Agricultural Sustainability – an ever ‘Moving Target’

September 28, 2017

Based on the Donald Oration 2017 by Professor Timothy G Reeves FTSE
Board Member, Crawford Fund.

Professorial Fellow, Faculty of Veterinary and Agricultural Sciences, University of Melbourne
Chair, Agriculture Forum, Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering
Director, Timothy G Reeves and Associates P/L, Geelong, VIC 3220

Prof Tim Reeves (L) and Agronomy Australia president Dr Chris Korte on the announcement of the awarding of the Donald Medal, 26.9.17

In place of our usual opinion piece this month, we are pleased to be able to present the key messages by our board member, Professor Timothy Reeves, the recipient of the Australian Society of Agronomy’s most prestigious award, the C.M. Donald Medal for Agronomy, for his distinguished career in agricultural research, development and extension, focussed on sustainable agriculture in Australia and overseas. The medal commemorates Colin Malcolm Donald (1910 – 1985), an agronomist who profoundly influenced pasture development in Australia by understanding the limitations to pasture growth imposed by soils and environment, and advanced our understanding of competition between plants when grown in communities.

Tim’s Donald Oration was just presented at this year’s 18th Australian Society of Agronomy Conference on 26 September in Ballarat. For the purpose of this short piece for our newsletter, excerpts from his address are provided, with a focus on suggested lessons learned through Tim’s 50 year career and their current relevance in the pursuit of sustainable agriculture, and his recommendations around the ‘Grand Challenges to Global Food and Nutritional Security’.

In starting his oration, Tim explained that he did not grow up wanting to be an agronomist and did not know what one was until he left university. However, he notes that by great fortune he did become an agronomist in 1967 and to this day still introduces himself that way – “I am an agronomist” – and is very proud to do so.

We encourage you to read the full oration, a link to which has kindly been provided here by the Society. It tracks the ‘rise and demise’ of some major farming systems, providing insights into the factors influencing their initial adoption by farmers and the factors that lead to them ultimately becoming unsustainable. Tim concludes that ‘business as usual’ is rarely, if ever, a viable sustainability option

Tim’s key lessons learned and their current relevance to sustainable agriculture are highlighted below:

The basis of good agronomic research is the establishment of first-class experiments utilising the very best techniques so that the measurements made are indeed based on valid comparisons of the systems/treatments being evaluated. This requires the efforts of multi-skilled teams comprising specialist experts who all bring their knowledge and expertise to the work. Unfortunately, in recent years I have seen an increasing amount of field based research which has been of a very poor standard and despite the use of sophisticated monitoring and measuring equipment – often extremely costly – could not deliver accurate and meaningful results as the basic comparisons were flawed. If two systems are to be compared, then it is essential that each is established and managed using best management practices that accurately represent the situation in the best farmers’ paddocks. Sophisticated digital measurements are not a substitute for the accurate and rigorous establishment of first-class experiments.

There appears today to be a much greater reluctance to invest in human ‘potential’ and to take a calculated gamble that ‘rising stars’ will grow into the job and more than reward the confidence shown in them. Quite often I have been recently involved with, or am aware of, selection processes at universities or other institutions, where an appointment is not made, or is offered at a lower level (and often as a result, not accepted) because none of the candidates were deemed to have fully satisfied the selection criteria. We are in an age where it is notoriously difficult to get good, senior people to move for a new job, but young ambitious people are much more mobile. It is therefore critical that the best of these are recruited and supported so that they can achieve at the high levels required and hopefully beyond, within a year or two of their appointment. We must again be prepared to invest in potential, if we are to get the succession that agronomy and other agricultural professions require!

Make time for younger agronomists and visitors – do not underestimate the importance of visiting, and being visited, both in the knowledge exchange process and in the career development of younger scientists.

The continuing participation of farmers in the research-development-extension continuum is absolutely vital. This is important for all aspects of research but essential for successful agronomic research. Researchers are now less likely to live in the communities that they serve and therefore new modalities and efforts are required to foster full farmer participation in research, including such mechanisms as steering and industry advice groups.

No one research team has a monopoly on good ideas and the exchange of ideas and material helps everyone and ensures greater progress. Whilst the National RDE Strategy has some strong merits in terms of rationalising integration and cooperative efforts, there is still a place for rational duplication and competition, in order to emphasise urgency, disrupt uniform thinking and avoid complacency.  

Good timing for the introduction of new technologies is paramount. Keeping an open, but enquiring mind about new technologies is a quality that all agronomists should try to adhere to. There may be some obvious faults with the first phases of new technology, but the good agronomist will think, ‘what if we could make this work better?’

There are different aspects of new technologies and adoption is best stimulated when the aspects of most relevance and value to individual growers are clearly demonstrated.

Continuous cropping is still a current practice and the lessons to be learned will be for the future. However, if we become complacent about these systems and do not identify key ‘tipping points’ for sustainability, my experience is that narrow rotations such as continuous wheat-canola-wheat-canola will break down sooner rather than later.

Sustainable intensification is a current practice and there will no doubt be lessons to be learned but at some time in the future.

Tim’s five ‘Grand Challenges’ to global food and nutritional security and the measures required to successfully overcome them, are:

Natural Resources – what needs to be done?

  • Development of integrated policy frameworks across the water-agriculture-food-energy-environment-population nexus
  • Increased water use efficiency and reduced water consumption
  • Clear policies and strategies for peri-urban and urban agri-food production and associated land use planning
  • Increased emphasis on soil health and fertility including ‘tipping points’
  • Conservation agriculture and sustainable intensification essential
  • Farm enterprise choices based on input-use efficiencies
  • Mitigation of GHG emissions by use of beneficial management practices to avoid future ‘right to farm’ challenges

Adaptation to climate change – what needs to be done?

  • National adaptation strategies for agriculture where all innovation is evaluated through the ‘lens’ of climate change
  • Substantial, long-term, patient co-investment in adaptation by public and private sectors
  • Farming systems that are more resilient and adaptable and based on sustainable intensification
  • Infrastructure that both helps adaptation and is itself adapted to climate change

Nitrogen efficiency – what needs to be done?

  • Greater investment in energy-efficient fertilisers and better technologies
  • Re-invigoration and re-investment in legumes RDE emphasising sustainability
  • Real-time testing for mineralised soil nitrogen
  • Enhanced Best Management Practices (BMP) for N use
  • Regulatory framework for N use based on BMP
  • Community education around our ‘N footprint’ 

Food loss and waste – what needs to be done?

  • Value-chain nexus approaches to reducing loss and waste
  • Setting food loss and waste reduction targets to drive strategy
  • Investment in RDE to reduce post-harvest losses for smallholder farmers
  • Increased food re-cycling/’second harvest’ approaches and less conservative use-by dates (industrialised countries)
  • Respect for food – purchasing, portion sizes and consumption (industrialised countries)

Rural communities – what needs to be done?

  • Development of a clear vision, strategy and investment plan for rural regions
  • Cohesive and supportive policy framework
  • Greater rural community participation in policy advice
  • Immediate attention to assessing the impacts of technological changes and climate change
  • Further decentralisation of government services to rural areas

Of relevance also to the Fund’s own efforts around mentoring and encouraging young Australians in their study, careers and volunteering in agriculture for development, Tim identified the following factors important in the development of agronomists and other agricultural scientists:

  • critical people-related roles of establishing strong, multi-disciplinary teams to conduct rigorous and accurate field and related research;
  • strong leadership and support from senior managers;
  • experienced mentors and role models; and
  • the imperative of effective farmer participation in the research-development-adoption continuum.