Food security also affects our status as a premier food exporting nation and the health and wellbeing of our population. The likelihood of a food crisis directly affecting Australia is remote given that we have enjoyed cheap, safe and high quality food for many decades and we produce enough food today to feed 60 million people — three times our current population. Addressing the global food security problem will depend upon the development and delivery of technologies that lead to increased food production.
Our previous reliance on water and energy to drive up yields is not an option for the next phase of productivity gains. Agriculture has an excellent record of productivity growth over the past 50 years, allowing global production to meet the large population increase and, for countries such as Australia, these gains have kept food prices low while keeping farmers in business.
Agricultural production has remained important to our economy because we have effectively developed and delivered new technologies through a strong research base and a highly skilled and innovative farming community. In particular, we have been able to maintain our position even though we produce food on the driest inhabited continent, on low quality soils and with continual climate variability. We can now implement this capability to enhance agricultural production both in Australia and in our region.
These strengths provide a solid foundation to catalyse transformation of the agricultural industries to address regional food security. Australia can make a significant contribution to the task because we have extensive experience in dealing with difficult and low input productions systems. Our record in applying this experience may not have been perfect but we are now making serious attempts to address our past omissions. Indeed, we will have little choice given the predicted impact of climate change on our agricultural production regions.
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Our future in food production will lie within our current large scale farming systems where we have clear skills and where there is scope for increased efficiency rather than niche foods where high labour costs and low innovation make it hard for us to complete. Over the next decade we will move to a scene where engineering and biology are intimately linked.
Satellites will provide data on crop and rangeland health and productivity. This information will be combined with ground data and used as the basis for farm management decisions. We will know the detailed genetic makeup of our farm animals and our crops and will use the association between genotype the genetic makeup and phenotype the physical characteristics to predict performance under a diverse set of environmental conditions. This information will feed into the decisions made by breeders to develop new crop cultivars or animal breeds to optimise the use of available resources while minimising the environmental impact of farming.
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This move towards the utilisation of more specialist skills in agriculture is evident even today. Nowadays research teams look very different to those of the past. If you were to set up a team today to develop a strategy to breed wheat with enhanced drought tolerance, your team will need to include software programmers, computer scientists, statisticians, crop physiologists, agronomists, cell biologists, pathologists, molecular biologists and geneticists.
Ideally you would also collaborate with climate scientists to understand the future production environments and help predict how your new varieties will perform. The expectations of these scientists is also changing: a modern agronomist will need the traditional knowledge of cropping systems, fertiliser regimes, field pathology and so on but will also know techniques for assessing crop health based on analysis of the light reflected from crops and captured on images generated from drones or satellites.
Farmers are already using computer models to assess the status of their soils, crops and farming systems to support their decision making. In the future farmers will also be capturing data from even more diverse sources, linking this to genetic information and predictive climate models and using the result to help them decide when to sow their crops, when to apply fertilisers, how to protect crops from disease and when to harvest.
Perhaps our greatest contribution to agricultural innovation will be through developing solutions to global food security challenges and delivering these solutions to partners around the world. Our agricultural research capability has the potential to become a significant industry in its own right. Over the next decade we should build management, regulatory and support structures that allow us to capitalise on this international interest and build strong multinational research programs that can not only support food security in our region but also ensure our farmers have access to the latest technologies.
Agriculture is among our most technologically advanced industries, yet most Australians are largely unaware of the revolution that is occurring on our farms. Many would be both surprised and fascinated to know just how sophisticated agricultural science has become and the role it plays in delivering the strong and prosperous Australia of the future.
The world is rapidly reaching the boundaries of agricultural land and the sustainable intensification of agriculture has emerged as a necessity to meet the increase in global demand for food. Given the limits to natural resources the world simply cannot afford to sustain the loss of food that is caused by diseases of plants and animals.
Intensification of food production tends to exacerbate the occurrence and impact of diseases, and climate variability and change has introduced another layer of complexity in the emergence and spread of diseases.
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The success of agriculture in Australia has been due, in part, to the relative freedom from diseases that impact food production elsewhere. Indeed, the high biosecurity status of Australia ensures safe and healthy domestic food and gives Australia preferred status in global food markets.
NDVI images will divide the paddock into corresponding zones of green, yellow and red that simply enables the farmer to combine this with truth of soil data to quickly create prescriptions for a variable rate application using the appropriate delivery method. Figure 1. Examples of commercial rotary wing drone on the left and a fixed wing drone on the right. Farmers must manage complex, interacting issues of soil, water, nutrients, weeds, pests, weather forecasts, climate change, labour, machinery, feral animals, increasing input costs and variable farm gate prices.
Intensive agriculture farmers may use a range of tools such as moisture sensors, plate meters and GPS or pay agronomists or service providers to conduct soil analysis and make recommendations about nutrients to be fed by sprayers and spreaders. Quadcopters are more appropriate for small, intensive plots. On larger paddocks, the farmer may only be able to spot check suspect areas or view from the boundary. The time and cost to do this increases with the size of the holding and often must be delegated or outsourced. Old fashioned boundary riders were replaced by helicopters, 4WDs, quad bikes and motor bikes long ago.
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Fixed wing drones offer a much more cost effective way to gather actionable, real time information about what is happening out there, right now, on much larger properties. Measuring Biomass. The growth of forage varies over pasture areas because of the variability of nutritional availability, moisture content, organic carbon and other physical, chemical and microbial properties of the soil. Identifying this variability during plant development enables diagnosis of causes that could still be corrected in a timely manner to optimise productivity.
Aerial surveillance enables dairy farmers to work out whether they have enough feed or biomass for their cattle and whether it is time to move them to another paddock or feedlot. They can then make decisions about the optimal use of nitrogen and a range of other nutrients to provide the best quality feed for their dairy cattle. With a clear and detailed picture of what is happening in their paddocks, farmers can be confident about their management decisions.
Measuring Pasture Dry Matter. One of the most important measures farmer have is the amount of dry matter on their land. Dry matter is an indicator of the amount of nutrients that are available to animals in a particular feed. Drones can gather the data before a grain harvest and measure the volume of silage and lucerne hay when baled in the field.
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By analysing narrow wavelength bands reflected from plant tissue, farmers can tell a lot about plant health and composition, crop growth rates, make timely changes to farm management practices and forecast crop yield. The parameters are all readily discernible from aerial surveying. When combined with ground verified soil data, the farmer can then make far better decisions than without aerial surveying.
These technologies are still being perfected but already they provide big information improvements for many farmers. The ability to inspect in-progress crops from above with NDVI or near-infrared NIR sensors is, so far, the primary use for drones in farming. A time-consuming task, traditionally done on foot with notepad in hand, drones now allow for coverage of more acres, as well as capturing data that cannot be seen by the human eye NDVI.
Much of the human error in traditional, physical inspection is removed. Mid-Field Weed Identification : Using NDVI sensor data and post-flight image processing to create a weed map, growers and their agronomists can easily differentiate areas of high-intensity weed proliferation from the healthy crops growing right alongside them. Drones can detect and map the presence and extent of weeds, invasive plants, crop diseases and damage by feral animals. Drones are a lot faster and far more economical to operate than 4WDs, tractors or motorbikes.
Figure 2. Drone photography can provide up to the minute aerial photography at a resolution and cost not possible by other means. Variable-Rate Fertility : Although many will argue ground-based or satellite imagery, along with a dedicated grid soil sampling program, is more practical for refining nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium applications in agriculture, drones can also make a valuable contribution.