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Long-term future of farming put under microscope

27 February, 2005

Long-term future of farming put under microscope

Nuffield scholars from Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, Zimbabwe and New Zealand were challenged this weekend, to grab the exciting, dynamic opportunities opening up to them to ensure that farming is still viable, profitable and sustainable in the year 2050.

Keynote speaker at The World Triennial Conference of the Nuffield Farming Scholarship Trust, Professor Robert Thompson, chair of Agricultural Policy at the University of Illinois, told the conference that in 50 year’s time, the most important skills of the successful farmer would be financial management, risk management and marketing skills. He predicts robotics will increasingly take over agricultural field work (or unskilled labour) and that electronic sensors, GPS and computers will bring even greater precision into farming.

“Margins in producing bulk commodities will be razor thin, farms will get huge,” he said. “But greater profitability will exist in producing differentiated products for niche markets, which needn’t get so large.”

A former USDA official who has also served with the World Bank, Professor Thompson said the size of the world food market over the next 20 to 30 years will largely be determined by the amount of poverty reduction which occurs at the same time in lesser developed, low income countries.

He said the challenge will be to double current agricultural production within the next 50 years, which will require access to more arable land, investment in agricultural research and irrigation, increasing food system productivity with biotechnology and improving genetic potential, and the removal of agricultural policies that distort or impede increased productivity.

Professor Thompson told the conference there were only possible five ways that that farm income and viability could be achieved. “By increased productivity on present crops, access to more land (either bought or rented), a change to higher value per hectare groups, members of the family get non-farm income , or leaving agriculture all together - migrating to the city or getting a full-time non-job within commuting distance,” he said. Rural poverty is an increasing problem in many parts of the world, and he said many non-government agencies exaggerate the potential role of small-scale farming in alleviating rural poverty. “You cannot grow enough on one acre of land to feed a family and generate enough cash income to escape poverty.” Rural-urban migration will continue to grow in these countries, the number of farmers will fall, and the area cultivated per farmer must rise. “All presently rich countries have created non-farm rural employment, so that most farm families earn most of their income away from the farm,” he said.

The Nuffield Conference attracted nearly 200 of the Commonwealth’s top farmers to Rotorua, as part of three weeks of exploration, discussions, debate, education and interchange of ideas. The conference is the focal point of a programme, which includes a pre and post conference tour from 20 February – 5 March. The itinerary is based around the need for sustainable agricultural management and how better managing the environment will support that.

The impact new and emerging technologies will have on the future of farming over the next 20 – 30 decades was re-enforced by Dr Warren Parker, formerly of Ruakura and currently on secondment to the University of Queensland’s Institute of Molecular Biosciences. He described this as an exciting, dynamic time for agriculture, but an environment which will pose new frontiers of challenge, demanding a radical rethink of farming systems. Future farming leaders will need to cope with rapid external change, he said, and some social dimensions could prove an ‘achilles’ heel.

By the year 2025, many current technologies will have come off patent, allowing the availability of many generic products, he said. There will be a move to personalized predictive healthcare - a change to wellness products instead of sickness; significant automation; and the probability of some biosecurity breeches arising from increased tourism, trade or even bioterrorism.

He also saw increased focus on fuels from biomass, more natural products replacing synthetics in areas such as herbicides, drenches and paints, and increased and accepted use of marker-assisted selection.

”The public will have come to a new appreciation of the importance of farmers and farming to society and the economy. It is not simply about food and fibre production, but the source, worth paying for, of much of what is fundamental to mankind’s health, happiness and wellbeing,” he concluded.

Other speakers at the conference included Warren McNabb, from Massey University, who focused on genes and nutrition and the potential of matching human gene types with their specific nutritional needs to optimise health and quality of life; Dr Morgan Williams, Commissioner for the Environment; and Ben Russell, of RaboBank, who looked at ownership structures down the food chain.

The post conference tour visits Hawkes Bay, Nelson and Marlborough, Canterbury, Otago and Queenstown.

ENDS

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