Australian land use “not sustainable.”

A leading scientist has called for a nation-wide effort to develop sustainable farming and land use systems for Australia which match the continent's unique character and needs.

Present land use systems are unsustainable in the long-term, as widespread degradation of land and water is already warning us, Dr John Williams, deputy chief of CSIRO Land & Water told the National Outlook Conference in Canberra this week.

“We have to face the fact that our land-use practices were not designed for Australia’s unique natural ecosystems – and are slowly but surely damaging and destroying them,” Dr Williams says. “Our rural production has been built by drastically changing the nature and seasonal patterns in the water and nutrient cycles of the continent. Consequently, no matter what rural industry we are talking about, they all face a common set of resource and environmental problems. “There is now a serious question whether Australia can remain competitive as a world agricultural exporter unless we develop farming systems better suited to the Australian landscape,” Dr Williams warns.

Annual losses by soil erosion, salinity, acidity, waterlogging, loss of soil structure and water quality already total around AUS$1.5 billion. Dr Williams cautions that, no matter how good the social and economic policies, without understanding how the Australian landscape works it will be impossible to arrest its degradation.

A reluctance to face up to the scale of the scientific and farming challenge is a major barrier to progress towards sustainability, Dr Williams contends. There is also a failure by agencies to recognise that the problems faced by Australian farmers and scientists are more exacting and difficult than in other places round the world, because of the character of the continent.

“Our present systems are not sustainable because they leak water and nutrients. By designing systems that avoid these losses we may achieve better harmony with the landscape. This “leaky” nature of Australian agro-ecosystems lies at the heart of the problem. We desperately need biophysical solutions to plug the leaks and capture both water and nutrients for productive use. “It is not a trivial challenge – but our tendency to treat it as trivial has been perhaps the biggest stumbling block to sustainability,” he says.

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