Last week’s episode of the ABC’s 4 Corners must surely shake the stubborn, ignorant and lazy out of their slumber and denial. Hopefully, more people will now join the many – including progressive farmers – who understand that government inaction is adding to the significant environmental issues the agriculture sector now faces.
Salinity, degradation, river health, soil health and a changing climate are problems known to most Australians. What have been less obvious are the inevitable consequences of policy inaction: lower farm productivity; lower farm profitability; less export income; and potentially, threats to our own food, soil and water security. Forget the so-called “dining boom,” we seem more intent on “dining doom”.
Most Australians think our country is rich in soil and water resources. But Australia is the driest inhabited continent on earth and we’ve been killing our limited soil resources with European farming practices for more than 200 years. Some believe we can deliver more water by building more dams, but in many cases, changing the natural flow of our waterways only adds to the environmental damage already affecting our farming future. The reality is that with the right determination, we can improve our soils and their moisture retention quicker and cheaper than we can build catchment dams.
Given the huge challenges, one would expect the government has a plan. It does not. The Turnbull government is captured by its climate change deniers and an out-of-touch National Party. It’s fiddling around the edges on mitigation and doing next to nothing on adaptation. It is disinterested in natural resource allocation policy and does nothing to encourage better farming practices. Indeed as Agriculture and Water Resources Minister, Barnaby Joyce proclaimed more dams, more land clearing and a weaker Murray Darling Basin Plan was the formula for sustainable profitability in the agriculture sector.
In government, Labor put in place policies on both the mitigation and adaptation sides of the equation: a price on carbon; higher renewables energy targets; renewables investment incentives; carbon farming; and grants for better natural resource management, rehabilitation and the adoption of sustainable farming practices. Many of these initiatives were funded by the revenue the government received from the price it had imposed on carbon emissions.
With bipartisan support and the backing of the National Farmers’ Federation, the former Labor government jettisoned the old, expensive and ineffective drought policy framework that had failed taxpayers and farmers alike.
We must not only ensure our water and soil resources are used in a sustainable manner, we must encourage the best economic use of them. This is the less obvious effect of the Murray Darling Basin Plan. Yes, it is an environmental project, but it’s also a market mechanism for increasing value capture. The future of Australian agriculture does not lay so much in a quest to export more and more commodities into commodity markets in which we are price-takers. Rather, fulfilling our aspirations will come through a focus on niche products that deliver a higher economic return.
That will require us to do more to protect our key competitive advantage; our reputation as a provider of clean, green, safe and high-quality food. That won’t be possible if we do not protect our natural environment.