Farming without harming

November 23, 1994

By Chris Spindler

2020 vision statements are papers presented by people associated with the CSIRO which are intended to highlight options, possibilities and choices. Their aim is to stimulate thought and discussion about the future. Dr John Williams from the CSIRO Soils division has looked into "How Australia made rural industries sustainable" by the year 2020.

Clearly Australia's rural industries are not at present sustainable. Land degradation has reached the point in a number of areas where production is declining even in good seasons.

Soil erosion and salinity are at an all-time high under pressure from continued clearing of land, cropping and grazing. Inland waterways receive loads of sediment from farmland which contain fertiliser nutrients and sewerage effluent from inland cities. This has resulted in algal blooms and poisoning of water supplies.

As well, native flora and fauna have been abused, narrowing the diversity of plant and animal species, while broadacre farming has resulted in nutrient deficiencies and a breakdown in soils, leading to dust storms and loss of topsoil.

Williams' 2020 statement puts forward a number of clear proposals to improve sustainable agricultural production. The message is that measures need to be introduced now if agriculture is to become sustainable in the future.

For example, to control the loss of nutrients from farms, their design needs to be altered so that effluent from stock can be treated in artificial ponds and wetlands. This would keep the nutrients on the farm rather than as part of the run-off into the waterways.

Riverbank vegetation needs to be restored to trap and reuse nutrients so the nutrients won't get into the waterways. This would cut out the largest supply of food for the blue green algae blooms in inland river systems in recent years.

If wind and water erosion of soil is to be stopped, then broadacre cropping needs to be gradually restricted in marginal land. Cattle and sheep grazing should be restricted from the fragile and arid lands of central and northern Australia. Feral animals, such as rabbits and pigs, also need to be controlled.

Extensive tree planting is essential to revive and ensure soil quality. Tree cover of at least 30% is needed in water catchment areas to guard against erosion and to restore the vegetation that in turn restores the water balance.

In attempting to achieve some of these changes, Williams argues for the Landcare movement to work more on altering land use rather than remain in the awareness-raising framework. He says solutions "require radical changes to the orientation of research institutions, extension agencies, research and development corporations, as well as to the attitudes of large sections of the rural community".

Williams is critical of the way current research and work on sustainable farming practices is carried out. He claims it is too compartmentalised. Aspects of environmental needs, such as water balance and nutrient balance, are being kept at a distance from the production process.

Agricultural production, Williams says, needs a totally integrated approach. "The first step in the search for an ecologically sustainable agriculture requires that the agricultural production system be studied in the context of the agro-ecosystem in which it is cast. For example, there must be a certain balance in nutrients. Clearly when the nutrient outputs exceed inputs for a period of time, soil nutrient levels decline." This is exactly what has been happening with broadacre farming methods.

Williams argues for changes in the attitudes and approach of the scientific and rural communities. As well, he argues for capital resource accounting which takes into account the capital value of soil nutrients and soil quality indicators such as pH levels, structural condition and contamination with agricultural chemicals.

Unfortunately, Williams takes no account of the economic situation farmers find themselves in. A change in attitude of the scientific and rural community will mean very little unless the economic situation also changes.

It is simply impossible to make many of the worthwhile changes Williams suggests in the current economic framework.

The pressures placed on farmers to be increasingly competitive in the international market have meant increasingly unsustainable farming — for both the environment and the farmers. Among these pressures are the efforts of the government to restructure rural industry in favour of larger players and its insistence on traditional rural industries: wheat, sheep and cattle.

Williams' agent of change is a cultural one, to turn on its head the idea of the "heroic farmer taming the harsh land". There is no perspective of changing the power structures which demand a certain type of agricultural production.

The unsustainability of the rural sector became starkly evident in the 1980s. It was most obvious not only in the degrading of the land but also in declining farm incomes and farmer numbers, and declining rural support services and social infrastructure.

An effective concern about the rural environment must include a social and economic analysis as well as an environmental one.

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