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Ignoring the food crisis

By Julian Cribb - posted Wednesday, 25 June 2008

In Rome recently, heads of government and international agencies met to address the worst global food crisis in half a century. In Australia’s the national science agency CSIRO decides to slash agricultural research.

World food stocks are the lowest on record, poverty and starvation rising, food riots breaking out in more than 30 countries, supermarket prices soaring, the United Nations is calling for a massive global effort to boost food production - and CSIRO has cut and run.

There also is a looming global water crisis for food production, an emerging shortage in prime arable land, colossal rises in the cost of fertiliser and farm inputs, rampant degradation of the world’s farmlands, a 20-year decline in world agricultural science, emerging impacts of climate change - but these appear to weigh little with the CSIRO Board and management.


The agency announced recently it would be closing labs at Rockhampton and Cooroy (Queensland - centre of the beef genetics work) also Merbein (Victoria - a cradle of the modern wine industry) and Baker’s Hill (Western Australia - dryland farming). Griffith lab, the heart of irrigation science needed to save the Murray Darling, is suffering a slow death by erosion. Sheep, wool and horticultural research are being razed - after almost 90 years as a scientific world leader - and beef science has been cut.

The forestry and textiles divisions have been axed and staff balkanised into other divisions (a traditional means of eradicating unwanted science). Work for Aboriginal communities on a potential bush foods industry has been shut down. Senior agribusiness managers have declined to rule out more cuts.

For decades farmers have been the best adopters of CSIRO science of any industry - returning to the nation wealth worth many, many times the cost of the actual science. By trashing its best industry customers in favour of sectors far less likely to adopt its science, the agency will deliver a lower return on the national research and development investment.

CSIRO is also pulling out of regional Australia - management admits it is pursuing less field science in favour of desktop research on personal computers. Many researchers argue this kind of science, lacking a real world context and testing of ideas, as well as close contact with real people in industry, delivers little of value.

The cuts have been variously justified by the agency’s management on the grounds of: (a) a shift away from “incremental” research, recommended by the Productivity Commission, (b) a move away from production research towards “sustainability” research and (c) its response to the Rudd Government’s budget cuts.

If the latter is true, and CSIRO is trying to embarrass the Federal Government at a time of global food crisis, then it needs its political head read. If the first two are true, then it needs to get a grip on reality.


CSIRO staff are deeply angered and upset at the demolition of the field of the agency’s greatest national contribution and skill. This is evident in the comments of the Staff Association, which has publicly condemned the “heavy-handed and premature” closure of lab sites without consulting staff or industry, and demanded their retraction.

The World Bank recently released a major review of the future of global agriculture, by 400 of the world’s top agricultural scientists. The International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development report makes it clear that farmers are now the most vital people in the world. Not only are they responsible for feeding us, but they also manage most of the landscape, its water, biodiversity and, potentially, a large part of climate change via the soil carbon they manage. Without them, we are all in a lot of trouble.

That being the case, the decision of CSIRO to reduce support for these essential citizens is inexplicable - especially when it flies in the face of world scientific opinion.

Under changes brought in a few years ago, the CSIRO Board are now personally responsible for major policy decisions of this sort. They should be made so. At a time when the world is crying out for more food and better science to produce it, these people have sanctioned an economically irrational and morally questionable decision to do the exact opposite.

Australian farmers will suffer from this decision to reduce the flow of technology that keeps them competitive, and regional Australia with them. Australian consumers will suffer from the higher food prices it will inevitably bring about. Exports will suffer through lower productivity gains. The world will suffer from the further decline in Australia’s once-significant scientific contribution. And Australia’s reputation for helping to feed the world will be impugned.

CSIRO’s Board and management need to be brought to account for this decision. There should be, at least, a Senate inquiry to determine why they have decided to go against the national interests and those of humanity at large.

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First published in ScienceAlert on June 13, 2008.

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About the Author

Julian Cribb is a science communicator and author of The Coming Famine: the global food crisis and what we can do to avoid it. He is a member of On Line Opinion's Editorial Advisory Board.

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