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Part II: restoring biodiversity in sustainable farming


Australian native shrubs and grasses are a key factor in this holistic venture into sustainable animal and crop farming in the severely depleted Western Australian Wheat belt landscape.


Curious ewe among the shrubs (photo by Raquel Wainewright)

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Professor Graeme Martin, from the University of Western Australia’s Institute of Agriculture, outlines some of the benefits of the Future Farm 2050 project, especially in terms of biodiversity and soil fertility. The whole Future Farm project is based around food production for the future. By 2050 there will 50% more people on the planet, a rise of some three and a half billion. As a consequence, the issue of food security is a hot political topic in many countries and it is becoming more topical in Australia as the heat goes out of the mining boom.
We could actually feed those extra three billion people right now by not wasting the food we produce; moreover, and we could feed them all again by not giving human-edible food to livestock. In wealthy countries like Australia, we just simply throw out good food, often because of the stupidity of use-by dates, or simply because we buy too much or over-cater. Poorer countries waste food because they don’t have good storage facilities. These issues are relatively easy to solve.

Sheep near grazing shrubs at Ridgefield    
The issue of feeding human-edible food to livestock is primarily a problem in ‘modern industrialised’ intensive production systems. The dairy industry is the most perplexing: we can’t eat grass but cows can and they then produce meat and milk. In many developed countries, we circumvent this basic biology by feeding cows human-edible grain.


We have also taken pigs and chickens (which were originally scavenging animals and a luxury food) and turned them into industrialised, every-day commodities, again by feeding them grain that humans could eat.


So, where does the Future Farm 2050 Project sit in this context?


First and foremost, our livestock enterprise is based on grazing. However, the project goes well beyond livestock because agriculture and farming involve people, economics, soil, air, animals, plants and international trade. The Future Farm project is therefore multidisciplinary, with four enterprises: crops, livestock, people, and ecosystem and biodiversity. In addition, Future Farm is part of an international network, partnering with a dairy farm in NZ, a beef farm in England, a mixed farm in Kerala (India), and an extensive sheep grazing farm in Uruguay, as well as like-minded projects in the USA, Canada, Malawi and China. Remarkably, when we all get together, the questions we ask are the same: what do you do about people; what do you do about water conservation; what do you do about soil fertility; what do you do about biodiversity? On the other hand, the solutions are always local because they have to fit the local geographical and socio-economic environment.

The shelter from generous shrub cover is another benefit from the replanting of ridges and regions not suitable for crops. Lambing in the shrubs is part of the enhanced lamb survival story presented in the next Future Farm 2050 discussion. Photo credits: Sheep and shrubs images by Raquel Wainewright.


The UWA Future Farm sits in Western Australia’s wheat belt, an area roughly the size of the UK that has seen the most profound land-clearing event in human history. The UWA farm of 1600 hectares is typical of the region – only 5-7% of the original bush is left. Ecosystem experts, such as Professor Richard Hobbs, helped us to work out the ecosystem that was there before the land was cleared. In July 2010, we planted almost 12,000 plants, with species chosen to form nutrient groupings. By the end of August we realised we were in the middle of the worst drought year in the farm’s 100-year history. There was nothing we could do but watch … and the plants thrived! They did not even notice the ‘drought’!

Below: Eco trees August 2011: the restoration site after a ‘drought year’      

n parts of the farm where crops can’t grow but animals can graze, we are planting native shrubs, and then letting the sheep graze them. One of these plants is Eremophila glabra. It is perennial so it is green in autumn when everything else is dry; it is deep-rooted so it can be used to control the water table and therefore salinity and it helps to combat gastrointestinal worms.

This is a big issue because the worms are resistant to the drugs we have been using for the last 50 years. Eremophila can also reduce methane emissions by perhaps 50%; it provides amazing shelter for new born lambs in windy, wet weather, and has almost eliminated neo-natal mortality; and finally, as a native plant, the lizards and birds love it. We see plants like Eremophila (see below) as a biodiversity ‘halfway house’ because it bridges the gap between 100% restoration and 100% cropping.


We restore the ecosystem so we can restore biodiversity and one aspect we rarely consider is how soil fertility is improved by improving soil biodiversity. How do we know this is a problem?
Next door to Future Farm is a 12,000 ha state park, a protected native bushland. The soil in the park contains 3% carbon, reflecting the invertebrate, plant, fungal and microbial communities. By contrast, the farm soil has only 1% carbon. Of course, most of the 2% difference has gone into the atmosphere.

Below right: Professor Phil Vercoe with Eremophila glabra     
Our challenge is to figure out to reverse that process …all of the evidence shows that native plants are destined to play an important role in the future of our agricultural ecosystems. For this reason, we are very happy that Future Farm is a major site for Greening Australia’s ’20 Million Trees’ program.

Professor Martin is very optimistic about the power of agricultural soils to recover their biodiversity. This biodiversity has always been seen as very difficult to measure … there are so many species, many not identified … but gene technology is coming to the rescue. We can now measure the frequency of genes in a soil sample and, if we see lots of different genes we know we have lots of biodiversity.

Around 50-60% of Australia is under the control of farmers, meaning they are effectively responsible for our biodiversity. They need to be part of a new conversation about what we can do to improve their lives and produce food for the rest of us, while saving biodiversity.

No matter how we look at it the future of farming is linked to natural resources.

Professor Graeme Martin was interviewed for A Question of Balance by Ruby Vincent. Summary text by Victor Barry, November 2016. Images from Future Farm 2050 sources.

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A real world sustainable and profitable farming program Part I Part III: Clean, green and ethical farming

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