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‘Farming without harming’ is a passion for this agricultural scientist.

John Williams describes himself as a good country boy but he has a tough message for Australia’s farmers: they need to ramp up food production for our burgeoning population and they must do so in a sustainable way that doesn’t further harm the environment.

“Country people are my people and the message is pretty difficult,” says Williams, 67, the NSW Commissioner for Natural Resources and a former head of CSIRO’s land and water division.

“Our farming communities are faced with very narrow margins of profitability,” he says.

He also has a tough message for city dwellers, who have grown used to cheap food available all year round. buy cialis uk “We have to start being serious about paying for food to be produced in a sustainable way.”

The choice, he believes, is for food to cost more, or for farmers to be paid for stewardship of the land beyond their basic “duty of care”. That includes cheap imported food, buycialisuk such as fish harvested from the Mekong Delta at enormous environmental cost.

But haven’t prices for fresh produce such as fruit, vegetables, meat and fish soared in the last few years?

Not comparatively, Williams says, who has studied sustainable agricultural practices for almost 30 years.

In the 1960s, he argues, food expenditure soaked up 25 per cent to 30 per cent of the average household budget; now it’s about 14 per cent.

“We’ve got to increase food production but there’s no incentive to do so on current prices,” he says, adding that Australia produces less food than Britain because of poorer soil nutrition and lower rainfall.

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In the past, leaps in farming productivity, such as Australia experienced in the 1950s and 1960s, were largely due to clearing more land and increased inputs of fertiliser and water, as well as cheap oil.

“The environment takes the rap and we can’t keep doing that,” he says.

Agricultural science, he argues, must move beyond a focus on short term productivity gains to a more holistic, long term environmental approach.

Williams’s passion for “farming without harming” stems from his childhood on the land at Tumbarumba, in central NSW, where his parents managed grazing properties producing fine wool and cattle.

When he’d congratulate his father on a good season, the response would be: “I’d like to do it with less damage to God’s creation.” After completing a degree in agricultural science and a doctorate in soil science and hydrology from the University of Sydney, Williams did research in the Canadian prairies then taught in the US and Fiji.

He returned to Australia and spent 17 years researching soil and water issues in Townsville for the CSIRO, then another 17 years at the organisation’s Canberra head office.

Williams left the CSIRO in 2004, aged 60, deciding it was time to move beyond research into policy and “action on the ground”.

He was chief scientist for NSW’s department of natural resources and became NSW Commissioner for Natural Resources in 2006. “I sit halfway between the green groups and the farmers,” he says. “I’ve seen such enormous change and we’re going to see a lot more.”

THE BIG QUESTIONSBiggest break Being able to grow my ideas [on sustainable land use] within CSIRO. It was an organisation that encouraged independence and free thinking and gave you the resources and tools to do it. It was a privilege.

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Biggest achievement The formation of the Wentworth Group [of concerned climate change scientists, in 2002] and being able to influence Australia’s water reform agenda, with many others.

Biggest regret Not having published as much as I’d like and written in a more influential way. Another 100 or so papers would be good. But another regret is whether I got the life balance right with my children. I was so busy. That’s the hardest thing; buycialisuk when you really care [about these types of issues] you can get a bit unbalanced.

Best investment My education. As a country kid but not landed, your choices are not brilliant. My education made all the difference.

Worst investment Getting on intellectual merry go rounds that didn’t go anywhere. buy cialis uk You seem very busy on some of these committees but you realise they’re not where the rubber’s hitting the road.

Attitude to money I’ve been blessed. I’m quite careful, I come from a Methodist tradition.

Personal philosophy I’m very strongly influenced by Martin Luther King and a Christian background of social justice. I believe in the goodness of people and that we’re here for a purpose.