The food and agricultural research challenge

Every human being on this planet is a net consumer of food. The food industry is the largest industry on a global basis. Food, nutrition, bio-energy, the environment and livelihoods are global concerns. For these reasons the integration of whole aspects of agriculture and the food industry is important in the future.

I see four major trends in the global agriculture/food industry:

  • Food production must be increased substantially by the mid-21st century, as the world population is projected to increase from the current 6.4 billion to 9 billion. This represents an increase of 1 billion people every 10 to 12 years.
  • Economic development is increasing faster than expected in most countries (e.g. 9 to 10 per cent in India and China, the main Asian players of the 21st Century).With economic growth, we see rapidly changing food preferences and increasing demand for high standards of food quality. By 2010 China will have to produce 500 million tones of grains to meet domestic demand. The current production is about 480 million tons from 105 million ha of arable land. However this increase will have to come from shrinking land, water and other natural resources. 
  • The third trend is the impact of agriculture on the environment and on our natural resources. An example of this is the emerging global shortage of water for urban consumption, industrial use and agricultural purposes. This is accompanied by degradation of agricultural lands as illustrated by increasing areas of dryland salinity in Australia.
  • Climate change and its impact on agriculture.

The world’s ability to maintain food supplies through rapid demand, changing climate, declining natural resources, trade liberalisation policies and regional disturbances are important issues. Recent FAO reports remind us that about 800 million people are still undernourished globally.

All these issues have major influence the way we plan future training, research and development in agriculture in Australia because the majority of our agricultural products are exported overseas.

To address these matters effectively, Australia needs strategic approaches to agricultural research and development which target:

  • improved technologies for higher and more profitable production and for the sustainable conservation of natural resources;
  • diversified farming systems that reduce risk and improve resource-use efficiency, leading to better returns to growers. We need to work towards novel farming systems
  • enhanced vertical integration from grower to consumer; 
  • equipping a new generation of agricultural graduates and post-graduates with modern scientific, analytical, communication and business skills
  • organizational and policy reforms.

Many of the global issues mentioned above apply equally to Australian agriculture. Immediate challenges include climate variability, cost-price pressures, dryland salinity, soil acidity, pests, diseases and weed issues, limited diversification in farming systems, shortages of agricultural scientists, extension specialists and skilled farm labor, and a declining and aging rural population.

The coming generation of Australian farmers needs to be both innovative and competitive in the global market. It is the task of researchers to ensure they have the tools, technologies and new farming systems that enable them to be so.

In Australia we have a shortage of highly skilled and dedicated agricultural graduates and researchers to enhance the productivity gain we have achieved during the past two decades. Training new generation agricultural scientists will take time, commitment and resources from the Government, Universities and the agricultural industries. Urgent measures are needed to attract bright domestic and international students into agricultural, food and natural resource science areas. 

Professor Kadambot Siddique is Chair in Agriculture and Director of the Institute of Agriculture at The University of Western Australia

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