If Research is the answer, AND is the question

The Asking Leader


If Research is the answer, AND is the question

Australia has the wrong question for agriculture and environment

More precisely, what is not the question? The question is not; ‘do we have environment OR agriculture?’ The future is not a binary choice of agriculture OR the environment.

The correct question for the future of our landscapes is; ‘how do we have environment AND agriculture?’ The future is a choice of co-existence.

I have spent most of my life in agriculture working on replacing ‘OR’ with ‘AND’. The honorific I received was for Rural Research AND Sustainable Development Programs. Now, with the challenges of drought and fire in rural Australia, more than ever, we need to think about AND. That means we must think about being inclusive – not exclusive. We must think about multi-use landscapes rather than singular outcomes. We must think about feeding the world from a sustainable ecosystem.

It is widely documented by the heated arguments on social media that environment should exist without the presence of agriculture.  Similarly, the agriculturalists have been inclined to tell the Greenies to bugger off and mind their own business. Both are wrong. They must co-exist, together, at the same time and simultaneously. 

20 years ago, I was involved in funding a research project in the Northern Territory to capture Aboriginal landscape management knowledge. The researchers went from community to community interviewing Elders. The knowledge acquired was gold. It was a widely held view of the Elders that ‘a landscape without people was wrong’. The landscape needed people to manage it, live with it and make it sacred.’

The message was clear. Locking up large tracts of land was not what the Aboriginal Elders wanted to happen. They thought about AND. Natural landscapes need people AND people need natural landscapes. Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu – ISBN 1922142433) and others have documented the wonder of Aboriginal farming techniques as part of their landscape. The challenges for us are; 

  • What can we learn from them? 

  • How can we adapt that knowledge to today’s circumstances?

  • How can we create the co-existence we need to feed the world and sustain our environments?

As a very current example, it is without doubt that locking up National Parks has not worked. Excluding people has not worked. Clear felling them for forestry too has failed. Similarly, excluding the environmental needs has not worked.

Similarly, history is littered with examples of environmental devastation caused by agriculture. 

What is in the middle? What are the management systems where we can have sustainable and functioning environments AND productive agriculture that supplies healthy food and fibre to the world?

Before we work out what is in the middle, we need to ask ourselves some higher-level questions. 

  • What is it that we want for the environment and how would we know we have achieved it?

  • What is it that we want from agriculture and how would we know we have achieved it?

Only after answering those questions can we develop a plan or a management system.

If the question is; how can we have a sustainable natural environment AND productive agriculture? Then what is the answer?

The answer is only one word long. 


If research can find a management system that creates co-existence of agriculture AND environment, then how could we implement that plan? 

Again, one simple word. 


Do you think a plan for sustainable environments AND productive agriculture is desirable?

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