Greenie superstition masquerading as agricultural science
The angst in Murray-Darling Basin communities about proposed water regime changes belies Australian farmers' record in adopting research.
Both rain-fed and irrigation farmers have a proud record of steadily increasing sustainable productivity. The adoption of practices such as zero-till and hugely improved output per unit of winter rainfall by rain-fed farmers have resulted in grain yields doubling in the past 30 years. Irrigators have maintained the value of outputs despite using only half as much water during the drought. Both efficiencies were achieved by committed farmers backed by strong research performance from supporting agencies. There is no place for the amateur.
Michael Jeffery and Julian Cribb ("Water is the key to sustainability", The Australian, October 15) give us an interesting drop-by-drop analysis of our water resources.
They very crisply identify the challenge: minimise evaporation, recycle city waste water, don't "over-engineer" streams, preserve prime land from urban sprawls, encourage give-it-a-go farmers, maintain supporting scientific research and ensure supply of skilled personnel.
A useful definition of sustainable agriculture is that to which society has committed enough resources to identify problems, to have solutions adequately researched and to ensure adoption of the solutions: never arrive, but eternally strive! It takes time and solid support for adoption of technology: time to consider the whole impact, to change equipment, arrange finance, and make arrangements with input suppliers and product buyers. In the Murray-Darling Basin it is a whole-of-community adaptation process.
A scientific base for this development is essential but beware of false prophets! Unfortunately, Jeffrey and Cribb have been taken in by one such, Peter Andrews, of ABC TV's Australian Story fame, who scorns agricultural science in his book, Back from the Brink. He insults the rural agencies and scientists with such absurd assertions as: "In my experience most scientists are hamstrung by a fear of change", and "I know several who had an opportunity to initiate change . . . but shied away". He alleges total failure by agricultural scientists to work together on land and water management, gives no credit to the effective efforts of Landcare, state departments of agriculture-primary industries, soil conservation agencies and catchment management authorities.
Andrew's work, described as (undefined) natural sequence farming, is disconnected from the past 50 years of science which gave this country substantial increased food and fibre production and better land management. On pastures he states: "Ten per cent coverage of thistles . . . enough to maintain the fertility". Then, "grass will accumulate fertility . . . a lot slower than weeds do" and, "there isn't a pasture anywhere in Australia today . . . more productive if it had weeds growing in the grass. So it isn't just a case of weeds not being harmful; it's a case of weeds being essential."
Then again, he posits that fertilisers are not needed: "Chemical fertilisers do not really fertilise the soil; a feedback loop tells the plants to stop growing when there is not enough fertility . . . This correlation disappears as soon as you apply a chemical fertiliser. Then the plant will keep growing willy-nilly, exhausting and weakening the soil, which is then less able to cope with erosion, extremes of climate and other stressful conditions. Chemical fertilisers stimulate grass to keep growing regardless."
Surely, few readers can take such nonsense seriously? Nearly a century of scientific research and farming experience have clearly demonstrated that fertilised leguminous plants in balance with others will produce nutritious feed at the same time raising the organic matter level of the soil and protecting it from erosion.
The water conservation and food production scenario identified by Jeffrey and Cribb, and the underlying the plan for the Murray-Darling Basin, need the best trained scientific brains, well-funded for their research, capable of passing on evidence-based advice to well-trained, intelligent, adaptive farmers, who respect sound science and analysis and are capable of carrying further the successful agricultural research and development of recent decades.