From dust bowls to food bowls: the conservation farming revolution

Dr John Kirkegaard's picture

The challenges of global food security and climate change have re-focussed attention on agriculture in Australia. Dr John Kirkegaard says we should be proud of the innovative, efficient and productive farming systems that have been developed in the past 30 years.

The misconception of Australian agriculture being inefficient and unsustainable is deeply concerning for me. Images of dusty ploughed fields and dying sheep and trees are misleading.  On the contrary, if there was an Olympics for conservation agriculture Australian farmers would win gold!

Far from being inefficient and unsustainable, Australian agriculture is leading the world in conservation agriculture techniques.

Three developments brought Australian farming from the tillage-based agriculture that dominated from the 1800s up to the 1980s to the conservation farming revolution:

  • The development of herbicides. These chemicals have been refined and are now effective at targeting specific weeds with minimal environmental impact.
  • The evolution of more effective and efficient machinery to sow through crop residue into undisturbed soil.
  • The introduction of broadleaf rotation crops (lupins, peas, canola) to underpin weed and disease control in conservation agriculture systems.

And, we’re not stopping there!

Farmers can now manage their fields down to centimetre accuracy.

The next step is precision agriculture, which is continuing the revolution by introducing controlled traffic, zone management and in-crop sensing to improve farming systems’ efficiency and sustainability. For example, it is now possible with GPS and optical sensing for farmers to deliver nutrients or herbicides exactly where they are needed in the paddock within a two centimetre margin of error! This not only reduces costs to the farmer but reduces the impact of these chemicals and residues on the environment.

There are still many challenges for the future including herbicide resistant weeds, diseases and a considerable gap between the potential yield in experimental plots and what is being achieved on farms.

My CSIRO colleagues and I are already addressing these challenges including breeding new varieties to take advantage of the conservation farming techniques, developing rapid real-time environment and crop sensing technology, increasing focus on root-soil biology research as well as  the Holy Grail for farmers – improving accuracy of weather and seasonal forecasting.

Much of my research success can be attributed to the strong relationships I have developed over the years with farmers and farm consultants who are often first to alert us to interesting factors affecting their crops and the difficulties encountered when introducing conservation farming techniques.

If you want to know more you can watch the public lecture I gave at the Academy of Sciences here or explore my work at CSIRO here.


Dr John Kirkegaard is a Senior Principal Research Scientist and the Group Leader of Innovations for Sustainable Farming at CSIRO Plant Industry. He is also Stream Leader of the CSIRO Sustainable Agriculture Flagship. John joined the CSIRO as an agronomist in 1990 to improve the productivity and sustainability of dry-land mixed farming systems in southeast Australia.