Meeting the global demand for food, fibre and fuel is a key challenge for agriculture in the twenty-first century.
By 2050 the world will have to feed and clothe 32 per cent more people than we do now, without irreparable damage to ecosystems and landscapes. The rapidly growing population, changing climate, and limited land and fresh water resources will impact on the ability of agriculture to meet the demand. Science-based solutions are required to achieve these world-wide goals, and for industry and community development. The focus of research within the Agricultural Science discipline is on the multidisciplinary nature of the challenges facing the global community.
We use a systems-based approach in our research to address these challenges and we have the capacity to tackle the system from lab to landscape.
Our teaching reflects this systems-based approach and we graduate students with core generic skills that are essential for a successful career, and having an impact, in agriculture; problem solving, being able to ask the right questions and to communicate.
We equip our graduates with the fundamental concepts and skills, as well as the ability to integrate information across cropping and pasture sciences; livestock production; plant nutrition; soil science; agricultural economics; science communication; statistics; biology; genetics; and land management.
We also lead The Future Farm 2050 Project, based at UWA Farm Ridgefield, which aims to imagine the best-practice farm of 2050, and build and manage it now (UWA Future Farm 2050 Project).
The discipline is focused in five key research themes:
Among the major agricultural exports from Australia are beef, sheep meat, and wool.
The red meat industries make a critical long-term contribution to global food security and, for this to continue, four key issues need to be addressed:
- Reducing the consumption of human food by livestock
- Ensuring livestock genotypes are adapted to their environment
- Improvement of animal health, nutrition and welfare to increase productivity
- Reducing the environmental footprint (especially methane emissions).
These issues drive our teaching and research interests and are best addressed through development of innovative sustainable grazing systems, both extensive rangeland systems and mixed crop-pasture systems.
At UWA, we research both systems in the quest for opportunities for expansion and improvement and to strive for animal production that is 'Clean, Green and Ethical'.
Genetics and breeding
Plant and animal genetics underpin approaches to breeding improved crops, pastures and livestock for agricultural industries around the world.
We have expertise in tissue culture and rapid generation methodologies.
Our research and student training spans traditional and molecular genetic approaches to improving economically important production traits in our crops, pastures and livestock (e.g. crop yield, nutrient use efficiency); traits that provide resistance to biotic and abiotic stresses (e.g. salt, drought and pest and disease tolerance in crops and pastures); and traits that reduce the environmental impact of our food and fibre production (e.g. mitigating methane production from livestock).
We see our interests in modern breeding and conservation of genetic resources as key to satisfying the increasing demand for food and fibre in an era of climate change and satisfying the demands of consumers for ‘Clean, Green and Ethical’ products.
Our work has application in Australia as well as various overseas countries with which we have close collaborative links including China, India, Bangladesh and Timor Leste.
We have particular interests in canola, wheat, grain legumes such as chickpeas, lupins and subterranean clover, breeding sheep that more robust and less susceptible to flystrike and worms, and sheep and cattle that are more efficient and emit less methane.
Crop and pasture production
Our research in crop and pasture production occurs over a large range of scales from molecular and physiological processes, through nutrition and disease control, to in-field agronomy using traditional and state-of-the art technology.
We have many, interlinked, areas of interest including the soil microbiome, rhizosphere processes, root physiology and morphology, pasture and crop nutrition, root and shoot pathogens, plant response to environmental stresses such as waterlogging, salinity and drought, weed ecology and how to minimise evolution of herbicide resistance in weeds, crop rotations, no-till and precision agriculture, and the application of new imaging and data collection technologies.
Our teaching and research in these areas is closely linked to our work in genetics and breeding, but is also closely informed by our knowledge of how farming systems function.
Agriculture is a system that involves complex interactions among soils, plants, animals, environment and management and it is rare that one aspect of the system can change without affecting the rest.
Our research and student training in farming systems is targeted towards optimising the interaction between genotype, environment and management (GxExM) to maximise productivity, minimise external inputs and our environmental footprint, and improve biodiversity.
Put simply we are trying to choose/breed the right plants and animals for the right environment and develop management strategies that maximise profitability and minimise the impacts on the environment.
We are particularly interested in developing farming systems that embrace diversity at multiple levels and provide producers with the versatility needed to deal with market and climatic variability that are
flexible enough to cope with changing consumer demands and preferences. The versatility is designed to help producers cope with the worst years and capitalise on the best ones.
We use biological models to help integrate the system and we collaborate with colleagues in Agricultural Resource Economics who use whole farm economic modelling to help identify economic drivers and sensitivities in the systems we research.
Our research on farming systems is embodied in UWA Future Farm 2050, a project based on a commercial farm in the south-west of Australia. We are imagining best-practice farming for 2050 and beginning to transform the farm now.
The project is multidisciplinary, bringing together agricultural, environmental and social scientists, economists, designers, engineers, farmers, social workers, and local and regional stakeholders.
Soil science and plant nutrition
"Man – despite his artistic pretensions, his sophistication, and his many accomplishments – owes his existence to a six-inch layer of topsoil and the fact that it rains." Anonymous
Soil – we cultivate it, walk on it, take it for granted, or perhaps do not even consider it at all. Our scientific understanding of soil, however, is quite different.
Soil is a growing medium and underpins our agricultural industries, providing us with food and fibre. It provides us with ecosystems critical to our life on earth. Maintaining healthy soils and eliminating physical, chemical and biological constraints is critical to sustainable agricultural production.
Consequently, our agricultural-based research and teaching focuses on plant nutrition, soil nutrient cycling and the interactions between plant roots and soil (rhizosphere), soil water repellence and water dynamics, waste reuse on agricultural soils, critical zone science and soil genesis, land rehabilitation, greenhouse gas emissions and soil carbon.
We study the impact of land management practices and climate on agricultural soils from the laboratory to the field scale. By combining molecular, isotopic and spatial imaging techniques our researchers have gained detailed insights into the day-to-day life of soil, and how best to manage and sustain this precious resource.