Too few agricultural scientists

The Australian  November 18, 2009   page 27
Agricultural scientists are too thin on the ground

Agricultural science, food and natural resource management, have never been more important, argues Mark Adams, dean of the Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources at Sydney University.
   "Carbon, water, food. This is what it is about," he says. "The world is going to be desperate for food, is desperate for food and will be increasingly hard pressed to supply it."

     He points out some major food producing nations, including Australia, are facing great changes in water availability. "In many cases the farmers are working with soils that are old. They have adapted their techniques successfully in the past, but we are looking at a fairly big challenge to adapt again."
    Agriculture these days means soil, water and the atmosphere. "The natural resource base is, like never before, at the forefront of our teaching, our research," Adams says.
   The world's population is growing – the forecast is the current population will rise from 6.8 billion to over 9 billion by 2050 – but the area of farmland is decreasing and water supplies are diminishing in some countries.
     A recent a study by the International Water Management Institute and the
United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization warned that many developing nations in Asia could have to import one quarter of their rice, wheat and maize or corn by 2050.
    Last year the world faced a cereal crisis as wheat stocks dropped to a 30 year low. Demand for wheat and rice had outstripped supply for six of the previous seven years. Grain prices rocketed, resulting in civil unrest and a crisis in emergency food aid.
    IWMI director general, Colin Chartres, warns cereal prices will be higher and more volatile in the future. He argues Asia's best bet "lies in revitalizing its vast irrigation systems, which account for 70 percent of the world's total irrigated land".
    That will mean increasing water productivity through systems like Rubicon's Total Channel Control. Rubicon, which developed its patented system in conjunction with  University of Melbourne Dean of Engineering Iven Mareels recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding with China, where it will install two pilot projects.
      Rubicon CEO David Aughton says its Total Channel Control system has achieved 90 per cent efficiency in Australia in gravity-run open channels. "Australia uses about 16,000 gigalitres (billion litres) for irrigation, whereas China delivers 560,000 GL in its channel network, and they are running around about 50 per cent efficiency," Aughton explains.
   Professor Mareels says the first problem is water management: that means good information about water supply, demand and delivery. The Rubicon system replaces blokes in utes opening channel gates with networked sensors and actuators, a fully-automated channel network that precisely measures the flow.
    He says the next step is more crop per drop. A prototype that closes the information loop between crop water needs, measured and predicted soil moisture deficit and the water supply has been set up at the University of Melbourne's Dookie Farm. Professor Mareels says the early results "indicate that on-farm economic productivity can be significantly improved whilst greatly reducing water consumption."
     Under the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme, as it currently stands, farmers have only one option to sequester carbon: long-term tree plantations. Farmers are hoping the sequestration of carbon in soils will come under the scheme, but Professor Adams points out scientists can not reliably, and cheaply, measure soil carbon.
    "We have really got to get to work and understand the processes that lead to sequestration of carbon," he says. "It is a huge job. I can't see a more pressing problem than soil carbon, the processes that govern its retention or release."
     Carbon is not sequestered alone: it requires other elements, including nitrogen and phosphorus. They are typically added to the soil through fertilisers, but synthetic fertilisers are big greenhouse gas emitters. "The energy input to produce fertiliser is just astronomic and we can't afford that," Adams says, "so it is going to come down to legumes".
   Legumes pull nitrogen from the air and fix it in their roots. Many farmers already include legumes, like faba beans or field peas, in their crop rotations. Professor Adams says the next steps will be breeding more water efficient legumes, and more phosphorus-efficient plants.
   "We really have to get down to what are the key limiting factors and it will be things like how do we get the nitrogen into the system via plants, via nitrogen fixation that have no other energy costs." Agricultural scientists and environmental post-graduates and scientists are engaged on this urgent task. But there is another problem: a growing shortage of agricultural scientists.
    The Council of Deans of Agriculture looked at the last three years of agriculture vacancies and found there were 5000 jobs advertised each year for agriculture graduates, but only about 800 students graduated each year.
    Council secretary and Professor of Agriculture at Charles Sturt University, Jim Pratley, says that over the past 20 years there has been a gradual decline in the number of agriculture students.  His own area, agronomy, is the biggest area of need. "There are about 10 jobs for every agronomy graduate at the moment," he says.
     He hopes undergraduate numbers are now turning around. "At CSU we have had really good enrolments this year and there has been a lot of interest".
     Professor Adams argues the need for graduates in agriculture, food and natural resource management will only rise. "I think the Federal government's policy to try and create green jobs will only increase the demand. Consulting houses, major agribusiness companies are all looking for graduates who understand carbon and water. These are huge areas now."
    Professor Adams is only partly joking when he says university agriculture faculties have been too successful for their own good, with the number of post-graduate students Australia-wide falling over the past decade as graduate opt for the workforce instead.   "We have incredibly high employment rates for graduates in agricultural science, 95 per cent, and many of them walk straight into very well-paid positions. The success of our undergraduate degree programs is a two-edged sword".
    Professor Pratley says there are currently several national reviews into agricultural research. "It is worth noting there has been a substantial decline in research. It has been the largest sector for R&D in Australia, but it is in significant decline and so they [state agencies] are going through a rationalisation process at the moment."
    Most agricultural research is funded by the commodities, with governments matching their contributions. Professor Adams says this has been "a successful model, however the model doesn't work when a commodity takes a hit and that is the precise time when you need investment in research."
    That model also does not provide funds for broadscale issues like soil and carbon.
    Professor Adams recently attended the World Agroforestry Congress in Nairobi. He reports the conference was focussed on the basic human needs of water, food and fuel to cook with. But it was dominated by carbon.
    "Focussing on soil carbon is our best bet for the win, win, win solution so needed and sought by politicians," Professor Adams says. He says it offers developing and developed nations their best chance to be rewarded for sound environmental practises. "By focusing on how we can manage plants to add carbon to soils, as well as produce food and fibre, we have much to gain and absolutely nothing to lose," he says.
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