Australia's Chief Scientist

ARTICLE: The importance of science in Australian agribusiness

Australia’s Chief Scientist Dr Alan Finkel has written an article for the Boundless Plains to Share campaign, titled ‘The Importance of Science in Australian Agribusiness’. The article was published in the Boundless Plains to Share book in March 2017.


What do you picture when you think of Mars? Do you see a wasteland of craters and volcanoes, colder than Antarctica’s heart, drier than the Atacama Desert? Do you imagine raging winds that whip up blood-red soil? Do you care about a place so far away that even the fastest spacecraft would take half a year to reach it?

Or do you see what NASA does: a potato farm in the sky?

In April 2016, the agency briefed global media on its plans to sow 65 varieties of potato in 600 kilograms of soil collected from the Peruvian desert. That’s the only place on Earth you can find anything close to the microbe-depleted Martian terrain, fifty times more arid than California’s Death Valley. And yet it’s still probably more hospitable to agriculture than Mars.

The challenge is enormous, but so too is the ingenuity it has awakened. Teams linked to NASA’s astrobiology program have developed fast-growth seed chambers for growing guaranteed pathogen-free tubers. They’ve developed handheld chlorophyll meters that give an instant reading on plant nutrient needs. They’ve coupled plant sensor networks with sophisticated software to deliver nutrients and pesticides with pinpoint precision.

And if the promise of Martian soil comes to the proverbial dust, there are many other ways of approaching the challenge of astrobiology – from LED grow lamps, to bioengineering, to aeroponics.

Of course, no one seriously imagines that interplanetary potato farms are going to cater for the booming food demands on Earth, or that we will be serving up chips and gravy in a human Martian colony any time soon.

And yet in all of these endeavours there are critical lessons for humankind.

Mars doesn’t have “boundless plains” to waste. Imagine if we thought that way on Earth and eked out every drop of our planet’s potential. Imagine if we farmed in the knowledge we’ll be feeding 9 billion people by 2050, nearly every one of them with developed-country calorie and protein expectations.

Small nations have long led the way, simply because they have no other choice. To find the world’s great agricultural innovators, I don’t look to nations blessed by climate and abundant land. I look at the hydroponic factory in Japan that produces 30,000 heads of lettuce a day with one hundredth of the water traditional methods would require. Or I go to the Arava in Israel, where flowers for export bloom in the desert and the average dairy cow’s yearly yield is double that of its Australian counterpart.

Then I look at Australia, rapidly hitting the limits of new land available for cultivation even while eager customers in Asia show increasing interest in our agricultural products. Our potential, too, is immense.

New technologies will help us eke out more tonnes per hectare from agricultural land. And even if the best-case yield cannot be increased much further, we can reduce the worst-case yields during weather fluctuations by using data from satellite observations, unmanned aerial vehicles and moisture sensors.

Equally important is to increase the dollars earned per tonne by using tracking technologies and data analysis in ever more innovative ways to demonstrate the provenance of our products and allow us to charge premium prices in fussy markets.

Make no mistake: there are still boundless plains in Australia, and there’s room for all of us to stand at the frontier.

But it’s not going to be plotted on your standard maps.

It’s science.

Stand at the borders of the boundless plains armed with curiosity, creativity and capability, and you will see the opportunity on the other side.