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  Sustainable farm research 'under threat'
Sustainable farming research in Australia is facing a lack of strategic leadership, say experts.

Dr John Williams of the Wentworth Group of Scientists was commenting on the planned closure of Land and Water Australia (LWA) announced in last week's Federal Budget.

Williams says he has been unable to find any reference in the budget to replace the leadership role played by LWA.

"I don't believe [the closure of LWA] has been thought through," says Williams, who is head of the Natural Resources Commission of New South Wales.

LWA was set up in 1990 to integrate public good research into farming research.

At a cost of $13 million a year, it oversees and funds research programs including those on dryland salinity, pesticide contamination and nutrient run-off.

"It's about working out how to farm and retain the elements that support that farming into the future - the nutrients, the water, the vegetation, the soil organisms," says Williams.

To date, he says, food production had led to land and water degradation because it failed to integrate ecological principles into farming.

"The focus had been on the paddock," Williams says. "Agricultural science unfortunately has not connected well to the rest of the landscape."
Lack of integration

Williams says LWA brokers collaborations between researchers from many different disciplines to work out the best way to farm.

"[For example] when you produce food and you take water out of rivers, then river knowledge and the way catchments work are fundamental to that food production," says Williams, a former chief of land and water research at CSIRO.

Williams says research agencies, like CSIRO, are not generally good at integrating agricultural and ecological knowledge in a way that can be used by farmers and others managing the land.

"If you're in research you'll get rewarded and promoted from publishing in the literature, but there's not a lot of credit for being a broker and a facilitator," he says.
More investment needed

Former CEO of LWA, Dr Andrew Campbell, says the organisation has developed valuable expertise and systems for identifying key research questions, targeting investment and managing research collaborations.

He says these include research databases, search engines, evaluation systems, risk-management systems, contracting processes and collaborative agreements.

"To throw all that away would be tragic," says Campbell. "It will finish off costing way more money in the future to try and rebuild them from scratch."

Campbell says more, not less, investment is needed into how to farm in a way that conserves land, water, energy, carbon, soil and biodiversity.

"They are the things that will determine the future of Australian agriculture," he says.

And Campbell says when resources are scarce, it is important to have a funding body removed from the relatively narrow views of specific research groups.

Peter Cornish, a professor of agriculture at the University of Western Sydney agrees LWA's role was unique.

"LWA really brought together the right people with a vision and with the capacity to develop really important cross-commodity, cross-sectoral programs," says Cornish, who specialises in land and water research.

"In terms of land and water resource management in Australia, I saw [LWA] as the peak coordinating body," he adds.

"I think [its abolition is] a tragedy for the Australian landscape

The Australian Academy of Science has also called for the capabilities of LWA to be preserved.
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