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Future Landscapes

Dr Martin Barlass

Director Agriculture Industries, Department of Natural Resources and Environment

Dr Barlass is responsible and accountable for Victoria's investment strategy relating to agricultural research, development and extension. He has published many scientific papers and serves on a number of state and federal boards and committees. His talk is presented as a summary of powerpoint presentation slides.

The future has to be sustainable

1. What the agri-food sector in Victoria looks like now

  • 11% Victoria’s GSP; 33% all state exports
  • 9.7% Victorian employment; 21% in regional areas
  • Victoria produces 23% national farm produce; 30% food products from 3% of Australia’s agricultural land using 25% of Australia’s irrigation water
  • 2.1% productivity growth; whole economy is 1.3%
  • 85% of state’s private land is used for agriculture
  • Agriculture uses 77% of state’s water resources
  • Some regional centres are booming due to agriculture
  • Number of farms in Australia (110,000) has halved in 40 years
  • Commodity prices are down, productivity up, farm size up, off-farm income up
  • Increase in branding, direct marketing, vertical integration
  • Number of farms down, small town economy down, regional centres up, residential urbanisation up
  • Consumers want processed but natural food with Quality Assurance (QA) and food safety but no additives
  • Importance of Agriculture in the economy is declining
  • Increased scrutiny on government investment
  • Government leaving market place and focussing on land management
  • Globalisation pushing prices down, consume attitudes pushing costs up
  • Conflict between cost of doing business and consumer needs and aspirations

The rural paradigm is changing to land used not just for food and fibre production but also to harvest clean water and energy, and to maintain for amenity and biodiversity value.

2. Some of the challenges and drivers industry face to be sustainable (ignoring climate change and drought)

  • A new landscape (anti-globalisation)
    Regions in which food and agricultural production flourish are generally areas of scenic beauty, close to water and with major transport infrastructure. These also attract visitors, stimulating the local production and sale of a range of value added natural, cultural and environmental products. With promotion, tourism grows, stimulating more goods and services not specifically related to agri-food eg. accommodation. As amenities increase, companies not dependent on remaining close to resources are attracted by the lower cost of living (compared to cities) and the lifestyle opportunities for staff, retirement communities, conference retreats etc. This stimulates local employment and prosperity encouraging local government to pro-actively attract business to the region rather than locals leaving to find work in the cities.
  • A global warning – Klamath & Coho Salmon
    In order to protect Coho salmon and sucker fishm listed by the federal government as endangered species, the US Bureau of Reclamation as of April 6, 2001 cut off water to 1,400 farms covering a combined 210,000 acres in the Klamath River basin, Oregon. Klamath County Chamber of Commerce said “this decision will cost the county of 69,000 $250 million annually and double the unemployment rate from 10% to 20%”. April 30, 2001 – US District Judge Ann Aiken ruled that the bureau had acted legally. “Congress has spoken in the plainest of words, making it abundantly clear that the balance has been struck in favor of affording endangered species the highest of priorities”. July 4, 2001 – more that 100 people armed with a diamond-bladed chain saw and a cutting torch cut open an irrigation headgate that prevented Klamath River water from reaching parched farmland. The indigenous Yurck tribe support the water diversion. Low fish numbers has resulted in 75% unemployment in the tribal community. So do the coastal fishermen. Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Association – “the salmon based economy of Northern California and Southern Oregon has gone from $1000 million a year to about $1 million a year today. The economic decline is caused primarily by the loss of fish in the Klamath River”. July 24, 2001 – after 4 illegal openings of the irrigation headgates, the US Dept of the Interior released some irrigation water to help save crops. August 7, 2001 – several environmental groups filed a lawsuit to prevent this. During September 2001, industry and neighbouring irrigation districts were piping unused water into the district to relieve the situation. October 2, 2001 – the US Dept of the Interior and Commerce jointly engaged the National Academy of Science to conduct a scientific review of all the evidence. Secretary of the US Dept of the Interior said: “I believe we should base our decisions on the best available science”. January 31`, 2002 – NSA reported that the federal shut-off of water was not only unnecessary to preserve the salmon but likely harmed the fish by artificially raising water temperatures. The report noted that the best-ever year for Klamath fish populations occurred during a low-water year. February 5, 2002 – Pacific Legal foundation filed a lowsuit to remove Klamath Basin salmon from endangered species list. May 16, 2002 – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service published a 107 page ‘biological opinion” under the Endangered Species Act advocating

1) implementation of a range of “reasonable and prudent” water conservation measures, in part as a precautionary measure to protect species not yet considered to be endangered,

2) development of a research program to study to Coho salmon and its habitat requirements.

People and the environment

Natural Resources:

And Ecosystem Services:

Clean air and water

Water purification and production

Land and soil

Waste absorption


Landscape amenity


Recreation and tourism opportunities

Energy, oil, gas and minerals

Carbon sequestration


Use and consume these resources and services

to deliver benefits (economic, social, environmental)


Air, water and noise pollution

Rising groundwater

Carbon emission and waste

Nutrient run-off and salt mobilisation

Vegetation loss


Stock (air, land, water, flora, fauna etc)

Ecosystems and their function

Cultural heritage

  • competition
    The rate at which Australia’s natural resources can be consumed has limits. With an expanding population and changing community aspirations, Australia is now approaching these limits for may of its natural resources ie. demand is beginning to exceed supply. As competition intensifies, tensions rise. Increasingly these tensions are developing into conflicts over resource use eg. farm dams, marine parks, right-to-farm, forests
  • Increased degradation
    The capacity of ecosystems to absorb the off-site impacts of current production decisions is being exceeded. This is resulting in profound changes in increasing salinity, declining river health and the loss of bio-diversity. It is unlikely that current strategies will effectively stop or even significantly slow these changes.
  • Hot, heavy & wet
    According to a report to the World Economic Forum by Yale and Columbia universities, of 142 countries, Australia was: 43rd in water quality, 60th in reducing water stress, 105th in water quantity, 125th in conserving biodiversity, 125th in reducing waste, 128th in reducing air pollution, 134th in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Consumer attitudes
    Affluent and ageing – interested in health and well-being
    Socially aware – interested in ethical issues and environmental protection
    Remote from food production – give greater importance to potential risks
    Politically active – voicing opinions on how sectors can operate

3. Some of the technologies pushing a future science landscape (beyond biotechnology)

• Agriculture, nutrition & health (functional foods)
As the cost of therapeutic medicines rises, so is the interest in the use of diet to prevent disease. The convergence of biomedical and agri-food R & D is resulting in new food products containing bio-acitives targeting health, mood and well-being. The US market for functional foods is estimated at less than US$18b. There are myriad examples of functional foods. Each needs health substantiation beyond hearsay with cellular, animal and human trials.

Functional foods:

Broccoli – glucosinolates – reduces risk of breast cancer; Soybean – isoflavones – assists in prevention of cardiovascular, some cancers, osteoporosis; St John’s Wort – hypericin – treats anxiety, depression; Chinese mustard – aids digestive health; Apple – anti-oxidants – reduces risk of some cancers; Onion – quercetin –lowers cholesterol; Garlic – allin – lowers cholesterol; Racaldent™ - anti-caries ingredient; Dairy protein ingredient for specialised health foods; Micro-encapsulated fish oil ingredient for infant formula; Monola frying oil – less saturated fats; Tomato – lycopene – reduces prostate cancer; Olive oil – sqalene – reduces brease, bowel, prostate cancer; Starch – reduces bowel cancer; Polyphenols – reduces vascular disease.

Science partnerships:

Over recent years, significant structural shifts have occurred in the way science is carried out, with scientific research becoming increasingly collaborative through: enhanced knowledge-sharing opportunities; shared access to globally competitive key platform technologies; an effective interaction with industry to ensure efficient development and commercialisation of research outputs.

The third man:

Many advances in biology have come from a fusion of seemingly unrelated disciplines or applications thereof eg.: elucidation of DNA structure; high throughput gene sequencing; bioinformatics; electronics; bionics; CRC for Micro Technology


Research and technology development to provide a fundamental understanding of phenomena and materials at the atomic or molecular level (1 – 100 nanometres) to create and use structures, devices and systems that have novel properties and functions because of their size (1nm=10-9 m).

Precisely designed drugs and vaccines, thermostatic paint, computers 1000 times faster, intravenous fertilisers and insecticides

Synchrotron: A synchrotron produces extremely bright light billions of times brighter than the sun by using powerful magnets and radio frequency waves to accelerate electrons to nearly the speed of light. The infra-red, ultraviolet and X-ray light is shone down beamlines to experiment endstations where scientists can select different parts of the spectrum to “see” the microscopic nature of matter, to the level of the atom. This “super microscope” can be used to help design new drugs, examine the structure of surfaces for developing more effective motor oils, build more powerful computer chips, and help with clean-up of mining wastes etc.

Future science landscape:

Interactions between applied research and the basic science which pushes out the boundaries of our knowledge are commonplace. Operational partnerships are built and maintained across disciplines and organisations. There is a continuing dialogue with the community of the benefits and risks of science.

4. What a future agri-food industry landscape might look like.

Agri-food 2020

  • Producing a greater range of more valuable products from 30% less farmed land and 20% less water.
  • Leaking few nutrients and little water per unit output.
  • Environmental considerations are part of production and consumption decisions
  • Rights to pollute waterways with salt and nutrients are purchased and are tradeable
  • Systems to manage greenhouse emissions are in use.
  • Dominant energy sources have low greenhouse impacts
  • Private land holders actively manage retired farming land for biodiversity and amenity value
  • More sophisticated business systems and use of modern technology
  • People increasingly more qualified to manage food production
  • Community increasingly more empowered and with greater capability to anticipate, respond to and manage change
  • Increased cost of food
  • Increased cost of water
  • Desalination of water
  • Resource-intensive products eg. animal products, are increasingly viewed as luxuries
  • Diet increasingly depends on plant products
  • Decrease in natural resource-hungry industries eg. rice, irrigated dairy in favour of high value horticulture
  • Integrated and enclosed production systems producing zero waste are widespread
  • Widespread use of food to impart health benefits and
  • Consumers who want to know everything!

NRE response

  • Dramatic improvements in value per unit natural resource eg. integrated food systems, waste management, water-use efficiency
  • Re-investment in the natural capital underpinning the eco-system et. Bush tenders, water trading, alternative energy

Future industry landscape

  • Preserving the environment and biodiversity is recognised as core business for the agri-food sector
  • Being clean, green, safe and kind provides a globally competitive advantage for the economy
  • Industry, community and Government share an understanding and responsibility in actioning practice change
  • The technologies and farming systems do exist to achieve greater returns from fewer natural resources

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