Horizons #100: Hats off to science and innovation

21 May, 2024

by Professor Ross Kingwell, AEGIC Chief Economist

Science and innovation ensure Australian farmers produce more wheat from less rain.

The life of an agricultural scientist can mean long hours in the field and in the office; writing research applications, planning and conducting field experiments and communicating findings. Important are the discussions with farmers and other collaborators to stimulate thoughts about what needs to be the next useful topic to investigate.

The product of all the research investment and interaction with farmers and others is that better ways of producing food, fibre and energy are found. Take the case of wheat production in Western Australia (Figure 1). When I was born in the 1950s wheat yields were usually under a tonne per hectare. In more recent years the state average wheat yield tops two tonnes per hectare.

Yet compared to the 1950s, much more wheat is now planted in lower rainfall parts of the state’s agricultural region. Plus across the agricultural region a gradual decline in growing season rainfall has occurred as climate change has unfolded (Figure 1).

Figure 1: 7-year running averages of wheat yields and growing season rainfall in Western Australia since the 1890s. Source: DPIRD (2024)

As listed in Figure 1, a host of innovations have underpinned the rise in wheat yields. Some of these innovations include:

New rotation options

Different crop root systems help lessen soil compaction and improve structure to increase water infiltration and retention. Crops, especially legumes add organic matter to the soil, increasing its ability to retain moisture. Rotating crops helps disrupt disease and pest cycles, reducing the need for chemical interventions, which allows plants to use water more efficiently. Genetically modified canola aids weed control.

Early sowing

Sowing crops earlier allows them to develop during cooler periods, reducing their exposure to heat stress. This, combined with a longer growing season enables the plant to develop a deeper root system which can access water from deeper in the ground. Early sowing allows crop sowing gear to be used for longer, reducing the need to invest in ultra large, fast sowing gear.

Better wheat varieties

Genetic and agronomic improvements can produce varieties:

  • More tolerant to drought and heat stress
  • Capable of producing more biomass, but especially crop yield
  • More disease and pest resilient, allowing the plant to yield more

Chemical weed control

Reduction of weeds reduces the competition for available soil moisture and nutrients. Early weed control and in-crop weed control aids crop establishment and subsequent growth.

Soil improvement

Gypsum and liming treatments, deep tillage and soil inversion are all examples of soil amelioration that boost crop yields by various means. Controlled traffic practices reduce overlap, lessens soil compaction over a paddock and helps increase profits from cropping.

These advances have contributed to a persistent lift in the water use efficiency of wheat production, although a handful of dry years restricted yield growth in the 2000s.

Since then, some better seasons, soil amelioration, controlled traffic machinery, privatised crop breeding and enhanced weed control (e.g. via sowing GM canola) have lifted wheat yields.

Due to Australia’s relatively small population, but also due to the skill and prowess of its scientists and farmers, combined with favourable years, Australia became the world’s largest exporter of wheat in 2022. Australia is also consistently the globe’s top-ranked country, among main wheat producers, in terms of wheat produced per capita of its population (Table 1).

Table 1: Wheat production per capita among the world’s main wheat producer

Main wheat producers Tonnes of wheat per capita
Australia 1.39
Canada 0.88
Russian Federation 0.72
Ukraine 0.54
France 0.51
Argentina 0.48
Germany 0.27
United States 0.13
Pakistan 0.11
China 0.10
India 0.08

Australian wheat producers, unlike many of their international counterparts, rely greatly on export sales of wheat.

This also means Australia regularly has exportable surpluses of wheat; a credit to Australian farmers and scientists. Accessing Australian wheat helps many nations satisfy their food security needs.

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Horizons: the AEGIC Economics and Market Insights blog

Expert grains industry analysis and commentary from AEGIC’s Economics and Market Insight Team on a range of big-picture topics that affect Australia’s export grains sector.

AEGIC is an initiative of the Western Australian State Government and Grains Australia.

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