The future of farming

An open farming field at sunset. The sun sits barely above the treeline, shining rays out across the grassy field. You can see low mountains in the distance along the horizon.

Image: Frederio Respini/Unsplash

Image: Frederio Respini/Unsplash

A lot of promises have been made globally to feed the world's population by 2050 and to achieve the Paris Agreement commitments by 2030, including in the agriculture industry. But how likely are we to see these promises fulfilled? 

As we grapple with the twin challenges of a growing global population and a changing climate, we know farming will need to change. We need to produce more with less: less water, less energy, less land, and fewer emissions. We also need to find ways to build resilience against extreme weather events caused by climate change.

At our ChangeMaker panel on 11 November, UQ alumni and experts discussed the challenges we’re facing now and the solutions we’ll need in the future.

Professor Neena Mitter

Director of the Centre for Horticultural Science, Queensland Alliance of Agriculture and Food Innovation at UQ, and Director of the Australian Research Council Industrial Transformation Research Hub for Sustainable Crop protection

An Indian woman wearing a long-sleeve plaid shirt stands in front of a cornfield. The image is from her waist up. She is wearing glasses and smiling into the camera.

Professor Neena Mitter

Professor Neena Mitter

Ultimately, the future of farming – and feeding our growing global population, which is expected to reach 10 billion by 2050 – is about seeing transformation in our farming and food systems worldwide.

Sustainable development is a responsibility of all countries. We have seen the impact of threats like climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic in a globally connected world, and we can no longer operate as ‘business-as-usual’. 

I believe many of the solutions lie in some of the leading research innovations we are seeing, including at The University of Queensland.

Plant propagation

For our production supply chains to be robust, we need a consistent supply of superior, disease-free planting material.

In a world-first breakthrough my team at the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation at UQ have made, we can use plant stem cell-based propagation to grow avocado trees, allowing up to 500 times more plants to be grown from a single cutting in 10-12 months. Not only does this significantly reduce the resources required (including fertilisers, water, pest management and land), but it reduces the time it currently takes to produce a commercial plant.

We are planning on extending this work beyond avocados, to help propagate crops like macadamia, finger limes, vanilla, coffee and cacao – plants that are difficult to propagate, but which are of high value to our growers. The technique can also be used in preserving Australia’s rainforests, many of which cannot be stored as seed – a particularly important consideration given the growing threat of climate change and natural disasters such as bushfires.

Cleaner, greener crop protection

Another critical tool will be how we manage pests and diseases. Current crop protection practices have several significant issues, from growing resistance to diseases to the potential harm to human health and the environment. What is acceptable is changing: greener pest control will be better for the environment (and in particular our waterways, which are often affected by run-off), and for exports and trade as social attitudes towards chemical crop protection change. It will also be important in the war against food wastage – it is estimated that globally, 40 per cent of food grown is lost to crop pests and pathogens.

This is an area where UQ has been focusing its research innovations. We have developed a transformational crop protection platform of RNA-based biopesticides called BioClay, which is not genetically modified and is safe and sustainable. Likened to a ‘vaccine’ for plants, BioClay involves immunising the plant by using RNA from the target pest or pathogen, making the plant ‘think’ it is being attacked, activating a protective response and successfully defending the plant. In doing so, it presents an alternative to chemical control measures which mitigates issues of resistance, residue, specificity and run-off to our precious waterways.

Climate change will continue to create variations in crop pests and diseases, and clean, green crop protection innovations like this will be vital in creating sustainable solutions for the future.

Protected cropping

Protected cropping innovations also have huge potential to not only increase crop efficiency, but to significantly lower the environmental footprint of farming operations.  

Protected cropping involves growing plants in climate-controlled environments, allowing them to thrive year-round and be grown anywhere (including non-arable land such as disused mine sites). They also require less fertiliser and pesticide use, run-off is eliminated, and water and nutrients can be recycled. It is an inevitable trajectory with climate change, natural disasters, changing consumer trends, digital disruption and population growth reinforcing the need to diversify the Agrifood sector.

Currently, less than a third of Australian vegetable growers use protected cropping facilities. A more widespread uptake will be critical in safeguarding Australia’s food supply, but also improving crop diversity for consumers and meeting demands of niche markets.

UQ has developed a multidisciplinary protected cropping research network to support a partnered approach to addressing some of the research and translational challenges.  It is aimed at innovating, developing and growing existing and high value crops and products as part of modern manufacturing and new markets, creating year-round supply, reduced waste, decreased impact on land and biodiversity, efficient supply chains and circular closed loop design.

There are countless more innovations on the horizon – the research is happening, and it’s incredibly promising. But for it to provide commercial solutions, we need strong leadership; easier-to-navigate regulation; and acceptance from the community for these new technologies that will change the way we farm, eat and live.

Professor Neena Mitter (centre) with the team behind the BioClay innovation. Image: Anjanette Webb

Dr John Dixon

Adjunct Professor at Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI), Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering (ATSE) and Chair of ACT Division Committee

An older man with grey hair and a white beard in a striped business shirt. He is sitting at a table and smiling at the camera.

Dr John Dixon

Dr John Dixon

How do we feed a growing global population when the very process is at odds with our efforts to minimise our impact on the environment?

The phrase ‘sustainable intensification’ is often used to describe how we can increase food production while regenerating soils and other natural resources, as well as limiting the damage on the planet. While there are varying interpretations of how we might do this, I believe that the way forward is holistic: we have to look at how all the pieces on farms and supply chains come together. 

For the past fifty years, my passion and major contribution has been in agricultural systems. To be effective, sustainability solutions need to think holistically about how the different activities in a landscape mosaic fit together (e.g. cropping, grazing, trees and other vegetation protecting soils). They also need to look beyond what solutions can do for the climate crisis, but – critically – what they can do for local people: how can they increase food and nutrition security, reduce poverty, and reduce illness from chemical sprays?

Men working with farming tools on an agroforestry operation. There are rows of shrubs alongside rows of trees.

An agroforestry operation. Image: Henrique Ferrera/Adobe Stock

An agroforestry operation. Image: Henrique Ferrera/Adobe Stock

Agroforestry is a popular example of a nature-based solution to agriculture’s sustainability problems which also produces food and benefits the community. Agroforestry is the processes of integrating woody vegetation (such as trees and shrubs) into land used for crops or grazing. Not only can this accelerate carbon capture in soil and reduce wind and soil erosion, but it can diversify production systems to create an additional income and food source for farmers, ultimately augmenting local livelihoods.  Future planetary health requires a massive scaling of sustainable intensification technologies like these, and this in turn requires a shift of mindset to focus on the pathways to massive adoption and impacts.

But it’s not just about planting trees – it’s important to work with the local farmer needs, practices and cultures to ensure innovations will benefit farmers and behavioural change will be effective and long-lasting.

Let’s also remember that not all innovations are good: we all agree that the invention of toxic pesticides was bad, so the likely effects of each new technology must be looked at carefully to ensure it is productive, environmentally friendly and equitable, especially in being inclusive of low-income women.

Another example of a positive, novel technology is a new type of affordable machinery developed in a partnership between the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research and universities, researchers, manufacturers and farmers in India around fifteen years ago to help minimise environmentally-damaging crop burning. There have been ineffectual bans of crop burning in India due to its significant contribution to background urban air pollution: in early winter months when rice straw burning spikes, smoke contributes to as much as 40 per cent of Delhi’s overall air pollution. The air pollution across north-west India has reached critically unsafe levels, which were reported to have led to 1.67 million deaths in 2019; however, it is still a common practice as a cheap and easy way to remove crop residue and prepare the field for the next season.

Three men wearing traditional Indian clothing with white beards and turbans use sticks to turn the earth where fire is burning on straw residue.

Farmers burning rice crop residue in Punjab, India to prepare the field for the next crop. Image: Neil Palmer/International Centre for Tropical Agriculture

Farmers burning rice crop residue in Punjab, India to prepare the field for the next crop. Image: Neil Palmer/International Centre for Tropical Agriculture

The new technology allows farmers to plant a wheat crop directly into the residue of the previous season’s rice crop, eliminating the need to burn. It also increases yields through timely planting, decreases the diesel fuel burnt in tractors, decreases the burden of labour and is no-tillage (tillage is the turning of soil to prepare land for crops, but which releases carbon stored in soil into the air). We can call these no-tillage practices ‘conservation agriculture-based sustainable intensification’, for which Australia is one of the world leaders. There is still plenty of food to eat, but also cleaner air to breathe, while soils are improved with more carbon.

Projects like this – which look comprehensively at the social, economic and environmental factors at play in an ecosystem – are the way forward, but they require us to all move ahead together. Solutions (and especially widespread uptake) can’t be forged in isolation: we need to collaborate across disciplines, governments, organisations and stakeholders to design solutions that are climate-effective, but which also work in the communities in which they operate. We could call this sustainable development underpinned by research.

Doug McNicholl

Master of Business Administration '20, Manager of Sustainable Innovation at Meat and Livestock Australia

A black-and-white photo of a Caucasian man smiling slightly into the camera. He is wearing a suit jacket and a white shirt.

Doug McNicholl

Doug McNicholl

Globally and in Australia, the meat and livestock industry is working to address various significant challenges, including how it can improve human health, support food security, enable market access, address consumer and community sentiment, and mitigate and adapt to climate change.

Increasingly, people care about where food comes from and – aside from taste, health benefits and price – its broader sustainability credentials, including human rights and animal wellbeing.

While other industries have kept one foot in the door on emissions targets, the Australian Red Meat Industry has a set its sights on achieving carbon neutrality by 2030. In 2017, the Australian Beef Industry launched The Australian Beef Sustainability Framework to define what ‘sustainable beef production’ looks like and track how the industry’s performance, and the Australian sheep meat and wool industry launched the world’s first Sheep Sustainability Framework in 2020.

Whilst the carbon-neutral by 2030 challenge is substantial, it isn’t impossible. The industry has made substantial progress – greenhouse gas emissions from Australian red meat production have halved since 2005, largely due to avoided land clearing; Australia’s grazing lands are increasing in woody vegetation; and in terms of other environmental credentials, it takes 68% less water to produce a kilogram of beef than it did 30 years ago.

Carbon neutrality is about striking the balance between carbon removal from the atmosphere and carbon release into the atmosphere, mostly as carbon dioxide (and methane in the case of livestock production, which occurs as a natural by-product of the digestive process).

In terms of lowering carbon release, livestock supplements, forages and genetic technologies that reduce methane production from ruminants (cows, sheep and goats) and are promising and undergoing commercialisation. For example, a recent animal feeding trial funded by MLA found that the feed additive Bovaer® reduced methane emissions from cattle by up to 90 per cent. Similar results have been seen with another feed additive derived from the marine algae Red Asparagopsis.

The industry is also focused on removing carbon from the atmosphere using climate-adapted forages and trees that support livestock production while removing carbon through photosynthesis and storing it in plant matter above and in the soil. Plants of particular interest include deep-rooted perennial pastures, tropical legumes and native tree species.  

It’s important to note that maintaining current production and consumption levels of Australian red meat will not contribute to additional global temperature rise. It’s also important to remember that Australia is a mostly hot, dry, landscape, and most locations can’t viably support crops for human consumption. In these areas, land is ideal for grazing livestock – in fact, around 355 million hectares, or around half of Australia’s land, is used for grazing livestock.

This enormous scale comes with great responsibility for environmental stewardship. Through the use of available technologies and practices that deliver productivity-led reductions in greenhouse emissions and improvements in carbon storage, the red meat industry is ideally positioned to provide a meaningful supply of high-quality climate-friendly food and fibre products to the world.     

The focus for MLA in the coming years will be strengthening the value proposition of existing and emerging technologies and practices for producers. Currently, just 6 per cent of Australian cattle and sheep producers derive revenue from the environmental services they provide during red meat production, suggesting a lack of recognition and reward made by the industry in recent times.

MLA is working with all industry stakeholders to support year-on-year growth in the number of Australian red meat producers deriving revenue from the environmental services they provide alongside red meat production. The technologies and practices exist today, but the market-based instruments that enable new value creation and capture need more development and support.

The Australian red meat industry is playing its part in the fight against climate change. Not only does the industry want to survive a changing climate, it wants to thrive by embracing technologies and practices that will stand the test of time. The industry wants to be the trusted source of the highest quality protein and want consumers to enjoy red meat, knowing it's good for them and good for the environment.

Image: Steyn Viljo/Pexels

Cows grazing in a field with a sunset to their right. One cow is looking at the camera.

Did you watch our most recent ChangeMakers event? Catch-up on the discussion below or on our event page.