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Farming for a hungry world

IS AUSTRALIAN SCIENCE ignoring organic-style farming?

Southeastern Australia has been gripped by one of the worst drought on record, yet Tim O'Halloran is a remarkable survivor. His farm near Balranald has been producing wheat and sheep since the 1920s. A decade or so ago, the rising price of fertiliser drove him to try a different way of farming. He reduced ploughing to a minimum, and started adding microbes and other low-cost natural materials to the soil to improve its fertility and capacity to hold water. O'Halloran says these unorthodox methods have halved his expenditure on synthetic pesticides, fertilisers and herbicides and his plants have healthier roots that dig deeper into the soil. ‘I believe if you've got a healthy soil, you'll grow a healthy crop,' he says. A few years back he made his bank manager very happy when he even earned enough to pay tax, unlike many of his neighbours.

O'Halloran calls his approach ‘biological farming'. It's different from organic farming because he doesn't rule out the use of synthetic chemicals altogether. But like organic farming it relies on emulating and working with ecological systems. It's part of a spectrum of farming approaches that is often called ecological agriculture or agro-ecology. Many think O'Halloran is either crazy or lucky but he is part of a groundswell of conventional farmers who are moving towards a farming style once associated with ‘alternative lifestylers' and a back-to-nature philosophy. Yet O'Halloran insists he's no ‘tree-hugger greenie or anything' – it's economic pressure, not philosophy that's made him change course.

In Africa too, hard times are driving farmers towards ecological farming. Case studies are documented in a 2008 report from the United Nations Environment Program and UN Conference on Trade and Development. One Kenyan vegetable farmer Susan Wekesa from the town of Kitale turned to ‘biointensive' agriculture in the wake of a three-year drought. Wekesa was able to make big savings on fertilisers and pesticides while increasing her soil's fertility and water-holding capacity, the UN report says. She doubled her vegetable yields and  boosted her income, enabling her to ‘face the future proudly'. The report argues ecological agriculture, including organic agriculture, will play an important role in food security. It echoes the findings of earlier UN Food and Agriculture Organization reports, which also argued organic agriculture could help farmers cope with climate change.


THE MERITS OF organic farming are hotly debated. Critics point to evidence that organic farming is a low-yield option with dubious environmental credentials – a quaint luxury for the latté-sipping rich. Certainly conventional farmers who rely on intensive use of chemicals to maximise yields can suffer a drop in yields when first converting to organics. Some also question whether organic approaches are suitable for Australia's ancient soils. Despite numerous scientific papers for and against organic farming, the 2008 UN report emphasises there is still relatively little research on ecological farming systems like this. Nevertheless, says UN Environment Program executive director, Achim Steiner, it's clear organic farming can provide both environmental benefits and a ‘rational economic approach' for farmers who can't afford chemicals. His organization has documented the experience of farmers in seven countries across east Africa, showing, in most cases, an increase in yields and incomes with a shift towards organic farming. ‘We ourselves were surprised by the numbers,' says Steiner.

No matter what you think of farming that's labelled ‘organic', Steiner says the world is in dire need of ecological farming methods. He says pesticide and fertiliser-driven agriculture is reaching its limits, having depleted and polluted soils and water supplies. Steiner argues that feeding over nine billion people by 2050 will require a range of creative solutions. While GM technology has its attractions, says Steiner, he says its promises have been hyped. He says it would be foolish to invest in GM without looking at other ways to make farming systems more productive and resilient to climate change. ‘There is no single panacea,' says Steiner. ‘It is not the transgenic revolution. It is not the organic revolution ... there's no one right way.' He says researchers need to spend more time investigating organic and other ecological farming methods that reduce the need for external inputs like chemicals and water. ‘Organic farming deserves as much scientific scrutiny and validation as any other element of an agricultural production strategy,' says Steiner.

Dean of Agriculture at the University of Sydney, Professor Mark Adams agrees more research is needed on understanding farms as complex ecological systems. ‘We need to focus on how we can augment the natural cycle of organic matter with limited inputs where we understand the inputs more thoroughly and cost them more carefully,' says Adams. Fifth-generation Gulgong wheat and sheep farmer, Colin Seis, has been putting this idea into practice. He is another farmer who has decided to experiment with ecological farming methods out of economic necessity. In 1993 Seis came up with the idea that he could reduce the cost of ploughing and herbicides by growing wheat in the same paddock as perennial native grassland. The native pasture turned out to provide some unexpected ecological benefits. It harbours an army of spiders that gobble up insect pests, saving on pesticides, and his soils cycle water and nutrients more efficiently, slashing his need for fertiliser as well. ‘Nature had it correct in the first place so the closer you get to mimicking how it originally functioned, the more economical it will be and the easier it will be,' says Seis. He says his system, called ‘pasture cropping', has reduced his costs by two thirds and increased his profits. Lately, Seis has managed to grow a crop without any herbicides and synthetic fertiliser at all, using instead a range of concoctions that he calls ‘compost teas', ‘microbial food' and ‘organic fertilisers'. Preliminary studies of his method, now adopted by a number of other farmers throughout the country, are yielding interesting results.

Canberra-based former agribusiness consultant Dr Greg Bender says his own research has found that many farmers, using ecological farming methods, are viable because they are reducing costs. Many scientists, including Mark Adams, question the evidence for some of the methods being used by farmers who are desperate for a cheaper way of farming. Unlike many organic farming advocates, Adams believes GM crops play an important tool in feeding the world. But he is keen to see more research on different farming systems, including those that use perennial native grasslands. He says studies could help reveal useful information in the search for more ecological farming methods. This is a view supported by a 2001 report for Land and Water Australia, which found many innovative farmers were using natural systems to reduce inputs and improve soil and water management.

Adams says scientists urgently need to carry out long-term field trials on the impact of different agricultural practices on farm ecology. He points to experiments carried out at the 160-year-old Rothamstead agricultural research centre in the UK, which show ten to twenty-year studies are needed to compare the impact of different fertilisers or tillage regimes. ‘We've been way too slow in putting in place funding for long-term research,' says Adams ‘It's always been one year, two years, maybe five years if you're lucky.' In Switzerland, an organic farming research institute has been running farm-scale trials comparing the productivity and ecological benefits of organic and other methods for more than thirty years. A New Zealand trial, called ARGOS, plans to compare organic and other farming methods for twenty to thirty years. In Australia there are no such trials.

Australian agricultural research could also help farmers in developing countries that live in challenging environments such as our own, says Achim Steiner. He says research into ecological farming systems could provide a particular ‘beacon of hope' because it can cut the need for costly and polluting chemical inputs. ‘We can combine the wisdom of the farmer with the ingenuity of modern science and it is there that I see the greatest opportunity for us to feed nine billion people and not cause the kind of problems that we are already seeing today.'

THE PROBLEM IS, public funding for agricultural research in Australia has been declining as a percentage of GDP. Under the squeeze of budgets, on-farm research has been getting the short straw at our national scientific research agency. Head of agribusiness at CSIRO, Dr Joanne Daly, says CSIRO is changing the type of work it does as part of a refocussing on the big challenges of water, climate and competing land uses. ‘We will do less on-farm work and more laboratory work,' says Daly. She points out that productivity in Australian agriculture has reached a plateau and CSIRO wants to move away from ‘incremental' advances to those that will have an ‘abrupt' impact. Daly cites, as an example, GM cotton, which has been engineered to exude its own pesticide. Cotton farmers have used this technology to slash synthetic pesticide use, although they must pay licence fees and royalties to Monsanto and the CSIRO's Division of Plant Industry for using the GM seed.

Michael Borgas, of the CSIRO staff association says much on-farm research is being replaced by computer modelling. But he says CSIRO staff are concerned that the models will be of little use without the backing of adequate on-farm research: ‘They're worried the lack of engagement with farmers is going to cut off access to information that isn't in the models at the outset.' Australia's dry-land cropping saw a 50 per cent increase in productivity in the 1990s and Borgas says this is only because scientists and farmers worked together to discover that crop rotation leads to healthier soils with less diseases.

An increasing proportion of public funding for agricultural research is coming from what are known as the rural research and development corporations (RDCs). Through these, farmer levies of over $200 million a year are matched by government funding. This adds up to around four times the amount of CSIRO appropriation funding spent on plant and animal research (according to 2006/7 figures provided in 2008 in response to Senate questions). Some RDCs have carried out trials on different farming systems but critics say the RDCs are overly focused on solving short-term problems in their industry. For example, Adams says the livestock industry tends to fund research on cows rather than pastures. ‘There is no funding for any of the long-term grassland or pasture research sites in Australia,' he says. ‘It falls between the cracks.' To add insult to injury, the 2009 Federal Budget announced the closure of Land and Water Australia, the only RDC designed to integrate public good and ecological principles into farming research. Some say it is up to CSIRO to provide leadership on long-term strategic research of this kind that will have spin-offs for agriculture as a whole.

When it comes to specific research into organic farming systems, most recent estimates are that Australia spends around just $450,000 a year. This falls well short of the total organic farmer component of RDC funding. By contrast, Germany and Switzerland spend nearly $20 million a year and even New Zealand spends nearly $9.5 million a year on organics research. While CSIRO spends around $18.2 million on research related to GM crops, it has no specific organic or biological farming program. Indeed in 2007 there was a controversy over CSIRO's retrenchment of scientist Dr Maarten Stapper, who wanted to carry out research in this area. CSIRO's Joanne Daly says the organisation is interested in lowering agricultural inputs and its research on this is useful to all farmers, including organic farmers. Yet Stapper says CSIRO is missing out because of its lack of support for farm-scale studies of ecological farming systems, of the kind routinely carried out elsewhere in the world. CSIRO also failed to support a 2004 proposal for an Organic Co-operative Research Centre. CSIRO says it didn't have the resources and the proposal did not align with its research strategy.


ANOTHER BARRIER FACING ecological farming in Australia is its association with traditional organic farming, which has long been regarded with suspicion by mainstream scientific researchers. Achim Steiner thinks there's an unhelpful cultural bias that categorises organic agriculture as an ‘alternative lifestyle'. But organics has been moving into the mainstream for some time and there are now entire conferences dedicated to the science of organic farming. Global organic markets are now worth billions and 20,000-hectare farms in Eastern Europe are being converted to organics. Certainly many of the conventional farmers turning to ecology don't fit the alternative lifestyle profile.

Scepticism about organic farming is an important part of a scientific approach, but Steiner is concerned that some views towards it are unhealthy. ‘Scepticism can also sometimes be a prejudice or a lack of having tried other ways,' he says. This view is supported by one study of Australian agricultural professionals, which found that historically there has been a bias against organic agriculture. The study, by agricultural economist Dr Sarah Wheeler, from the Centre for Regulation and Market Analysis and the University of South Australia, found while attitudes were improving, many professionals were negative towards organics. The study found these negative views were not based on knowledge, and the more informed professionals were about organic farming, the more positive they were about it. The study found some evidence CSIRO scientists were more likely than others to be negative about organic agriculture.

The little research that has been done on organic and other ecological farming systems suggests future scientific investigations need to be more sophisticated. For example, the New Zealand ARGOS trial has found while organic farming can be profitable and more environmentally-friendly than conventional farming, some conventional farmers manage their farm in a way that is better for the environment than some organic farmers. For example, they do a better job at protecting waterways from stock and don't over-cultivate the soil. The lesson here is that scientific research into farming systems needs to rely less on the labels used by farmers, and more on rigorously specifying the practices they are using.

Farmer Tim O'Halloran says he hasn't got time to get his head around scientific details, but through trial and error he is trying to work out how to survive this harsh brown land. In the last couple of years he has only been breaking even, but O'Halloran still thinks his methods are saving him from a worse fate. All the same, he sits on his veranda and nervously watches the horizon. Will the weather be kind? Has he got it right? Adams praises the farmers of Australia for their innovative spirit: ‘They've coped with some of the most inhospitable climates and soils imaginable.' But he says it's crunch time to give farmers the backing of science in the search for more ecological farming. ‘Sustainability needs a twenty-year vision,' says Adams. ‘It's really about putting in place the infrastructure that will be needed for the next generation.'

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