and we only eat a handful of times. It’s also well established that in an emergency situation shelter is most important. So this article is an attempt at me breaking apart that need for attention for my own benefit and hopefully yours!
‘Imagine you’re on a plane to Perth from Brisbane and suddenly it crash lands in the middle of the desert in February. Strangely, you have three untouched items in front of you: a set of canvas sheets and poles for shelter, 12kg of Riverina rice and Narrabri beans, and a briefcase with a computer and phone without any signal. Which one would you take? Well the standard survival guidebook would suggest the shelter, food and ‘other’ general hierarchy. Food is important but only if you don’t die of exposure first. After all you can generally survive a few weeks without food, whereas exposure to heat can quickly result in heat stroke and death. As for the computer and phone, perhaps you’ll be even better without them for a while (except for the whole letting people know where you are side of things, but I digress).
From a more realistic perspective, on a typical day we all use (actively or passively) certain items such as a toothbrush, perhaps a car and most likely an apartment, house or computer or phone. In a fortunate country such as Australia, the value of these items are rarely given the attention they might well deserve. Without a toothbrush and all the manufacturing behind it, we end up with gum disease and poor health. Quality construction of a house or apartment lets us weather out storms and severe weather, without so much as a few creaks and groans. And it’s hard to fathom how the efficiency required in current jobs would ever be possible without our computers and communication efficiency of our phones. Surely the inherent value there should drive better understanding of how computers work, saving on computer repair and maintenance costs. In fact, there is a real issue with machine learning and artificial intelligence whereby as the algorithms develop autonomously, we lose understanding of exactly how they work with significant consequences for control.
Moving away from Terminator and on the nutrition front instead, we all try and eat as healthily as possible – consuming three meals along with a few snacks and drinks in between. Perhaps not paying our dues to the farmers that produced the food, nor the toothbrush manufacturers saving us from an early and smelly breath death.
So while we have the good fortune in Australia that each of these critical parts of our lives bear an almost equal importance, why then should agriculture deserve our attention and why should we strive to actively change our ways to appreciate it more? After all, a breakdown of the nearest phone tower makes significant waves of impact across an area, as does the delay in bus services to the Commonwealth Games. Ever had the pleasure of a flat tyre, car breakdown or dead battery on a hot day? Well that surely rings more true than a poor selection of fruit and vegetables at the local supermarket, or protein content fluctuations in milk and flour.
Furthermore, significant agricultural changes such as the application of a tariff on chickpeas and lentils bound for India, or the presence of the Russian Wheat Aphid, while important, slip under the radar of consumers, destined for the hidden Rural News tab of ABC or rural newspapers such as the Land (certainly not discrediting the journalistic quality, merely the accessibility). It makes me wonder then, is understanding and valuing agriculture and food that much more important over construction, electronics, our vehicle and perhaps even shelter, when the consequences of failure in the latter impact us more significantly? And is it right to demand more attention, perhaps at the cost of attention in other areas, from people already burdened with modern day living and the complexities therein?
Reflecting on these multitude of questions above, it seems to distil down to three key factors, which I think sway the argument in the favour of attention-seeking agriculture:
- Integrated nature of agriculture
- Scale of impact
- Potential for good
I’ll explain my reasoning a little further for each of these three areas below.
Integrated nature of agriculture
At all levels agriculture is highly integrated with societies, nutrition, economies and the environment. Developing countries rely on agriculture to support GDP growth and to maintain stable communities. Disruptions in food supply, for whatever cause, lead to unrest and famine.
Dr Lindiwe Sibanda spoke of the integrated nature of agriculture at the Crawford Fund 2017 Annual Conference. Dr Sibanda highlighted that while there had been a push towards growing bulk commodities like maize for economic benefit (and consequently buying more food) away from growing everything you needed, the unintended outcome was malnutrition. Kids and adults alike were stuck with maize three times a day when the income from selling the grain was not sufficient to buy meats, fruits and vegetables at the local market. The environmental and community health suffered with intense monocultures and heavy, unrestricted use of pesticides. One policy decision and direction by intergovernmental bodies resulted in poor economic, health, community and environmental outcomes.
Conversely, one policy decision could generate incredible wealth, health, environmental benefits and societal cohesion too. The opportunities are there to be taken.
We see similar occurrences in Australia and other developed countries too, although perhaps not with the same human consequences, but particularly environmental and community consequences. Take, for example, the drive to implement no-till farming. The result was improved soil retention (reduced wind and water erosion), organic matter content (generally speaking) and initially higher yields. Yet without tillage options available to farmers, there is and was a strong reliance on herbicides, resulting in herbicide resistance, potentially negative environmental outcomes and a loss of social licence in some cases.
On the positive side, the push to allow GMO cotton resulted in a 95% reduction in pesticide use and significant improvements in environmental, societal and economic outcomes for those areas.
Agriculture is so intertwined with environment, society and health that changes to one all impact on the other as illustrated by this diagram:
In other industries such as construction or manufacturing, policy mechanisms and technology changes may benefit the bottom line of a company, the income and health of workers and potentially reduced environmental impact, but the changes are retained within the small circle of influence. And that brings me to the second point of scale.
Scale of impact
Imagine being able to adjust the practices of one person and improve both the productivity and sustainability of 100 million square metres (10,000 ha; 170,000 average sized housing blocks), which is slightly larger than normal farm size in Western Australia.
Whole corridors of animal movement and vegetation can be improved with consent of just a large handful of farm managers. Nevertheless, the consequences of poor management decisions can be disastrous for productivity and the environment (the two go hand in hand) but if you’re a change maker or an aspiring one, why not go where the largest net change is possible on such vast scales? Furthermore, one family can manage more area (albeit with low intensity) than all of the construction areas combined! To illustrate this point, the largest station in Australia, Anna Creek in SA covers 2.37 million hectares, or 33.8 million averaged-sized housing blocks in Australia.
The scope of change from policy mechanisms and new technologies is absolutely massive. If the Queensland Government banned all clearing today (just a hypothetical here), then tomorrow we retain the many thousands of hectares of trees that would have otherwise been lost. Likewise, a total ban on live export in 2011 completely disrupted the industry and resulted in many thousands of animals starving to death on over populated stations and properties. These are just some extreme examples of the scale of impact and the serious potential for good.
Potential for good
Ever heard the saying killing two birds with one stone? Well with agriculture, rather than killing, you can benefit so many people, environments, regional communities, developing countries, food insecure nations and poverty stricken regions with single swipes of good policy, research and new technology. Take for example the good work of ACIAR in countries like Cambodia, Laos or Pakistan, taking Australian agricultural knowledge and implementing it in an appropriate way to improve food security in those regions.
Understanding agriculture, appreciating the intricacies, and processes encourages all of us to minimise waste, improve environmental outcomes, benefit farmers and perhaps lend our own expertise into solving some global food supply, environmental and nutritional problems.
So why does agriculture deserve the attention it doesn’t have?
And thus is the importance of understanding and appreciating agriculture, not only for the possible inherent career opportunities but for the its integration with society, environment and health, its vast scale and consequently potential for good and massive change.