How do you know that?

1 JANUARY 2003

A CSU academic believes many mistakes seen when applying unproven products and methods on modern Australian farms could have been avoided by asking a simple question, "so how do you know that?".

A Charles Sturt University (CSU) academic believes many mistakes seen when applying unproven products and methods on modern Australian farms could have been avoided by asking a simple question, “so how do you know that?”.
As an agonomy researcher with the EH Graham Centre for Agricultural Innovation based in Wagga Wagga, southern NSW, Dr Jim Virgona, believes evidence – not hearsay – should be the basis for decision making on Australian farms.
Addressing the recent annual conference of the NSW Grassland Society in Dubbo, NSW, Dr Virgona said at times “evidence is either not present or inadequate for some agricultural products or methods, or evidence is simply ignored.
“Risk is everywhere in agriculture, and any way we can reduce risk must be used in farming decisions,” he said.
“If you have doubts about the claims being made about a product or new idea then always be prepared to ask ‘how do you know that?’. If the answer does not include some reference to demonstrable  evidence, then walk away!”
Dr Virgona has many examples of problems that have occured when farmers do not use evidence in their decision making.
“Classic examples are the use of so-called ‘natural fertilisers’ to increase crop yields and the application of the ‘Albrecht’ system in decision making about fertilisers. Both examples have been scientifically disproved, yet some farmers continue to waste money on them.
“Even the use of seasonal forecasts from the Bureau of Meteorology have been shown to be effectively useless.”
Dr Virgona, who is also a lecturer with CSU’s School of of Agricultural and Wine Sciences in Wagga Wagga is also concerned with the lack of use of existing information. “The continued under-use of phosphate fertilizers in improving production of high rainfall pastures by farmers is a good example of this problem.”
Working with Growth Farms Australia director, Mr Geoff Daniel, Dr Virgona highlighted four criteria to help integrate evidence in the decision making process. They said farmers should ask is it:
  • plausable? Does the idea have any scientific merit? Are the product claims consistent with other verifiable knowledge obtained from science?
  • verifiable? Is the argument leading to the claims able to be backed up by current knowledge based upon well designed and repeatable experiments, surveys or other scientifically acceptable approach?
  • applicable? Is the new technology considered in the context of the farming system and have any flow-on effects been considered in the application of the technology on other parts of the system?
  • economical? Is the product, if shown to be likely to be effective, the cheapest alternative to obtain that response, and does it have a positive cost benefit?
Dr Virgona is adamant that evidence needs to be integrated with the past experiences of the decision maker in managing this system to minimise the risk of making poor decisions.
“Agriculture is a very complex system and knowledge is never perfect, so assumptions have to be made. We should always make decisions based on the best information,” he said.
”Our decisions should reduce the effects of risk and should be suitable for the manager’s own farming system.”

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