Growing enough food and getting it to everyone in nutritious combinations needs audacious agriculture ideas—big ideas, out-of-the-box suggestions, even ideas that would have no chance in the real world.
Here is an example of an idea with many of the features that make an idea audacious.
In an address to Congress on May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy set a national goal for the 1960s: “landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth“. Ideas don’t come much bigger, bolder and braver.
The Soviets had put a human-made object on the Moon 18 months earlier, presenting an opportunity for the idea. It took nearly a decade, but on Apollo 11, the United States put the first crewed mission on the Moon on 20 July 1969. Another five crewed landings followed between 1969 and 1972. In the following decades, no other country managed the feat, and the United States is still the only country to have done it.
Being the first to achieve the impossible was a strong motivation for the Moon landings, as was beating the Soviets. Both helped galvanise a nation around a unique achievement. Putting a man on the moon is expensive and tested the commitment but it happened.
Tragically, President Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, and did not see the idea come to fruition.
Motivation, near impossibility and commitment are just three requirements of audacious ideas.
The 22 trillion challenge and the need to balance nutrition for metabolic health should motivate humanity to focus on modern agriculture as though it needed ideas equivalent to putting a man on the Moon. Feeding everyone well is nearly impossible within planetary limits but is more than an ideal or moral obligation because starvation is a powerful destabilising force.
We need audacious agriculture ideas.
Here are a few for our backyard in NSW, Australia.
Agriculture in NSW, Australia
The sustainably FED team all live in New South Wales, the largest of the eight states and territories that make up Australia.
Agriculture is spread throughout the eastern two-thirds of NSW and covers more than 69 million ha of land or 50,000 km2, more than the land area of France. If you prefer, just under twice the land area of Germany.
Cattle, sheep and pigs are the predominant livestock since their importation during the earliest days of European settlement. About one-third of the country’s sheep, one-fifth of its cattle, and one-third of pigs are produced in NSW.
The state also produces a large share of Australia’s hay, fruit, legumes, lucerne, maize, nuts, wool, wheat, oats, oilseeds (about 51%), poultry, rice (about 99%), vegetables, fishing, including oyster farming, and forestry including wood chips.
In 2019-20 the value of agricultural production in NSW approached AUD13 billion.
This would put NSW 40th on the FAO country list for the value of agricultural production, with a higher value of agricultural commodities than 117 countries.
At this macro level, it all looks very promising.
NSW has a diverse system of food production growing large volumes of food, more than enough to feed the local population with the excess sold to eager buyers overseas.
It looks less rosy for the farmer.
Merino sheep on a grazing property in NSW. Photo by Alloporus.
Not as rosy as it seems
Drought, low soil fertility, pests, floods and wildfire are ongoing challenges to this food production that are risks to individual landholders.
Add to this the financial stress from uncertain production, distance to local and international markets, high cost of inputs, shortages of seasonal labour and being a farmer in NSW is a tough gig.
Many farmers have exhausted most farm-scale options to adapt to these challenges. They often need helplp to service high debt, have lowered their equity stake in the land, and are ageing rapidly with problems of farm succession everywhere.
The solutions might be bigger, audacious agriculture ideas to tackle the production problems.
Here are three suggestions…
Resting the Western Division
Resting the Western Division of the state, 33 million ha of semi-arid land where sheep and goats scratch a life from degraded native vegetation. Stocking rates are incredibly low due to erratic rainfall, high temperatures in summer, and two centuries of grazing pressure from livestock and rabbits.
Any agricultural practice is a challenge in this region. So many sheep have grown on these rangelands that the soils are depleted from a low nutrient base. The region needs a rest from livestock activity. Only the people cannot just walk away and leave the land for the weeds and feral animals.
There must be active management of the vegetation, but resting the land for a decade would dramatically improve future productivity.
A hundred for a hundred
Another audacious agriculture idea is for all agricultural properties in New South Wales to go for 100% ground cover 100% of the time.
Ground cover is critical to production systems anywhere in the world, but particularly in semi-arid areas or periods of drought when the soil can be exposed, dry out and end up elsewhere due to wind erosion. And when the rains return, the water runs off the dry soil, increasing the risk of floods and failing to seep into the ground.
During prolonged drought, 100% is impossible, so it is a stretch target, something to reach for rather than achieve all the time. The benefits of aiming for such a stretch will placate any disappointment.
One of the challenges farmers worldwide face is access to markets. Crops and livestock products quickly spoil if they are not stored, transported and processed in a timely fashion. Indeed, the prevalence of grain crops is as much to do with the robustness of the grain moving through the food supply chain as it is to the ease of production.
More than 85 per cent of Australians live within 50 kilometres of the coast. And it’s not just surfing. A sea breeze on summer afternoons is a godsend. Domestic markets for agricultural products are concentrated in a few big cities and towns, making it hard to deliver perishable commodities from distant semi-circles around them.
If there were rapid transport systems such as high-speed rail from rural hubs into the cities, this would make it possible to grow fruit and vegetables at a distance.
What sustainably FED suggests
Audacious agriculture ideas are wild; out there with the fairies.
The chance of them ever getting through the vetting process of politics or the famous pub test—the test of Australian public opinion—are slim, and this is as it should be.
Just because an idea is audacious does not make it a good idea. Even the good ones may stumble over feasibility, practicality or financial constraints.
The point is that we need to air them.
Audacious agriculture ideas can inspire imagination and spark realistic solutions to feed everyone well.
Let us know if you have any audacious agricultural ideas for your region.
Maybe as big as a moonshot.