Food security

What is the future of farming?

Food. It’s a glorious, elemental thing that sustains our bodies and nourishes our souls. And we take it for granted in this lucky country that food will always be there when we want it: on our supermarket shelves, in our market stalls and, occasionally, in our backyards or growing up our balcony walls.

Yet will this be the case in the future?

Agriculture is what keeps food in the pantry and your stomach full — but it’s also threatening the planet. It’s one of the main contributors to global warming, with greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from agriculture reaching the highest level in history in 2011, according to a 2014 Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report. These emissions are due largely to methane produced by livestock and rice farms, nitrous oxide from the use of synthetic fertilisers and carbon dioxide from the clearing of forests to raise livestock or grow crops. Without greater efforts to reduce them, they are projected to grow by 30 per cent by 2050.

Farming uses about 70 per cent of the world’s water (in Australia, agriculture accounted for 65 per cent of water consumed in 2012–13) and is a major polluter, too, with fertiliser and manure runoff disrupting lakes, river systems and coastal ecosystems worldwide. Clearing land for agriculture is also a leading cause of wildlife extinction around the globe. In our oceans, the most recent FAO figures show that 85 per cent of the world’s fish stocks are fished to full capacity, or are over-fished.

Globally, we’re likely to have 2 billion more mouths to feed by 2050 as the population grows to over 9 billion. The broader distribution of wealth, notably in China and India, is leading to higher demand for animal protein, which is putting pressure on farmers to grow more grains to feed pigs, chickens and cattle and to farm these animals more intensively. If these trends continue, farmers worldwide will have to produce 75 per cent more cereal grains and almost double the amount of meat by 2050.

All of the above is putting pressure on food availability and price as well as consuming non-renewable fossil fuels, and the deteriorating quality of food produced is affecting peoples’ health and wellbeing.

Against this bleak backdrop, Aussie farmers are working hard to keep you fed. Most care deeply for the food they produce and the land they own; it’s their livelihood and their home, after all. And they’re bearing the brunt of climate change, declining stocks of water and arable land, degraded soils, shrinking profit margins courtesy of powerful players in the food-supply chain and consumer demand for ever-lower prices.

Some farmers have buckled under the pressure and left their farms or, at worst, committed suicide. For those that remain, what does their farming future look like? What will it mean for the future of the environment? And what can you do to ensure you and your children can eat high-quality food for years to come?

The state of the farming nation

Historically, agriculture has been Australia’s cultural backbone and a big money-spinner. Yet the size and importance of the industry relative to the rest of the economy has been steadily declining, even while agricultural outputs and exports have risen dramatically.

Agricultural output more than doubled over the four decades to 2004 and, in 2012-2013, farmers produced AU$48 billion worth of goods — 3 per cent of GDP. This increase in production is a global phenomenon that, according to the independent multi-stakeholder, multidisciplinary 2008 UN report International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), has been achieved largely through industrial methods: increasing yields with “improved germplasm (genetic material), and increased inputs (water, agrochemicals) and mechanisation”.

Two-thirds of Australia’s landmass is dedicated to agriculture and 90 per cent of that is for grazing on native pastures. In 2012, the highest value of production, in order, was cattle, wheat, dairy, vegetables, fruit and nuts, lamb meat and wool, but most farmers produce both wheat and sheep.

Meanwhile, agricultural exports have been growing by about 5 per cent annually since 1980. In 2009, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, producers exported 60 per cent of all food, mainly to Asian countries. Recently signed free-trade agreements with China, Japan and South Korea are set to make overseas trade even easier, and negotiations are underway with major food-importing partners such as Indonesia and India.

Globally, we’re likely to have 2 billion more mouths to feed by 2050 as the population grows to over 9 billion.

Agriculture represents just a small drop in the GDP ocean yet, from a purely financial perspective, its future looks rosy: Australia will profit from feeding the world. But this fails to account for other factors: farmers’ terms of trade (the ratio of prices received to prices paid) has been steadily declining; variations in seasonal conditions are becoming more volatile; water is becoming scarce; and arable land is being lost through urban sprawl, open-cut mining and land degradation.

Also, production is becoming increasingly concentrated in large operations. Over the past 30 years, big players such as the Australian Agricultural Company and Singapore-based Olam International have been steadily buying up land from smaller farmers who’re are selling because of:

  • Increasing age (the median age of Aussie farmers is 53) and children who, rather than take over the farm, have chosen to work in mines or cities
  • Severe droughts, floods and fires
  • Insurmountable debt thanks to back-to-back bad seasons
  • Big-figure offers
  • Disillusionment and despair

Robert Pekin, a food sovereignty advocate and founder of food-box scheme Food Connect, was forced off his family dairy farm in Victoria in 1998 due to drought and extremely low milk prices following the deregulation of the state’s dairy industry. He says consolidation is challenging. “Farmers either have to walk off the land or become employees, which isn’t a good experience for people who’re used to being quite self-determinant about their future, and looking after their farm and the landscape.”

According to the ABS, 40 per cent of farmers left the land between 1981 and 2011 and, in the five years to 2011, 19,700 farms ceased to exist in Australia — a fall of 11 per cent. Among the estimated 135,000 farm businesses that remain, small farmers increasingly compete against larger operations that eventually buy more land for economies of scale, pricing prospective farmers out of the property market.

As independent farmers do it tough, fewer dollars are spent in regional towns and more young people move to cities, leaving an ageing population and struggling local businesses behind.

It’s a vicious cycle.

Farming into the future

So how can we best farm — and thus eat — into the future? There are two main schools of thought. Those who favour industrial agriculture talk of how further research and development (R&D) by scientists can boost food output to keep up. Proponents of local, organic farms argue that small farmers can raise yields — and protect their livelihoods and the Earth — by adopting techniques that improve soil fertility without chemical inputs.

But there’s a third way: a farming future that unites innovation and traditional agricultural practices. It’s an idea that’s gaining traction across the conventional–organic spectrum and, increasingly, we’re seeing solutions arise that are changing how farmers farm, what food they grow and how they get it to our plates.

While this article focuses on farming in Australia, the below principles can be applied to New Zealand and around the world. It can’t cover all areas of agriculture or all innovations either; it does, however, highlight some cause for optimism.

How will future farmers grow your food?

Conventional agriculture typically focuses on simplifying systems to maximise production of a single food, generally ignoring the local ecosystem. Chemical-intensive monoculture has obtained high yields while degrading soils to the point where more and more fossil-fuel- and water-intensive energy, fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides need to be applied to maintain current output, leading in turn to increased GHG emissions and chemical-laden foods that have almost half the mineral density they did 60 years ago.

According to two recent studies published in the journals Science and Anthropocene Review, the amount of fertiliser used globally is now eight times higher than it was in the 1950s. Researchers found that, of nine worldwide processes that underpin life on Earth, the high level of phosphorus and nitrogen flowing into the oceans due to fertiliser use is one of four processes that have exceeded “safe” levels; the others are human-driven climate change, loss of biosphere integrity and land system change.

Here are some ways positive change can happen.

Adopt agroecological systems
New agriculture systems are needed and “agroecology” seems to be a winner. Agroecology seeks to apply ecological concepts and principles to the design and management of sustainable food systems, farming in a way that overcomes the need for synthetic fertilisers and chemicals. It encompasses organic, biodynamic and biological farming systems.

One of agroecology’s major benefits is it helps to replenish lost stores of carbon in the soil. According to farming systems agronomist Dr Maarten Stapper, the harsh synthetics used in current farming methods ignore the delicate balance of microbes, humus, trace minerals and nutrients in the soil. “A healthy system is based on healthy soils, but our farming methods have degraded soils by 20–80 per cent across the world,” he says.

“We need to improve the amount of carbon in the soil. Agroecological farming puts carbon dioxide back into the soil, [as plants capture the C02 and transmute it to soil organic carbon] through the stimulation of soil microbes — life in the soil — and earthworms become active and create castings, which is mainly carbon. We can double our carbon in the soil in two to three years. It’s absolutely amazing to see that happening.”

Dr Stapper says many farmers in Australia and worldwide are switching to agroecology after personal experiences. “They see the landscape going backwards. Some people have problems with health and they change their farming to use less chemicals. Lots of negatives lead individual farmers to create big change.”

Yet, adoption rates for agroecological methods are still low, he cautions. There are few advisory services to guide farmers, few R&D dollars have been devoted to agroecological methods and, equally, successful agroecological farmers need a “green thumb”: an intuitive sense of what’s good for soil, plants and animals.

Farmers either have to walk off the land or become employees, which isn’t a good experience for people who’re used to being quite self-determinant about their future

An easily adopted option is biological agriculture, a practice that’s emerging in the US and helps farmers move profitably, gradually towards organic farming. Dr Stapper says farmers incrementally create healthy soils using biological inputs while still using, but minimising, “synthetic inputs that work against biology and balance”. Costs decrease over time, yield remains high, soil — and food — quality increases and profitability is enhanced as conventional farmers avoid the unprofitable transition phase of converting to certified organic.

Says Dr Stapper, “Biological farming merges the principles and best practices of organic farming and modern farming to make the best path of food production for the future.”

Take an ecosystems-based approach
While they may not yet use agroecological methods, mainstream agronomists are focusing increasingly on soil integrity and the amount of organic materials retained in the soil. Many farmers, too, are embracing approaches that look after the soil and conserve natural resources, supported by schemes such as Landcare and the Australian Government’s Biodiversity Fund, which helps land managers “store carbon, enhance biodiversity and build greater environmental resilience across the Australian landscape”.

Holistic management is an ecosystems-based land management technique that’s becoming widely known, and implemented. Devised by Zimbabwean biologist and farmer Allan Savory, it helps graziers manage herds of livestock in a way that mimics large herds of wild herbivores, and thus heal the land. It provides a framework for adapting to four basic ecosystem processes: the water cycle, the mineral cycle including the carbon cycle, energy flow and the relationship between organisms in an ecosystem.

By intensively managing the behaviour and movement of livestock, holistic planned grazing simultaneously increases stocking rates and restores grazing land.

Other approaches that work to develop paddocks within a sustainable landscape — developed by Australians — include permaculture, Yeomans’ Keyline Design and Natural Sequence Farming.

Grow more on the farms we’ve got
To be productive in the future, we’ll need to replenish degraded soils on existing farms and increase yields on less productive farmlands. One way to do this is through high-tech farming systems that minimise inputs, such as combining agroecology with computerised tractors equipped with sensors and GPS to better target fertiliser and pesticide applications.

An innovator in this area is Colin Seis, a fourth-generation farmer on Winona, a property in the NSW Central Highlands. He has pioneered pasture cropping, whereby you sow food, like wheat, oats and barley — which is pasture cropped into grassland during winter when the grass is dormant — without ploughing or killing the grassland with chemicals first, as happens in conventional farming. The method also involves crop rotation, using grazing animals to prepare the field, and sowing using a no-till drill. Seis has reduced his fertiliser use by 70 per cent over time and today only uses organic fertiliser at very low rates.

According to Seis, it results in better-quality soil, which produces better-quality food. Research shows that soil quality has dramatically increased at Winona, with a 203 per cent increase in soil carbon, 200 per cent increase in water-holding capacity and 163 per cent increase in all soil nutrients, which increases vitamins and minerals in the food grown. Crop yields remain the same as with conventional methods, but costs are significantly lower due to low-to-no fertiliser use and no use of pest- or weed-control chemicals. “Also, pasture cropping restores grasslands and perennial pasture, so more stock feed is produced and ecosystems can be restored,” says Seis.

Another benefit of pasture cropping is it harnesses what farmers call “vertical stacking”: multiple enterprises on a farm that complement each other. On Winona, Seis grazes merino sheep, grows food crops and harvests grass seed for use on the property and for sale.

Seis, who was named Landcare Farmer of the Year in 2014 and educates Australian and international farmers about his methods, is now researching another, even more regenerative technique: multi-species pasture cropping.

Reinvent traditional production methods
Anne McGrath and Nick Weber own Majura Valley Free Range Eggs, a mixed grazing and haymaking property in the ACT. The couple and their young family run their free-ranging chickens according to the principles of US agriculturalist Joel Salatin, named the most innovative farmer in the world by TIME magazine.

“It’s essentially permaculture where large animals (sheep) graze first and the chooks go afterwards in mobile enclosures, putting fertiliser back onto the paddock,” says Weber. The livestock prune the grass, stimulating further growth, and directly fertilise the soil; the chickens help to decompose the cow dung and remove pathogens from it, fertilise the soil — and produce nutrient-dense free-range eggs.

“You get greatly enhanced nutrients in the soil and, over time, you increase its value and yield, so the grass is much richer for the sheep,” says Weber. “It’s only what our grandparents were doing, but now it’s a new thing. And it means you don’t have to buy chemicals. It’s time-intensive but you’re able to better care for the animals and the animals can in turn exhibit their natural behaviours.”

By intensively managing the behaviour and movement of livestock, holistic planned grazing simultaneously increases stocking rates and restores grazing land.

According to the 2008 IAASTD report, it’ll be important for public and private institutions to engage with small-scale farmers, like McGrath and Weber, who are using resources efficiently, conserving natural resources and biodiversity, and getting high yields. The underlying principles, process and knowledge can potentially be extrapolated to larger-scale farming systems.

What can you do?

Farming is undeniably at a crossroads, and sustainability has become a focus of the whole industry. At present, commonly accepted sustainable interventions are land regeneration practices and don’t yet extend to pasture-cropping or organic fertilisers.

Farmers are slowly starting to view such “greenie” practices with new eyes, though, as word of their effectiveness spreads. Some agricultural scientists, too, realise that amped-up conventional farming isn’t sustainable into the future. However, those we spoke to agree it will take time for most attitudes to change — and perhaps a painful shock.

What can you do to help speed up the shift towards more sustainable, more ecological — and, yes, more productive — farming?

  • Lobby for all levels of government to work with stakeholders to create public policies, regulatory frameworks and international agreements that encourage more ecological farming practices.
  • Ask your local council to educate farmers in agroecological practices and take the lead in managing community ecosystems.
  • Farmers: research innovative practices, give them a shot — and share them with your neighbours.
  • Anyone who eats food: vote with your dollar for more locally produced, seasonal, high-quality food that’s grown in an ecological way. And ask for it at your supermarket. As Dr Maarten Stapper says, “It’s the consumer that’s in charge of the whole system.”


Dr Maarten Stapper,

Colin Seis,

The Savory Institute (holistic management),

Majura Valley Free Range Eggs,

Landcare Australia,

Danielle Kirk

Danielle Kirk

Danielle Kirk loves yoga and cooking and occasionally climbs trees. She's also the editor of WellBeing.

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