Agriculture leads the way in productivity gains

In recent years, Australian agriculture improved its productivity by 72 percent – more than any other industry sector. Dr John Bell, who chaired an Expert Working Group reporting on productivity, discusses the role played by research and technology.

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The Australian Council of Learned Academies recently examined the role of science, research and technology in lifting Australian productivity. “We found that, between 1989 and 2013, the agriculture, forestry and fishing sector improved its productivity by 72 percent,” says Dr John Bell, chairman of the Expert Working Group that authored the report. “That’s well ahead of other sectors.”

While not all gains can be attributed to innovation, Dr Bell shares some of the many examples he’s seen where improved performance was underpinned by farmers’ willingness to act on the results of research.

Insect-resistant cotton

The heliothis moth was building up resistance to insecticides faster than new ones could be developed. Pesticides were expensive and, as they needed to be sprayed from an aircraft, they were also expensive to apply. “There’s a widespread view that if researchers hadn’t developed new insect-resistant strains of cotton that require little or no spraying, Australia would no longer have a cotton industry,” says Dr Bell.

Better use of water

In recent years water management has changed radically. “We have a better understanding of catchment management and how aquifers recharge,” says Dr Bell. “We can even use naturally-occurring radioactive isotopes to measure discharge rates from aquifers, so we can control this much more precisely.”

More efficient land use

Robotics have already started to make inroads into the farm, most notably with GPS navigation. “This enables farmers to make best possible use of the land,” says Dr Bell. “They can also set very precise paths for their tractors, so when they’re harvesting or spraying the tractor, wheels fit between the rows of crops rather than running over them.”

More productive use of time

Information and communication technologies (ICT) are continuing to have an impact and new examples are emerging all the time. “For example, a colleague who raises steers no longer has to go to auctions in person,” says Dr Bell. “He watches them live on the internet and talks to the auctioneer on his mobile phone. He can see who’s bidding, and even has statistics displayed across the top of his screen to help him decide whether to sell or hold off. He can now use the time he would have spent travelling doing more productive things on the farm.”

Continuing the positive trend

The innovation story in relation to agriculture is very positive, and it’s evident in every area from new crop varieties and more sophisticated technology to innovation in marketing.

“Use of technology spreads particularly quickly in agriculture because of farmers’ willingness to collaborate and share,” says Dr Bell. “While neighbouring farmers may be selling the same produce, they know they’re not competing with each other. Together, they’re competing with farmers from places like the United States and Europe and, as a result, they’re generally very happy to tell each other about their latest discoveries.”

The CSIRO and Cooperative Research Centres have also played key roles in improving productivity in the sector.

“Continuing research is critical to its competitiveness,” adds Dr Bell. “It’s very important that farmers remain committed to that.”

Four ways to stay in touch with innovation and improve productivity

  1.  Take advantage of field days and other events to find out what innovations are being adopted in your sector.
  2. Follow innovative developments through magazines, newspapers and the internet.
  3. Follow the research program of your rural Research & Development (R&D) corporation or, where appropriate, CSIRO, and be ready to trial new approaches.
  4. Make capital investments in new technologies where the benefits have been shown to recover the costs.