Farming smarter, not harder: securing our agricultural economy



John Burnett - Qld beef farmer

Australia must invest in soil health or miss the benefits of the world food boom

‘Farming Smarter, Not Harder’, released Thursday 1 November, is a report from the Centre for Policy Development on the future of Australian agriculture in the context of rising global demand, resource scarcity, and environmental pressures.

Global populations are growing and food prices are skyrocketing. This creates new market opportunities for Australian agriculture. But Australia has fragile and vulnerable soils, which are being degraded at an unsustainable rate.

If we continue with ‘business as usual’, we will keep losing soils faster than they can be replaced. Acting now to improve soil condition could increase agricultural production by up to $2.1 billion per year. It could also help farmers cut costs on fertiliser and water use.

“Winners of the food boom will be countries with less fossil fuel intensive agriculture, more reliable production, and access to healthy land and soils” said the Farming smarter, not harder’s lead author Laura Eadie. “How we manage our land and soils will be key to whether Australia sees more of the upsides or downsides of rising global food demand.”

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Australia is ranked in the top 5 exporters of commodities like wheat, beef, dairy, mutton and lamb. Farm products account for over 10 per cent of our exports, worth $35.9 billion. By 2050, rising global food demand and higher prices may present big opportunities for countries who are
net exporters of food.

Farming Smarter, Not Harder finds that Australian agriculture can build a lasting competitive advantage through innovation that raises agricultural productivity, reduces fuel and fertiliser dependence, and preserves the environment and resources it draws on. To achieve this, Australia needs to:

  • Invest in knowledge: increase government investment in research and development by up to 7% a year; increase funding for extension programs; implement the Productivity Commission’s recommendation to set up Rural Research Australia; fund the national soil health strategy with an endowment sufficient to support ongoing research and monitoring for at least 20 years.
  • Stop chopping and changing support for regional natural resource management:
    • Federal and State governments should commit to a 10-year agreement to provide stable longterm funding for regional Natural Resource Management (NRM) bodies, including specific funding to monitor long-term trends in natural resource condition.
    • Enable accountable community governance of land and soil management: To enable farming communities to protect themselves from free-riding, they should be supported to develop stewardship standards based on a shared understanding of what it takes to maintain productive agricultural landscapes over the long term.
  • Align financial incentives with the long-term needs of sustainable farming communities: In addition to the drought policy reforms announced on October 26, drought assistance policies should support farming communities to take a lead in preparations for more frequent and severe droughts, and should be linked to community stewardship standards.

“Recent projections indicate the potential doubling of exports by 2050, according to the National Food Plan and ANZ-commissioned Greener Pastures report. Farming smarter, not harder looks at how to support farmers dealing with the practical challenges of seizing this opportunity, in the context of soil degradation and rising input costs”, said Laura Eadie.

The case to increase research funding and foster innovative farming is made even stronger by the likely impacts of climate change. Without action to adapt to more variable and extreme weather, by 2050 Australia could lose $6.5 billion per year in wheat, beef, mutton, lamb and dairy production.

Farming smarter, not harder profiles leading farmers who are already seeing the benefits of innovations in sustainable farming. It proposes simple measures to support them and the agricultural communities that depend on healthy farming landscapes.

[Australia’s newly appointed Advocate for Soil Health, Michael Jeffery, also chairs the non-profit organisation Soils for Life which is already actively encouraging wider adoption of smarter farming. The Soils for Life report Innovations for Regenerative Landscape Management showcases a range of case studies of these farming innovations in practise, and the positive economic, environmental and social outcomes they are achieving. Read the case studies, learn more about the challenges landscape degradation will bring and what we can do about it at]

Farming smarter, not harder in the Media

The first thing to realise about the rise of Asia is that our farmers are about to join our miners in the winners' circle. The second is that climate change and other environmental problems may greatly limit our farmers' ability