In agriculture, one of the few things we can be assured of is that circumstances will change: new pests and diseases, new markets, new weather patterns, and even entirely new climates. In this respect, as in most things to do with food and agriculture, no country is an island and certainly not Australia. People have always taken their crops, livestock and foods with them as they criss-crossed the globe, while threats such as climate change and pests and diseases recognize no international boundaries.
Luckily, the resources to combat these threats – and rise to the opportunities -- are also globally available.
Australia offers perfect examples. Two weeks ago banana growers in the Northern Territory again drew to the attention of the press the devastating effect of Panama disease. In the 1950s this disease almost wiped out the global commercial banana industry, until one variety - Cavendish - was found to be resistant, and that variety now utterly dominates the market. The bad news about the recent outbreak in the Northern Territory, and several similar ones over the past few years, is that it is a new strain of the Panama disease, one that kills Cavendish. It already decimated much of the industry in the Northern Territory and Western Australia, and in several countries in Asia, and represents a dangerous threat to the main banana growing areas in Queensland. At the moment, there is no cure. If one is to be found, it will come from international research collaboration.
The Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research knows this, which is why it has been funding a project to investigate the fungus that causes Panama disease and how best to manage it. Lessons learned will be useful wherever bananas are grown, but more is needed. The search for resistant varieties requires genebanks, breeders and extensive trials of candidate varieties, all of which could use more support. Or we could prepare for a world without commercial supplies of Cavendish bananas.
There are other diseases, too. UG99 is a new strain of wheat stem rust, isolated in Uganda in 1999. It is making its way eastwards around the world, and all of the widely-grown wheat varieties are susceptible. Eventually, it will reach Australia, to add to wheat farmers' woes here. One solution is fungicides, but this is not necessarily a sustainable solution in Australia and certainly not for the hundreds of thousands of small farmers across temperate Asia who grow wheat as their main subsistence and cash crop. For all wheat farmers, the hunt is on for resistant varieties, and as with bananas, the search will require international collaboration and access to biodiversity.
Help is quite likely to come from a wild relative of wheat; it often has in the past. Again, Australian researchers recognize the need. Two years ago The Grains Research and Development Corporation helped train a young scientist from Georgia to screen the wild wheats of her native country for rust-resistance genes. She gained the expertise to use modern molecular tools, and she left behind many samples of wild wheat relatives that could form the basis of a breeding programme here. Similar training exchanges will help address perhaps the most pressing problem facing agriculture in Australia and the rest of the world: climate change.
Australian scientists have uncovered the genes that help cereals cope with excess salinity. Now they are working with researchers from the developing world to screen ancient varieties and wild species for tolerance to drought and salinity. The results, and the varieties, will be essential ingredients in any recipe for improved wheats able to meet the challenges of climate change.
However, there is much more to climate change than more frequent and more severe droughts. We can confidently predict that the hottest seasons of recent years will be the coldest seasons of the next few decades. A detailed forecast, currently being undertaken at Bioversity International, is mapping the changes in areas suitable for growing the most important crops, and shows there are winners and losers. Australia, especially northern Australia, may well be a net loser. Coping with this is going to require all the ingenuity, and all the diversity, we can come up with.
Last week’s World Bank report on agriculture, the 2008 World Development Report entitled "Agriculture for Development", pointed out that greater investment in agriculture is the most effective weapon with which to fight poverty in developing countries. Australia was one of the first big contributors to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, which aims to safeguard the world’s most important genebank collections forever. Australia is also an important contributor to agricultural research for development, but there are good selfish reasons for doing more: it will help Australia’s own farmers to deal with the challenges they face.
Insurance guards against the possible; you insure against theft. If something will definitely happen, what you need is assurance. Life assurance, for example, pays out when you die. Everybody dies, but not everybody has life assurance. Everyone needs food. Investing in agricultural research assures everyone of the food they need for a better life.