This week’s episode of the ABC’s Four Corners program must surely shake the stubborn and ignorant out of their slumber and denial. Government inaction is adding to the significant environmental issues the agriculture sector now faces.
Salinity, degradation, river and soil health and a changing climate are problems known to most Australians. Less obvious are the inevitable consequences of policy inaction: lower farm productivity and profitability; less export income; and potentially, threats to our own food, soil and water security.
Most Australians believe 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.
Given the huge challenges, one would expect our Government has a plan. It does not. The Turnbull Government is captured by its climate change deniers and an out-of-touch National Party.
While in government, Labor put in place comprehensive 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 for the adoption of sustainable farming practices.
With bipartisan support and the backing of the National Farmers’ Federation, the former Labor Government jettisoned the old, expensive and ineffective drought policy framework which had failed taxpayers and farmers alike. Subsequently, through the CoAG process, we established the first Intergovernmental Agreement on drought reform. But that work stalled when the Abbott Government was elected in 2013. Indeed, the Government abolished the CoAG committee.
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 which deliver a higher economic return.
That won’t be possible if we do not protect our natural environment.