Young people have a crucial role to play in the future of Australian agriculture and rural industries. Southern Cross University science student Luke Austin is bringing passion and purpose to how that future may take shape.
Rethinking our approach to farming
At just 22, Southern Cross University science student Luke Austin has a wisdom beyond his years, manifesting in a bold vision for Australia’s agricultural future.
Recipient of a 2022-23 Horizon Scholarship through rural research and development corporation AgriFutures Australia, Luke is an emerging voice for the generation that will inherit a sector currently beset with problems – from climate change, soil degradation and crop sustainability to economic pressures, ageing farmers, farm succession planning and changing consumer demands.
As a marine science student, Luke wondered whether he even qualified for consideration for the two-year scholarship, which is awarded to selected undergraduates in an agriculture-related degree. A year later, his scientific and philosophical scope has so broadened that he has become an erudite advocate for agricultural and industrial transformation.
He has strong support from Southern Cross University, which is leading the educational push to rethink our approach to farming. Along with strong research collaborations across plant science, agronomy, ecology, agroforestry, environmental chemistry and socio-ecological systems, the University’s sustainable farming program is designed for students eager to transform farming practices and build more resilient farms and farmers for the future.
Luke is enjoying plenty of opportunities to observe agriculture in action. In 2023 alone he has visited 15 countries and every state in Australia twice, taking advantage of professional development workshops, industry placements and events, and other initiatives.
Sponsored by the Cooperative Research Centre for Developing Northern Australia (CRCNA), he has visited Japan to observe the development of bioplastics from seaweed, and also travelled to the Tiwi Islands, off the Northern Territory, to witness the extraction of DNA from forestry species to help build a more profitable timber industry for the local First Nations people.
In another highlight, earlier this year he represented AgriFutures and Southern Cross University on the Pathway to 2050 panel at leading innovation festival SOUTHSTART, sharing the stage with South Australia's Chief Scientist, Professor Caroline McMillen.
“I believe in the fresh perspectives of young people who represent the sole future workforce of Australia’s rural industries,” says Luke, who is in the final year of a Bachelor of Science (Marine Science and Environmental Science) at Southern Cross University’s Coffs Harbour campus.
“Our unique experiences, aspirations and knowledge position us so well to contribute to policy and program design.
“The next generation of agricultural scientists can lead that, ensuring the future of agriculture is environmentally sustainable and linked to rural prosperity.”
Luke elaborates on the theme in AgriFutures’ most recent report – Listen Up: Young people’s perspective on the future of Australian agriculture and rural industries – which affirms the role that young people must play in shaping the future of the sector, and essentially, why rural industries must engage, listen to, nurture and collaborate with them.
Ironically, Luke gave little thought to agriculture before his scholarship. Growing up in Coffs Harbour, he was free to indulge his love of the ocean and made plans for a career in marine science. Enrolling at Southern Cross University provided access to the superb teaching and facilities at the National Marine Science Centre (NMSC).
He embraced the opportunities that have come his way, including data mapping of remote marine debris at Cape York, membership of the Ministerial Advisory Board delivering policy advice to the NSW Government, and working as a research assistant for the NMSC’s Reef Restoration and Adaption Program. Since April 2023, he has been working with the NSW Environmental Protection Authority, engaging in regulatory operations covering forestry, catchments and pesticide use in horticulture./p>
The more he learns; the more he discovers correlation and connection.
“I was surprised at just how relatable my marine studies were to the rural sector, where industries and people share a task that balances environmental sustainability with feeding and fuelling the world,” he says.
“That intersection between land and sea is where so much change needs to be made and I want to be a part of that. When advocating for values like biosecurity, food security, custodianship and sustainability, young people must play a leading role in fostering an environment that promotes authenticity, sustainability and inclusivity alongside innovation.”
Clearly passionate, it would be an error to suggest Luke’s passion is unbridled. Rather, he is a realist about the structure and scale of strategic change.
“Change does not mean the end of one thing to maintain another,” he explains. “For instance, I am not advocating the complete cessation of logging to save our forests, or the total shutdown of the pineapple industry to help the Great Barrier Reef. I think the “either-or” approach to change often just replaces one set of problems with another.
“What I am about is finding balance, about a measured approach to how science, industry, education, communities and environmental interests work together to find methods of practicable and sustainable change.”
Luke eventually hopes to work at the intersections of regional development, industry and sustainability to foster a more sustainable and productive rural industry surrounding aquaculture.
“That is where the University and the scholarship are so important,” he says. “ Science does not get done without the scientists, so it is good to be liaising and engaging with others who are bound by a vision for a better future and are coming at it from other scientific fields, be it agricultural science, veterinary science, sustainable farming or, like me, marine science.
“To hear different values, perspectives and ideas infiltrates your own thinking, your own goals, so you get a broader picture of things. You seek and find common ground and, as young people about to become the next generation of scientists, that must be beneficial.”
Listen to Luke about the challenges facing our marine environments: