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FENNER CONFERENCE ON ENVIRONMENT: Making Australian agriculture sustainable

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THE ORGANISERS OF this year’s Fenner Conference on Environment have announced that registrations are now open on the conference website www.sustainableag.org.au. With the theme ‘Making Australian agriculture sustainable’, it will be held on Thursday 30 September and Friday 1 October at the Academy of Science’s Shine Dome in Canberra.

The conference will be both in-person and live-streamed.

Conference co-organiser and national president of Sustainable Population Australia, Ms Jenny Goldie, says the conference features a remarkable line-up of speakers from both farms and academia, not least keynote speaker Dr Charles Massy, author of Call of the Reed Warbler.  Prof John Hewson will open the conference.

“Australian agriculture today is largely unsustainable,” says Ms Goldie. “Soils are degrading and are in need of regeneration. Broad acre farming is delivering food in quantity but not always in quality. Rainfall and run-off are declining in the southern half of the continent because of climate change, which makes farming more difficult.

“Our speakers will address various means by which soils can be restored and help mitigate climate change by drawing down carbon. Better soils retain water that can ameliorate the effects of a dryer climate.”

 A number of speakers at the conference have recently published, or will by the time of the conference, books including Matthew Evans, Patrice Newell, Gabrielle Chan, Nicole Chalmer, and Julian Cribb.

Climate change will be a strong feature of the conference with speakers Profs Will Steffen, Mark Howden and Justin Borewitz as well as Dr Adam Carroll and former coal and oil executive, Ian Dunlop.

Walter Jehne, a co-organiser of and speaker at the conference says understanding natural processes is the only realistic means by which we can regenerate soils and stabilise climate.

“Australian indigenous people occupied the continent for 65,000 years and invariably changed it. They had to adapt to the consequences of those changes in order to survive,” says Mr Jehne. 

“In their 200 years of occupation, Europeans have also greatly altered the landscape through agriculture and changes to grazing and fire ecologies. With these changes have come degradation of soils, their hydrology and bio-systems. This has led to aridification of the landscape and contributed to climate change.

“Now we too must not only adapt to the consequences of our actions but also change our agricultural practices.

“Australia is in the front line of climate change and its dangerous hydrological extremes such as cyclones, storms, floods and drought over the next decades. We need urgent practical solutions for how can we best avoid, buffer and survive them.”

Mr Jehne says we must therefore identify and restore the natural processes that hydrated and cooled the bio-systems which are now critical to our food, safe climate and future.

“The conference will explore how we can best use agriculture, the only agency we have, to naturally cool the climate and regenerate Earth so it can provide our essential needs and ensure our future.”

Another speaker at the conference, Emeritus Professor Stuart Hill of Western Sydney University, says we must redesign all agricultural systems in the service of ecologically sustainable and humane principles.

Professor Hill says we need to take a psychosocial approach if we are to make agriculture more ecologically sustainable.

“This means we have to look at the psychological and social factors which affect farmers’ physical and mental well-being and their ability to function,” he says.

“For agriculture to be genuinely sustainable, we must develop pathways to whole system change which are both doable and relevant.

“For this to happen, those involved must communicate effectively with others in a manner that embodies core values such as respect, inclusiveness, honesty, compassion, cooperation and humility.”

Professor Hill says we have to apply ecological concepts and principals in farming, that is, sustainable farming that works with, not against, nature.

“This means we have to design and manage agroecosystems. These units of agricultural activity include not just the living and nonliving components but also their interactions.

“This transformation of our farming systems will involve cultural change, based on social psychology, that is mindful of social interactions and their effects on the individual.”

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