Tropical Grasslands (2006) Volume 40, 129–136

2004 Farrer Oration — Shaking windows; Rattling walls


ATSE Crawford Fund, Parkville, Victoria, Australia


Bob DylanÕs famous 1960s song ŌThe times they are a-changing’ captured the mood of the times and ushered in a period of intense social and technological change. This was as true for agriculture as for any other activity. Within a few years, the so-called Ōgreen revolutionÕ in Asia averted a world food shortage. In recent times, there have been other examples of dramatic change (the ‘shaking of windows and rattling of walls’ predicted by Dylan). Several examples of the adoption of new technology are examined.
The rapid adoption of information technology by people everywhere, including farmers. The World Wide Web emerged as the primary carrier of internet traffic in 1995, when there were about 25 million internet users world-wide. Within 10 years, almost 1 billion people (15% of the world’s population) had internet access, including more than half of Australia’s farmers and almost 80% of farmers with an estimated value of agricultural operations of $1 million or more.
The remarkable adoption of genetically modified (GM) crops by farmers in some countries and for some crops. Within a 10-year period to 2004, the area of GM crops grew from virtually zero to 80 million ha — 5% of the world’s area of sown crops. The key driver was probably farmer profit: a cumulative benefit of USD 27 billion at the level of farm incomes, shared by approximately 8 million farmers in 17 countries, but particularly by growers of soybeans, cotton and to a lesser extent maize and canola in North America, Argentina, China and Brazil. The rapid adoption is continuing despite strong consumer resistance in Europe and the activities of some non-government organisations (NGOs).
The relatively slow but steady adoption of tropical forage legume technology. After 50 years of research and promotion, by 2005 about 5 million ha had been sown to these legumes world-wide. At least two-thirds of this area was in developing countries, and at least half a million farmers had benefited from the use of tropical forage legumes in a wide range of farming systems. A key factor in their adoption was their deployment in profitable farming systems, and in many cases such systems had not been foreseen by those who originally developed the legumes. Other critical factors were the determined and long-term commitment of researchers and governments plus the creation and maintenance of critical partnerships (including with the private sector), particularly to provide reliable supplies of seed.
A recent history of the Australian beef cattle industry (E.F. Henzell, in press) reveals that the rate of adoption of new technology in that industry was slow for more than 150 years. Several factors combined to cause significant change in the second half of the 20th century. These included: the development of new beef export markets commencing in the 1950s; the availability of new cattle breeds that were more resistant to ticks and other stresses; and regulations leading to the eradication of bovine tuberculosis and brucellosis. As with other innovations mentioned above, the opportunity for farmers to make a profit and/ or reduce the costs of production was probably crucial to the adoption of new technology.
These examples of adoption of technology lead to the conclusion that personal or private benefits (particularly profit) and government regulation are key drivers of adoption of agricultural technology, and the private sector is typically a significant partner. Of course, other factors affect the rate and ceiling level of adoption, but these drivers stand out.

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