ENVIRONMENT: by Dr John WilliamsNews Weekly
Ensuring sustainable agriculture
, December 17, 2005
Farmers should not bear the whole burden of ensuring that their agricultural practices are ecologically sustainable.Farmers need to manage the Australian landscape, including rivers, wetlands and estuaries, in ways that are ecologically sustainable - and city-dwellers need to pay them for doing 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 recently at the University of Sydney.
In a speech entitled, "Sustainable Agriculture in Australia - Some Ways Forward", Dr Williams said farmers should not be expected to produce cheap, clean food and fibre, as well as provide a free service to the whole community, by maintaining all the ecological functions of the landscape.
Dr Williams noted how the search for sustainable agriculture in Australia commenced with William Farrer in 1886 when he attempted to find varieties of wheats to replace the English wheat breeds that were susceptible to rust fungi.
The search for varieties more suited to Australian conditions began the "long journey that farmers and scientists have trodden in the last 125 years". He noted that "it is a demanding journey" to build an agriculture suitable for Australia's climate and soils.
The challenge for Australian agriculture is to find alternatives to the annual crops and pastures currently employed, as these annuals allow far too much water to leak past the root-zone into the ground, and so cause rising salt levels, soil acidification, nutrient depletion and the delivery of increased nutrients into the groundwater.
New management systems are required, based on commercial tree production, novel mixes of annual and perennial species, and new forms of cereals and oilseed crops to reduce the amount of water draining deep into the soil profile.