Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Agriculture, innovation & the individual

Just a meander this morning. I woke early disinclined to do anything too serious, ie requiring thought!

There appears to be a savagery in Australian Federal politics that I haven't seen for a while. It's not just the way the politicians speak at each other, but the reporting and apparent community responses.

A while ago, I wrote some pieces on possible responses to climate change to try to educate myself. One of my concerns at the time was that the debate had become so stereotyped, so mechanistic, that it was very difficult to properly understand alternatives. It still is. 

One of the things that I explored at the time was the possible role that carbon sequestration in soil might play. Now Philip Diprose's Ochre Archives led me to an interesting short article Carbon that counts by Christine Jones. Dr Jones is a long standing exponent of farming practices that will remove CO2 from the atmosphere while improving soil fertility.

The article is short and well worth reading.

As it happens, as part of my preparation for a paper I have to deliver in Armidale on Social Change in New England 1950-2000, I have been re-reading Mathew Jordon's A Spirit of true learning, a history of the University of New England. This includes the story of the fight to establish courses and research dedicated to New England and rural Australia, something that was part of the institution's charter from the beginning.

I was trying to think how best to describe the changing relationship between science and scientists and agriculture. I would put it this way.

In the beginning, science was seen as a support to agriculture and to practicing farmers and graziers. To a degree, that relationship has gone. In its place, science is now seen much more as an input to public policy whose intent is to control farming practices. In parallel, research institutes and support services that once directly targeted farmers and farm improvement have been wound back.

When you look at the history of farming practices in this country, much of the improvement has been driven at farm level, with research coming in in support. UNE is especially interesting here as a microcosm. For a long time, it was the only university located in country Australia, while the history of its establishment gave it a particular world view that was shared on Council, among staff and by its key community supporters.

Those involved in the foundation of the institution fought for new courses in areas such as agricultural economics, rural science, rural sociology, community development and later environmental and resource management. There was a very, very close nexus between local pioneers and innovators in farming, grazing and conservation and the evolving institution.

This is not a history of UNE, simply an observation linked to changing thinking. Indeed, something like the old UNE is no longer possible. In the first forty years following its establishment as a University College in 1938, UNE retained a continuity of strategy and purpose that yielded very considerable and unique results. Persistence overcame setback after setback.

Today, universities cannot really adopt such long term approaches. They have to respond to ever changing Government policies, to new targets, to new management approaches. There are now probably more public servants involved in administering the sector than the total number of staff at all Australian universities in 1950.

I am only guessing, but if you add together public servants plus staff in universities responding to Government, the total probably exceeds the total number of academic staff in the 1970s.

Meantime, at farm level, improvement continues to be driven by the activities of individuals. I think that this is especially important for genuinely new things that require time and experimentation.

It is very difficult to judge the importance of the work of people like Dr Jones and others who, like some of the UNE pioneers, have to stand outside and sometimes contend with conventional wisdom and institutionalised thinking. Only the future can judge.

My feeling is that their work is very important.

I may be wrong. I many even be guilty of romanticising because I really am attracted by some of their results. I love the idea of deeper soils, of better water retention, of greenery, of varied farming approaches tailored to the exact circumstances of individual properties. I am attracted by the struggle, by the successes amid failures. I also knew many of the people in the UNE case.

Accepting all this, both my own experience and my study of history suggests that real change does come back to individual effort.


As I was finishing this post, Tony Windsor (the independent member for the seat of New England in the Federal Parliament) was being interviewed on the Government's carbon tax. He suggested that the Government had out-run itself, failing to properly engage with the information and advisers including the Productivity Commission Inquiry on one side, the community on the other.

I more or less defended the Government on this one in a comment on Club Troppo, although my focus was a little different. I suspect, however, that Tony is right.

The Productivity Commission inquiry into the issue will not report until 31 May.

For the benefit of international readers, the Productivity Commission is an independent body that the Australian Government can ask to carry out inquiries into particular issues. The reference to them on Emission Reduction Policies and Carbon Prices in Key Economies was, I think, part of the agreement with the independents that returned the Government to power.

I don't know why the Government moved when it did. I don't think waiting for a few months would have made any practical difference. 


Anonymous said...

Jim I just assumed this move, now as opposed to later, was largely a decision to shift the debating topics away from areas of weakness to one where the government can at least claim some sort of moral superiority.

i.e. would they rather talk about "boat people" and rusty navy boats, and any number of poorly performed or flailing initiatives, or turn attention to the environment and climate change?

Plus also, there is the need to accommodate the Greens coming up rapidly in the Senate.

Hope you've moved from comfort to comfort, and are satisfied with the result. It's always a huge task.


Jim Belshaw said...

I'm not sure about that, KVD, although you may be right. I'm not quite sure how the thinking is running in the hot house world of Parliament House.

The post I have just written would tend to support your position in that the gender announcement is a very much a NSW style thing: something expected to attract support as a "good thing".

The move was and still is a mess!

Anonymous said...

I am looking at innovation in agriculture in the United States. This word seldom gets attention unlike other counties. Yes we talk about biotech and others, but we forget the abilities of farmers to innovate in oh so manyy other ways.

The U.S. needs a farmer-driven research institute. Is that even possible?

Jim Belshaw said...

It's interesting, anon, but we do seem to confuse innovation with technology!

I am not as familiar with the US scene as I should be. I would have thought that it was possible, combining private, state and some Federal funding. The more private, the greater the chance of making if Farmer driven. All private would be best and may be necessary given the various government budgetary problems in the US.