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By Mike Grundy, CSIRO Chief Research Scientist Mike Grundy, CSIRO Chief Research Scientist 24 November 2019 5 min read

When the National Farmers' Federation called for Australia's agricultural production value to increase to $100 billion per annum by 2030, a few were left scratching their heads.

How could it possibly be done? After all, it can't be said that the sector doesn't have its challenges.

Currently Australia produces around $60b of agricultural products. Last year the value of the national output dropped by 3 per cent to the year before, and was 6pc lower than the record achieved in 2016-17.

So, if anything, agricultural productivity appears to be going in reverse, despite farmers working as hard as ever, armed with information and equipment their forefathers would have drooled over.

This reversal actually highlights the challenges our farmers face. A 2017 CSIRO study demonstrated how long term climatic changes and events like drought are impacting wheat yields. Wheat potential has dropped 27pc over 25 years through decreases in average rainfall and increases in average temperature.

The result is flattening average yields; our farmers are being forced to tread water in the face of worsening growing conditions. Individual years certainly fluctuate, but the average remains steadfast.

These declining conditions are aggravated by land degradation. Australia's soil has been worked hard over the past 150 years, and changes above and below ground have compounded themselves into what is - at face value - a troubling situation.

In fact, our modelling has shown business as usual productivity trends won't see us reach the $100b target - we'd be closer to reaching around $70b. So after reading that, you would be forgiven for joining the ranks of those scratching their heads.

However, there are reasons for optimism. The cumulative impacts of decades of research and development are ushering a new age of agriculture, which has the potential to kick the industry from reverse all the way into top gear.

Use of agricultural sensor equipment is spreading across Australia – it’s time for the information to be properly utilised.

Precision Ag - more than a buzzword

You and I may have what is broadly known as the same medical condition. We may both take the same drugs, in the same quantity, at the same time. However, despite doing the same thing, the treatment only works for one of us.

Similarly, you and I might try to grow the same crop, following the same practices at the same time, yet your yield is strikingly different than mine. Why is this so?

While the worlds of medicine and agriculture are seemingly worlds apart, there is a shared problem of the use of averages, and it's a method we need to move away from if we are to progress. While our situations may be broadly similar, the management of them should be totally different.

In agriculture, we may have a management practice that works 70 per cent of the time in field trials, so it is deemed to be successful and is broadly adopted.

However, what about the 30 per cent of failures? What if we could elevate the results of these hapless 30 per cent of cases who do the "right thing" but fail?

Also, while the 70 per cent may show an improvement, how many of them are actually optimised?

So just as medicine is moving towards personalised treatments, agriculture must move towards individual interventions at your paddock's level. The good news is that we don't need much more of a revolution than we already have had in digital agriculture.

We want the farm to talk to the farmer, and so that the farmer responds accordingly with appropriate decisions. The farm can finetune our understanding of the soil, water, and vegetation - the natural capital that underpins our farm productivity. We can maintain it, even restore it, which will also improve our yield potential.

The technologies and on-farm knowledge to enable these are increasingly already on-farm. We just need them to properly talk with each other. At CSIRO's 2017 AgCatalyst event in Sydney, we held a data challenge to show how that can happen, and the future is genuinely exciting, with banks and investors hovering around these technologies.

Ultimately the yield potential on your farm is different to the yield potential from my farm. But we might achieve a similar profit (or minimise losses in bad years) if we respond appropriately. However, this alone will not be enough to meet the $100b challenge.

We need the solutions to respond to the farm's call.

Technology has helped to offset a decline in agricultural conditions, but it could help lift farm productivity.

Closing the yield gap

Genetic breakthroughs will be required to not only lift our yields, but just as importantly to increase the value of them by adding new traits. We're now in a situation where we can map the genomes of practically all crops and animals, and the few remaining holdouts will soon be conquered.

This is the beginning of a transformation of our understanding and use of genetic potential, intervening when various genetic functions are expressed. We frankly don't know where exactly it will lead, but it will transform our management of pests and diseases. It can also change the nature of the quality of our products. Some early examples are already available, providing a window into what's possible.

Bt cotton is resistant to bollworm, saving farmers money on pesticides and heartache from crop attack. Meanwhile, omega-3 canola has been green-lit for planting in Australia.

This is the start of decommodifying crops and highlighting quality livestock and fish. Imagine that canola doesn't just need to be a jack-of-all-trades unrefined base-crop for use in things like cooking oil, margarine, or biofuel. What if you could - swiftly with new genetic tools - breed new varieties that are optimised for particular uses?

That's a value-added product with the value-add already bred in. Consumers and producers will love it and will be willing to pay handsomely for it.

The growing middle-class of Asia will help drive further demand, pushing us closer to $100b. However, while we can grow and produce more to help meet growing needs, ensuring access to those markets by meeting quality requirements and protecting against biosecurity threats is what will be required to get the agricultural sector over the line.

These digital and genetic breakthroughs will help us fingerprint our growing conditions and land management, produce the right variety, for the right season, for the right place (i.e.: your optimised paddock). This will allow us to be more adaptive to the challenges we face when they emerge, whether they be environmental, biosecurity threats, or international competitiveness.

Although it's not going to be easy to reach $100b within a decade, these exciting innovations and breakthroughs allow us to aim high, and with the pathways open to us it's a target that could be achieved with research and innovation.

This article first appeared in Farm Online.

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