The future of farming

| May 7, 2024

Australia must act now to accelerate agricultural innovation to achieve productive, resilient and sustainable farming systems by 2050, according to a new report released by Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO.

While Australian farming – including forestry and fisheries – has seen several years of high yield as of early 2024, some key challenges threaten ongoing prosperity.

The challenges already impacting farming systems include climate change, emissions reduction needs, supply chain disruptions, workforce access, changing consumer preferences, maintaining market access, and long innovation timelines.

In response, through consultation and co-design with over 100 industry stakeholders, CSIRO has delivered its Ag2050 Scenarios Report. The report explores a range of significant trends, risks, opportunities and actions needed to support Australian farming systems into the future and presents four future pathways for the sector.

Dr Katherine Wynn, CSIRO Futures’ Agriculture and Food Lead, said the report underscored the critical need for proactive measures, and should serve as a call to action for the agricultural sector.

“The decline in farm profitability over the last two decades is a stark warning sign, with projections indicating decline by up to 50 per cent in some areas by 2050,” Dr Wynn said.

“However, our research offers an optimistic outlook, and indicates Australia can achieve productive, sustainable and resilient farming systems if we act now to facilitate long-term transformative change in agricultural innovation.”

Four Scenarios for the Future

The four evidence-based future scenarios, paint a picture of what Australian farming systems could look like by 2050 and include:

Regional Agricultural capitals – a consolidated and technologically advanced sector, thriving and prioritising food and fibre security.

Landscape stewardship – a forward-thinking sector embracing new opportunities and novel technologies, allowing the environment to flourish.

Climate survival – a sector focused on climate adaptation and incremental changes allowing it to survive.

System decline – a sector failing to address growing challenges and at a tipping point.

“The four scenarios are designed to prompt collaborative conversations among industry, researchers, and other stakeholders to envision, deliberate, and plan strategic actions for the future of farming we aspire to achieve,” Dr Wynn said.

Dr Rose Roche, CSIRO’s Ag2050 Lead, highlighted the work CSIRO is doing to support the agricultural sector through its Ag2050 program.

“We’re actively collaborating with industry and stakeholders to tailor these scenarios to local and regional contexts and work out what specific technologies and innovations are required,” explained Dr Roche.

“Our goal is to make cutting-edge scientific solutions accessible to our stakeholders to help them achieve their desired future.”

The Ag2050 Scenarios Report is the first phase of CSIRO’s Ag2050 program, a disruptive multi-year initiative aimed at identifying interventions, innovations, and support necessary for a productive, resilient, and sustainable future for Australian agriculture.

A New Food Frontier

In an alternative report directed towards governments, the farming lobby group Food Frontier has offered economic, public health, and environmental justifications for overhauling Australia’s food production, distribution, and consumption systems.

Food Frontier is the independent think tank on alternative proteins in Australia and New Zealand. Funded by grants and donations, our work is growing our region’s protein supply with new, sustainable and nutritious options that create value for businesses, farmers and consumers.

Its Alternative proteins and Australian food systems transformation report underscores the potential repercussions of inaction, emphasising Australia’s vulnerability to missing out on market opportunities and falling behind in the global arena.

It lists recommendations that federal and state and territory governments can adopt to build resilience and prosperity in our food system.

Food Frontier CEO Dr Simon Eassom said Australia must implement support mechanisms for more sustainable foods if it is to achieve its climate change targets and remain a global food leader.

“We are now seeing many governments around the world putting policies in place to mitigate climate change. As citizens themselves take effective action, as seen recently in Switzerland, governments will come under increasing pressure to address all areas of concern, including food production.

“This report is not about pointing fingers; it’s about recognising the need for a coordinated approach across all protein industries. We hope decision-makers will find it useful and implement its suggested actions.

“We know current global food systems, which rely heavily on animal agriculture, are responsible for between one-quarter and one-third of all global greenhouse gas emissions. Feeding a growing global population, expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, and meeting increased demand for high quality protein will require us to provide a diversified range of protein-rich food in a more sustainable way. Australia has people and businesses with the skills and will to develop alternative protein supplies, but they need support.”

Amongst the list of recommendations is to install a national food minister and develop a national food plan. Both were previously recommended in 2023 by a federal committee responsible for an inquiry into food security in Australia.

The report should also help inform organisations working towards climate change solutions with decision makers and who need information about food systems.