IMPROVING farmers’ access to genetically modified (GM) crops and robotic monitoring technologies will enhance the nation’s agricultural productivity levels, the Australian Farm Institute (AFI) has told a federal inquiry.
The House of Representative’s Agriculture and Industry Committee is currently conducting an investigation into agricultural innovation with 87 submissions published and one short public hearing held on October 22, in Canberra.
The inquiry was established in August after referral by federal Agriculture and Water Resources Minister Barnaby Joyce, to consider how technology can be applied to boost agricultural productivity in Australia.
Its terms of reference include looking at improvements in agricultural practices due to new technology and existing barriers to the adoption of emerging technologies.
The inquiry’s terms also call for investigation of emerging technologies relevant to the agricultural sector in areas like telecommunications, remote monitoring and drones, plant genomics and agricultural chemicals.
The AFI’s submission said new technologies like animal and plant breeding genetics were “critical” for increasing the sector’s overall productivity and the intensification of agricultural enterprises.
The AFI also referred to digital and robotic technologies that can monitor and manage agricultural production systems, as ways of making productivity improvements.
But the AFI warned productivity growth in broadacre agriculture had experienced a market slowdown in annual growth rates since 1997 which economists and scientists had attributed to several factors, including investment levels for agricultural R&D.
However, the AFI said strong evidence existed about the potential for agricultural productivity improvements associated with applying new technologies like GM crops.
Benefits beyond farm gate
The independent farm research body said the rate of GM crop adoption was estimated at 175 million hectares in 2013 in 27 countries and “growing rapidly” which provided “very strong confirmation” of the advantages available to farmers by adopting it.
“In addition, as the Australian cotton industry has also demonstrated, the benefits of this technology extend well beyond the farm gate, with dramatic reductions in the use of pesticides conferring benefits on the environment and regional communities,” the AFI said.
“The knowledge gains associated with research into GM crops has also provided major benefits to the livestock industries with the application of some of those technologies resulting in major improvements in productivity and genetic gains in specific livestock sectors – notably poultry, pigs and dairy.
“The potential to use genetic modification, and the technologies and knowledge arising from GM research, to improve agricultural productivity is substantial.
“There are a range of desirable production and quality traits that have been identified, with drought-tolerance being of particular interest to Australian farmers.”
The AFI said the application of digital and robotic technology in operating, monitoring and managing agricultural production systems had also generated large benefits in the intensive livestock, horticulture and cropping sectors.
But the AFI said that work was still in its infancy in less intensive production systems like rain-fed cropping and broadacre livestock production in Australia.
“These technologies are collectively referred to as Precision Agriculture and involve the use of remote sensing, digital mapping, data storage and integration, and the use of variable rate sowing, fertilising and spraying applications (VRA) to effectively manage crop production at the square metre scale rather than the paddock-average scale,” the AFI said.
“Digital technologies are also being increasingly adopted in the intensive livestock and dairy industries, and resulting in improvements in productivity.”
But the AFI said several barriers were slowing the adoption of emerging technologies in Australia including regulatory costs and controls associated with the registration of new chemicals and novel plants and animals.
The AFI said regulatory differences between the States, in particular in relation to GM crops, were also of particular concern.
Other barriers to adopting new technology, cited by the AFI, included the progressive reduction in public investment in agricultural R&D and associated infrastructure, particularly by State governments; the increasing disengagement of major universities in Australia from the agriculture sector; and the quality of telecommunications services, and in particular mobile phone services, in rural and regional Australia.
“In the case of agricultural intensification, there are ever-increasing constraints being imposed on intensive agricultural production systems by community groups, local government authorities, animal welfare and environmental activists, and as a consequence of standards being adopted by major food retailers,” AFI said.
The AFI said constraints on production systems and technologies, progressively being imposed by major retailers, were generally for brand differentiation and often in response to small numbers of activists.
But it said a failure of industry and its service and input providers to make sufficient efforts to engage in discussions with the wider community about new technologies in agriculture, had added to that lack of adoption.
“All of these are issues which can be addressed by government, or on which joint industry government collaboration could achieve positive outcomes,” AFI said.