If you missed my introductory post on my Nuffield studies, I’m currently travelling around the world investigating data acquisition on farm. I’m trying to find out if we can use farm data to make better decisions about the things we do. My first destination was Israel in order to attend the 10th European Conference on Precision Agriculture.
I arrived in Israel a few days early to attend a workshop associated with the conference on site-specific weed management. I was glad I did because it was there that I got something of an insight into how Israelis view technology on farm. They’re world leaders in many areas of agricultural technology and it’s not hard to see why when you hear people say things like
‘The motto of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is: ‘We aim to convert agriculture from a low tech industry to a high tech industry in order to attract the best brains in society.’
Professor Baruch Rubin elaborated on this point at the workshop by saying that the high society in Israel used to be agriculture. Now it’s business and finance. I imagine Australia would’ve been similar back in the 1950s and our visit to the Farmers Club in London back in February pointed to a time when this was the case in England also.
The workshop featured many prominent weed and soil scientists from throughout Europe, and I enjoyed being challenged by them. They were interested in hearing about our weed challenges in Australia and suggested that we need to change the way we approach weed control in order to stop our problems with herbicide resistance from getting any worse. They believe that we need to mostly give away our current practice of blanket spraying paddocks and instead deliver targeted applications of high rates of herbicide to areas where weeds cause economic loss.
While it’d seem like crazy talk to most of the farmers I know the logic was that those un-treated lone-ranger weeds that survive and reproduce are vital to keeping weed populations resistance free. Contrary to what you may have heard or thought the principle cause of herbicide resistance isn’t genetic adaption/mutation in response to herbicide applications. (GM or otherwise) But rather herbicide resistance is naturally present due to genetic variation within plant populations. These pre-existing traits are just being selected for by farmers when they spray. So these scientists are saying we need to keep some susceptible individuals alive in order to cross-pollinate with any resistant individuals to dilute the unwanted trait.
The challenge with this outlook is that ‘economic loss’ means different things on different farms. In a water constrained environment every weed causes some economic loss, which is the challenge in most of our Aussie grain growing regions. Hence the blanket approach, hence the predicament we’re in. How do we account for the potential cost of losing the ability to use our cheapest and best weed control options?
So challenging this challenge drove one Australian agronomist to put his lament on this issue into song.