Carbon, water, food: quo vadis agriculture at Australian universities?

16 February 2012

First published in The Canberra Times on 16 February 2012.

This week's cancelation of the intake of students to the agriculture program at the University of Western Sydney has justifiably rung alarm bells. Australia's Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, was quick to argue that a strategy of hope was not going to address the decline in the number of students selecting agricultural science as their first preference at university. We need to do things differently.

It is in our national interest to better support agriculture at our universities. It is in our national interest because - as the Chief Scientist and his team recently noted about Australia's involvement in international agricultural research - we are good at it.

Professor Mark Adams, Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, argues that it is in our national interest to better support agriculture at Australian universities.
Professor Mark Adams, Dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, argues that it is in our national interest to better support agriculture at Australian universities.

Australian science more generally cannot hope to be good at everything; we are too small a community. But in agriculture we punch well above our weight and it makes no sense to throw away that hard-won advantage. Naturally, we are good at it because of investment, especially in the post-war period when governments properly recognised that without R&D we would struggle to maintain the international competitiveness of our export-focused agricultural industries. This was followed up by far-sighted decisions to extend our R&D prowess to education, not just for Australians but for international students as well. Remarkable successes such as the Colombo Plan, which promoted technical co-operation and assisted in the sharing and transfer of technology among Commonwealth countries, might be revisited now.

The goal of making our Faculties and Schools of Agriculture and their degree programs more attractive to students has to include re-thinking of the role of agriculture academics in research and in teaching programs. An artificial divide of 'fundamental' science belonging solely in science departments and 'applied' science belonging in agriculture faculties and departments, is plainly dumb. After all, it suggests that the best and brightest should aspire to work in science rather than agriculture faculties and departments. It is dumb because students take their lead from the staff who teach them and because it has created a profound anti-agriculture culture amongst those who take part in the annual ritual of anonymous peer-review of grant proposals to the major source of funding for fundamental research - the Australian Research Council. Ever since the rise in the 1980s and 90s of the Research and Development Corporations that fund applied research supported directly by industry, there has been a steady erosion of ARC support for key fields such as soil science and plant production research. This is not an RDC or an ARC problem per se - it is as much about the way universities have treated agriculture and its constituent science disciplines as anything else. Even so, we now need a serious and sustained effort to fix the problem. Restoring an ARC panel for agriculture (and forest) research would be a good start, especially if the RDCs contributed to the funding pool and the peer-reviewer pool was appropriately re-balanced.

All of this requires a compelling narrative that captures media attention. A few years ago I spent four days at the UN in Nairobi, listening as speaker after speaker - including Rajendra Pachauri, the Chair of the IPCC, M.S Swaminathan, a founder of the green revolution, and Achim Steiner, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Program - stressed the urgency of producing sufficient food for a few billion more people.

What can be more important? Yet in Australia, and up till around 2009, we had more than a decade of bad agriculture stories in our capital city news outlets as we went through the worst drought in a century. Agriculture was to blame for everything from losses of biodiversity to polluting the atmosphere with greenhouse gases to dust-storms and killing our redgums. Yes, of course, we need to better manage our plants and animals and soils and water, especially our soils. Our agricultural scientists and economists focus on solutions but the media love to highlight those who wish to shout about 'the problems'. The Australian agricultural R&D community has calmly lead the way in developing new knowledge to improve water use efficiency and optimize management inputs for both production and the environment. That knowledge should now be exported since many of the world's food producing regions mostly now have less water and more vulnerable soils than they once had.

The green revolution showed Australian agriculture, and agriculture at Australian universities, have global opportunities and responsibilities. We have to learn and teach how to produce more food whilst reducing reliance on fossil fuels and nitrogen fertilizer, and halting and then reversing our history of degrading the atmosphere, soils, habitat and biodiversity. The 'perfect storm' - more mouths to feed with less water and fossil fuels to do it with - requires that Australian universities celebrate their agriculture faculties, schools and departments, promote them to students, and encourage them all to develop solutions to the problems.

It is ironic that collaboration and cross-disciplinary studies now attract such attention in the rest of academia and that some institutions are now considering financial incentives as a way of encouraging their staff to engage nationally and internationally, across fields and institutions (as, statistically, this is the way to get ahead). This will be a boon to Agriculture that has been cross-disciplinary and necessarily collaborative all its life in Australian universities. Which other degrees or which other school or faculty provides strong training in botany, animal science, soil science, microbiology, chemistry, hydrology, economics and others, all within one place and a framework of systems thinking? Perhaps just give the incentive funds to the agriculture faculties and let them get on with it. One thing is sure, we know how to spend it usefully.

I can think of nothing more important than the challenges of food, water and soil security. Every incoming student in every Australian university should be compelled to take a first year course focused on these issues. Perhaps only then will they take a different view of agriculture.

Contact: Katynna Gill

Phone: 02 9351 6997

Email: 1b4a473b3e0235762f303d1e71091c543617567c31212c593b0c