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Licence to till: Farmers use innovation, research to form new bond with consumers


The business of food production must put its case to the court of public opinion as farmers face a new era of accountability, according to the new boss of a key Queensland agriculture research hub.

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Professor Matthew Morell has made it his goal to stand in a paddock with a farmer in five years’ time and for them to freely acknowledge that their productive, profitable and sustainable enterprise has been facilitated by the work of the Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI).

Taking over from founding director Robert Henry in February, the new director of QAAFI has outlined to InQueensland his vision for the State Government and industry-backed research centre based at the University of Queensland.

Drawing on his experience as the former head of the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines – where research goals were focused on producing varieties that helped alleviate poverty and confront climate change, Morell is an unashamed advocate of the productivity-profitability mantra.

But if it comes at the expense of sustainability – whether that’s land stewardship or animal welfare – those efforts will be pointless, he says.

“There was a time in the 1960s when the world felt it was confronted with global food security challenges and the focus definitely became one of productivity for agricultural research,” he explained to InQueensland.

“For farmers today, we’re still focused on yields, but we also want to know just as much about the inputs, how much fertiliser farmers are using, for example, and what they are doing to maintain soil health.”

It’s a new era of farmer accountability, he says, where researchers must play their supporting role by harnessing advanced, multidisciplinary sciences  to meet consumer demands for safe, ethically and sustainably produced foods.

The glare of public attention, boosted by the activity of privately funded conservation and animal welfare groups is also prompting action from legislators, witnessed recently in Queensland by mandates on fertiliser rates near the Great Barrier Reef, not to mention the continuing legacy of the 2011 live cattle export ban by the federal Labor government of the day.

Research, and new technology in the area of digitalisation and data-driven eco-systems, he says, will help farmers meet these expectations, rather than driving them away from what they do best – produce high-quality, affordable food.

There are a lot of interests to balance, Morell says.

“The agriculture industry has an interest in knowing that today’s farms will be productive for future generations, whereas the consumer is asking about the origins of their food and whether it is something for which they are prepared to pay a premium price,” he said.

“The exporter, on the other hand, knows that these elements – the story of where and how food is produced – has a bearing on market access.

“As researchers, we must have these elements embedded into our thinking, but we also have to integrate this approach into our food systems and supply chains so that we can satisfy those all-important traceability questions faster, cheaper and with greater efficiency.”

Core to that strategy is the availability of data via advanced digital technology that is capturing, storing and analysing information, providing a seamless narrative for farmers to follow and cross-reference between data-sets that once would have been siloed and obscured due to accessibility and connectivity issues.

Morell cites the contentious use of fertilisers or crop protection chemicals, where rates and timing of application can be coordinated with other variables such as historical rainfall volumes, water usage, predictive climate models, market trends and price forecasts.

“By doing that hopefully we can produce better food products faster, more cheaply and with less impact on the environment,” he says.

But will these technological enhancements motivate consumers to buy more Australian-grown fresh food, such as fruit and vegetables, animal proteins and dairy, and the still nascent alternative ‘plant-based meat’ category?

When the last on that list is mentioned, where use of the word ‘meat’ rankles those in the livestock industries, the conversation turns to the subject of ‘truth in labelling’ – how marketers and brand managers communicate to consumers truthful information on packaging about what is in their food and how it has been produced and where, in order to save confusion and uncertainty at the retail point of sale.

Instead of deferring the question, Morell replies:

“How that is conveyed to consumers is probably best left to industry but I have no doubt our research has the potential to make a strong contribution to this area by informing the criteria that gives credit to where and how foods are produced.

“It is not enough to put food on the table; consumers want to know it is safe to eat, sustainably produced and providing them with adequate levels of nutrition.

“This requires a much better understanding of, and response to, consumer perspectives and demands for sustainable and ethical food production.

“Provenance and traceability are not just marketing tools; they help us understand what agriculture’s footprint is and how we can produce the food we need while protecting ecosystems.”

Morell said he planned to develop and sustain QAAFI’s research agenda with the help of industry and government.

“The Institute has animal, crop, horticulture and food science research capabilities, and they are deeply interconnected,” he said.

“Our work supports farming communities in Queensland, while also addressing key global science and technology challenges for agriculture.”

He said food production spanned many disciplines, bringing together the traditional biological sciences as well as nanotechnology, artificial intelligence and machine learning, robotics and social sciences.

“There are innovations like plant-based ‘meats’, vertical farming and cropping in a controlled environments that are now part of agriculture,” he said.

“They are blurring the divide between city and country, as urban farming becomes a reality.”

Morell said the GMO debate was one example where consumer uncertainty about technology meant a tool that has a role in a well-regulated system had been under-utilised.

“There are many important lessons to be learned about the GMO experience because new technologies will continue to come along and people will have legitimate questions about safety and about who owns or controls the production of food,” he said.

“Technology cannot be a solution that is isolated from these questions.

“We want to address the big picture challenges for agriculture, but we also know that we need to keep achieving productivity and profitability gains for producers.

“If that happens, I will know that we will have done some great science for our agricultural industries.”

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