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Specific perspectives in future agriculture: agricultural sustainability

Don Blesing

Chairman, Grains Research and Development Corporation, NFF House, 14-16 Brisbane Avenue, Barton ACT 2600

The shift to sustainability

Much of Australian land use is not sustainable in biological and ecological terms. In some agricultural systems (temperate region cropping) sustainability has improved in recent decades, while others (sub-tropical cropping, temperate pastures, sub-tropical grazing) apparently remain unsustainable.

Yet there is considerable opportunity for improvement.

Current technology, if implemented by land managers, could reverse the downward trend in most measures of sustainability, or in some cases move to and maintain stability, even if the quality of most soils cannot be restored to their pre-farming condition (8).

Change will require a shift in farmer, researcher and adviser attitude, so that success in farming is measured and rewarded by the use of biological as well as economic parameters. A key issue is the need to develop improved measures of biological change (5).

The shift to biological sustainability is relatively new as a commodity and farming goal.

Farmers in general have substantially improved land condition from the degraded and low-yielding situation of the mid 1900s prior to the widescale adoption of legume based pastures and reduction in bare fallows. They have done this by applying technologies which led to increased productivity as well as improved land condition. It was their search for productivity gains, coupled with several decades of relative prosperity, which led to the current situation which is still vulnerable but has the potential to become stable and relatively sustainable.

Farmers now know that soft land use, when coupled with hard business management, leads to long term profitability.

The community now has increasing expectations that farmers should make the changes necessary to achieve biological sustainability. However to achieve these more complex goals farmers will need broader and longer planning horizons which recognise these ecological and economic impacts.

What is sustainability?

Sustainability is used here as the capacity of the land-use system to maintain net productivity of biomass over a time frame of decades to centuries (6).

Resilience, resistance to damage through natural cycles of drought and flood, flexibility, robustness, stability, endurance, and ability to cope with change are all useful concepts in understanding agricultural sustainability (see Figs 1, 2 and 3).

Figure 1. Definitions of productivity, stability and sustainability (adapted from Conway, 1983). (Source: A Hamblin, 1991. `Sustainability: Physical and Biological Consideration for Australian Environments'.)

Figure 2. This diagram illustrates the fact that sustainable systems have the capacity to take disturbances within limits of sustainability. Once disturbances go beyond these limits, long term survival of the system is threatened. This is so whether the disturbance is ecological or economic. The period is over which recovery takes place is also relevant to the sustainability of the system. The faster the recovery, the more disturbance can be tolerated by the system. (Source: SCA, 1991. Report to Australian Agricultural Council, Working Group on Sustainable Agriculture.)

Figure 3. Important human and biological time frames. (Source: A Hamblin, 1991. 'Sustain- ability: Physical and Biological Considerations for Australian Environments'.)

Economic sustainability is often and unfortunately seen as an altogether different concept, however it is a consequence of a combination of market forces, farm size, land values, land capability, degradation status and farm management skills.

Causes of unsustainability

The primary cause of non-sustainability has been the over-use of our lands, driven by societal expectations and support, fostered by a widespread lack of knowledge of the consequences of over-use, and aided and abetted by the quite natural short term self interest of individual farmers. Legislation favouring closer settlement for misguided social objectives, drought relief measures favouring farmer welfare to the detriment of land condition and incentives for land clearing for narrowly-based developmental objectives have been major contributing causes. Sustainable land management is tragically still hampered by out-dated legislation in some States (2).

However no one group can be blamed for any lack of sustainability.

White Australians have treated their lands differently to the ways in which land has been managed in many other societies, and far removed from the gentle, rhythmic yet disciplined ways in which black Australians treated the same land.

Black Australians treated land as if it had a soul (which it did of course to them), whereas white Australians so often treated their land as a means to an end. A way of becoming wealthy, a means of earning income, an economic resource to be exploited once our basic needs for food and fibre had been satisfied.

Australians have used land for economic purposes, for private gain and business growth, for a mere 200 years or eight generations. We have used land in ways that were wasteful of natural resources seen at the time to be of little economic value. Forests, bushland (pejoratively described as scrub), mallee stumps, cereal stubbles, native grasses and surplus rainfall were all systematically destroyed or discarded as valueless, whereas all are now recognised, valued, conserved or being slowly replaced.

The history of land management by white settlers was not wrong, or immoral, it needs to be seen as reality, a reflection of the culture of the time and of an unusual opportunity to conquer and exploit.

For example, Meinig (7) describing early settlement in South Australia, says 'the perfection of the railway, and the elaboration of a new array of farming machinery allowed such remote lands to be transformed almost immediately into specialised grain regions rather than gradually evolving through various stages from subsistence farming'.

The economic imperative to exploit all available lands was reinforced by a 'bush ethos' of those who lived and worked in the bush. This was characterised by:

  • a high value placed on hard physical toil, on the value of work itself;
  • honesty and mateship to fellow bush people (provided they were white and anglo-celtic) which discouraged individual questioning;
  • virtue in development because it was good in itself and akin to being Biblically ordained;
  • encouragement from the mid-nineteenth century onwards by the mother country for continual supplies of raw goods in return for markets for manufactured goods;
  • a post-war-era obligation to grow grain to feed the hungry world, and to grow two blades of grass where one grew before (even if we now know that the original single blade was at least drought resistant);
  • an often unspoken imperative to remove the alien and threatening 'scrub', to tame the bush into compliant submission.

Neither was this bush ethos wrong.

This ethos, combined with the acceptability and even gratitude felt by the community for those who exploited the land, validated our exploitative land usage of the past.

I know all this from experience - I have been part of it.

'To the pioneer belongs high praise because he has sought new ways in the face of hardship and has experimented with the earth and with himself. He has been an explorer of homesteads and regions, a discoverer of the earth's bounty and of the places where she withholds it.' (7)

This era of exploitative land use, grand and exciting as it was, is drawing to a close. We are now moving toward a more mature and understanding approach of a sustainable agriculture based on ecological principles, not on a bush ethos, not just on economic values of the day, not just on our desire for continued development.

The exponential growth assumptions implicit in previous private and government planning, based on continual expansion of farmed area and continued yield increases does not fit within the concept of sustainability.

However, development for its own sake still continues in some areas. Trees are still being killed in the Decade of the Tree. Not with blunt and noisy bulldozers but with sophisticated, silent and cheap herbicides developed and tested by first class researchers, and justified with excellent economics. The problem for society and for agriculture as a whole, is that research may not consider the off-site effects of clearing over time and space, and thus any economic evaluation is unable to recognise these offsite effects and quantify their costs.

Research must be conducted in an holistic manner, and use a systems approach to issues to avoid a continuation of unsustainable development (8).

We now realise, sombrely in many cases, that agriculture has reached its limits in the level of damage to the land which society will accept and more importantly the level of damage the land itself will tolerate.

How sustainable has our land use been?

Table 1 gives an overview of some major agricultural industries in Australia, and incorporates estimates of sustainability within a range of biological, financial and managerial indicators.

Table 1. Sustainability comparisons of some current production systems.

An immediate concern is the lack of precision in quantifying most biological indicators relative to economic indicators - this illustrates the need for increased efforts in developing improved measures of sustainability (8,5).

However, a fairly clear picture emerges of relative sustainability.

  • Arid rangelands have been grazed with sheep and cattle for close to two centuries. Productivity is generally declining as the pasture base diminishes and soil erosion and weed invasion increases, caused or exacerbated by high stocking levels,small sheep-property size and pest animals. CSIRO research shows that rangeland stocking levels should be more flexible and generally lower then on many properties, and should aim to utilise only 20-30% of forage grown (4).
  • Subtropical rangelands have been grazed extensively for over a century and exotic species were added over the last half of that period. However, in recent decades increasing areas have been cleared and these now face rapid weed invasion, soil erosion and salinity, caused or exacerbated again by high stocking levels (3,8).
  • Widespread cropping has lasted over a century in temperate regions, and in some areas is close to sustainability with current technology. Cropping in subtropical regions is younger (20 to 70 years) and at moderate to severe risk from soil erosion, loss of organic matter and monocultural practices.
  • Marginal cropping lands in southern regions were first farmed over a century ago, were rapidly degraded but have subsequently recovered much of their potential. These systems could be sustainable if current technology (minimum tillage, trash retention and opportunity cropping) was widely adopted (8).

It is now generally recognised there has been widespread land degradation from previous land use, some highly visible as erosion, salting or weed invasion, other forms more insidious.

  • Rising water tables, and lowered animal and crop production caused by large-scale tree loss;
  • Widespread crop yield decline, sometimes to the extent that land is retired from previous usage, caused by narrow rotations and soil erosion;
  • Steady acidity increase as a consequence of improved pastures, to the extent that millions of hectares of temperate lands require regular lime supplements;
  • Grain protein decline as soil organic matter levels decrease within monocultures or narrow rotations, often incorrectly attributed to lack of plant breeding progress. Wheat protein levels have fallen over the past 15 years by approximately 2-3% and exacerbated current marketing difficulties (T. Reeves, pers. comm., 1990);
  • Herbicide resistance in weeds caused by over-reliance on chemicals and narrow rotations can suddenly strike farmers after a decade of slow build-up. Graingrowers in Western Australia and South Australia are being affected now, often the most innovative and better managed farms are affected first;
  • Soil structure decline from over cultivation and loss of plant cover can severely limit plant production by limiting water infiltration and creating a hostile germination environment. This is particularly evident on longestablished crop systems on red-brown earths of southern Australia.


Change toward sustainability will require change in farmer attitudes, change in training and education, change in research goals and criteria, and change in land management policies and practices. The keys to change will be a new understanding of, and measurement of, success in farming, and improved measures of biological change. Success will need to be measured in softer, broader, more biological and less macho terms, using expressions like resilience,

robustness and ability to change, in parallel with expressions such as yield increase, productivity gains, development and business growth.

The previous relentless drive for ever-increasing productivity will need to be balanced by sustainability parameters, as narrowly-focused paddock and farm management is integrated into catchment, landscape and system management concepts.


Restructuring will be needed in most industries to allow the development of farm businesses large enough to manage sustainably and to alter production if necessary, and to give increased vertical integration opportunities.

Management practices such as land use planning based on land capability, flexible stocking rates to maintain ground cover at all times and the use of trash retention/minimum tillage for crops will stabilise most systems.

Research is required into sustainable rotations in subtropical cropping systems which currently lack suitable legume and non-cereal alternatives for adequate rotations, the development of deeper rooted pastures which utilise more water in temperate and subtropical grazing systems, and into improved criteria for sustainable stocking rates in arid and subtropical rangelands. Improved industry models which incorporate sustainability criteria are required for all landuse systems, as are improved measures of biological change (5).

We need to open our minds to a range of additional solutions, or to processes which are likely to develop solutions over time, such as:

  • management goals which include energy efficiency, indices of robustness, measures of pasture utilisation, and water use efficiency;
  • research which considers system equilibrium. Are droughts worsening, are woody weed areas spreading, are slaking and sodic soils (Sunday soils) getting stickier?
  • research which recognises sustainability, and does not seek to unilaterally increase yield and/or quality;
  • development of animal performance indicators linked to system sustainability. Objectively - based indicators such as forage levels, growth rates, product quality and stocking rate need to be linked to a better understanding of stock health, contentedness, shade levels, shelter indices, parasite levels in animals and soil, and stock camping patterns;
  • research goals should be broadened, so that yield is not always graphed on the x axis - why not energy use, cost, or even sustainability itself (even if poorly understood);
  • a challenge exists to develop improved decision making tools for cropping and temperate regions (similar to RANGEPAK and HERDECON) which incorporate ecological elements. The process of adding longer-term biological considerations to gross margins, of incorporating ecological constraints in our understanding, our models, and our training systems will be valuable in itself in developing attitude changes, and in determining sustainability weaknesses and limitations;
  • changes to land management legislation to remove the confusion arising from conflicting land management and social welfare objectives;
  • encouragement of vertical integration as a socially acceptable management tool in extensive farming and grazing systems, to better manage risk and to access investment capital in order to adopt more sustainable and productive technologies;
  • use of business plans for farms and land using enterprises which incorporate biological parameters and recognise land capability;
  • development of land tenure systems and land use planning for rangelands based on land capability measures and maximum stock performance rather than on maximum stock numbers (4);
  • development of rangeland rehabilitation strategies based on sound management to biological criteria. These could include commercial harvesting of pest animals (rabbits, roos, emus or sheep), the collection and analysis of best-practices now in the heads of current and past rangeland managers and policy changes to foster horizontal and vertical integration;
  • development of management performance indicators based on earthworm numbers, soil organic matter levels, rates of water infiltration, observations made from soil pits, nutrient balance sheets, pasture seed levels, vegetation shifts based on photopoints, and pasture residue levels (5; see Table 2).

Table 2. Checklist for mixed crop-stock dryland farming system. (Source: A Hamblin, 1991. `How Do We Know When Agricultural Systems Are Sustainable?')


Australian agriculture is not currently sustainable, but could come close that goal in some regions, for example, winter-rainfall cropping, if current technologies which recognise biologi- cal as well as market constraints were widely adopted.

Most systems need further research and development, and in subtropical and some high rainfall systems in particular, major management changes, often requiring re-capitalisation, are required to stabilise downward trends in sustainability.

Some agricultural systems may not reach sustainability even with these changes, and farm managers in this situation will need to consider land use changes to retain their asset value and long term viability, and meet community expectations.

Changes in attitude, education, research direction and landuse policies are all necessary to enable, the necessary management changes to be implemented to achieve biological sustainability. The community goal that all land be used within its biological capacity coincides closely with farmer needs for productive and sustainable farming and grazing systems. Continued community support and encouragement, changes in land management policies and focussed research should together support the implemelitation of management changes to ensure that our agricultural land-use become sustainable.


1. Australian Broadacre Agriculture 1990-91 and 1991-92. Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics Canberra. p. 52.

2. Bradsen, J. 1991. Paper delivered at Int. Conf. on sustainable land management, Napier, New Zealand. p. 30.

3. ESD 1991. Draft report on agriculture. (Aust. Govt Pubi. Service: Canberra). pp. 121-149.

4. Foran, B.D., Friedel, M.D., MacLead, N.D., Stafford Smith, D.M. and Wilson, A.D. 1991. A Policy for the Future of Australia's Rangelands. (CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Ecology). pp. 12-13.

5. Hamblin, A. 1991. Paper delivered at Int. Conf. on sustainable land management, Napier, New Zealand. p. 25.

6. Hamblin, A. 1991. Bureau of Rural Resources Working Paper WP/19/89 (revised edition). pp. 7-14.

7. Meinig, D.W. 1961. On the Margins of the Good Earth. (American Geographers). pp. 5, 203.

8. SCA 1991. Working group on sustainable agriculture. Report to Australian Agriculture Council, February. pp. 27-41.

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