Integrating Science to Support Sustainable Agriculture

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CSIRO's new Agricultural SustainabUity Initiative looks at ways landholders can shift their approach to farming and reduce their impact on the environment.

It's no news that Australian farmers are struggling to keep up with the challenges of globalisation, volatile markets, increasing costs and fussier consumers. There is also pressure to meet changing expectations of what agricultural lands can deliver--not only food and materials but also biodiversity and ecosystem services such as carbon storage.

And let's not forget climate change, with its prospect of a drier, hotter climate for much of Australia, with less water available for irrigation.

What is required of our land managers are not local, short-term responses, but 'transformational shifts' in their approach to farming--for example, changing the mix of agricultural production systems in high-rainfall zones and the drier margins.

Dr Peter Carberry, one of the theme leaders from CSIRO's new Agricultural Sustainability Initiative (ASI)--which involves eight CSIRO divisions and business units (1)--says a series of such shifts will be required of our agricultural industries to meet challenges such as the introduction of new technologies, climate change, (2) land degradation, biodiversity conservation, globalisation and changing rural demographics.

'Agriculture is important to the Australian economy--75 per cent of the country is under agriculture, so we need to look at the productivity and environmental performance of land management systems in an integrated fashion,' says Dr Carberry.

'Adoption of new technologies has allowed our farmers to increase productivity by an average of 3 per cent a year for the past two decades.

'But we've had these gains without paying too much attention to environmental performance. Now we are at the toughest point in the history of Australian agriculture. We are looking at transformational land use, not business-as-usual.'

The ASI has identified seven priority research areas:

* reducing greenhouse gas emissions from farms and increasing carbon storage

* assessing northern Australia's land and water resources to support new investment in agriculture

* farming 'smarter' to maintain the high productivity gains of recent years

* adapting farming systems to reduced irrigation water availability

* supporting environmental stewardship initiatives for biodiversity conservation

* investigating soil health as a foundation for sustainable agriculture

* transforming high-rainfall zone agriculture for sustainable food production and environmental outcomes. …