The food and agriculture sector needs courageous leaders to shepherd growers and farmers to confront some uncomfortable challenges in the coming decades.
And the sector needs disrupters, people who not only challenge but lead the way in the production of food and fibre, was the message to about 1600 people attending the Rabobank Farm2Fork conference in Sydney on Thursday.
Change is real and driven by consumers and retailers who want products that align with their social as well as environmental values and concerns, the conference heard.
The other take-home message was that help is at hand from technology and processes that already exist or are in the works, including artificial intelligence and data.
There were several examples of how data is used to streamline and help businesses meet new standards.
Brad Egan, the 2022 Australian Young Farmer of the Year, told how his family’s 3400ha dryland cropping farm at Scaddan, east of Perth, not only suffers from depleted soils, but for the past five years has had to deal with average rainfall below the 390mm long-term average.
There have also been severe and unprecedented winter frosts.
The Egan family use a process called amelioration to restore their soils, where they mechanically lift clay from the sub soil into the topsoil profile to improve soil quality and moisture retention, at a cost of $200/ha.
Egan told the conference that, faced with declining yields due to the dry weather, they were advised to stop soil rehabilitation to cut costs.
But to him, soil rehabilitation was the solution.
He used data such as soil type and yields to map the farm and prove the importance of amelioration.
Using that information they actually increased soil rehabilitation from 10-20ha/year to up to 200ha/year.
Average wheat yields increased 45%.
Luke Chandler, the managing director of John Deere Australia-New Zealand, said technology is more than driverless tractors.
Machines are being developed that work on individual plants to ensure they are planted exactly where they should be, that fertiliser is placed exactly where needed and herbicides target individual weeds.
He said research shows these processes could reduce fertiliser use by 60% and herbicide use by 77%.
Technology will allow crop buyers to be fed instant information during harvest on attributes, such as protein, moisture, starch or oil content.
“We have previously taken a ‘more labour, more horsepower’ approach to efficiency – get something that is bigger, faster and stronger,” he said.
“We need to do more with less.”
The challenge of focusing on consumer expectations was bluntly outlined by Paul Polman, the former chief executive of Unilever, who is now a climate and equalities campaigner.
In a video link from Europe, he praised the world’s farmers for feeding and clothing the world and for their land stewardship.
But he warned of strong winds ahead with scientists predicting crop yields falling between 3% and 7% for every 1degC temperature increase due to climate change.
Companies – farmers’ customers – are responding, as are global financiers.
Polman said 60% of the world’s financial assets under management have committed to net zero emission targets, and consumers are increasingly buying products that align with their values.
Agriculture cannot ignore these challenges, he said, and it will never be cheaper to invest in change than now.
“I believe many are doing all they can to be more efficient, but collectively we are not getting positive change at the pace needed.”
Polman said as a business leader he always tried to be an early mover.
“It is always better to make the dust than to eat the dust.”