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Rethinking Australian agriculture

THE FOOD CHAIN concept presents a philosophical quandary. It appears to be a simple model with a beginning, a middle and an end, one link flowing to the next. It provides a linear, unidirectional image of a process that delivers our food. Strengthen the weak links and the problems encountered will be solved, or so goes the theory. However, failure to adopt a systems view of modifying the ecosystem in agricultural production has created unintended consequences that now threaten our food security, including unreliable product supply, animal welfare issues, chemical residues, soil degradation and much more.

Many of these issues have resulted from applying traditional European theories of agriculture, in particular the quest for property and the Enlightenment's reasoning aimed at controlling Nature.

Prior to European settlement, Australia's indigenous population provided itself with food for millennia, having evolved to deal with highly variable and unreliable conditions present over the greater portion of the continent. The culture was attuned to the seasonal production of key food plants. In a way, population density was regulated by the long term climate pattern and seasonality of food supply. A look over the Torres Strait to more fertile conditions sees a much higher population density and, interestingly, early attempts at what is regarded as deliberate cultivation of food plants while the clan or tribe remained in one location. In the absence of these conditions, Australia's indigenous people favoured nomadic hunting and seasonal food gathering.

Enter the Europeans in their quest for land and its property rights. There were great tracts of apparently vacant land there for the taking. For many Europeans, this represented a chance to gain the one thing they could not acquire in their country of origin – the chance to become a person of substance and property. Parcels of land were staked out and fenced, which condemned the occupants to stay in one place and wear whatever weather conditions came their way.

Thomas Mitchell's Australia Felix comes to mind as he discovered vast areas of grasslands suitable for feeding grazing stock. Little was known of the grassland's growth habit and it was not long before the areas were quickly grazed out, with disastrous consequences, due to the sheep's close nibbling habits and the seasonal irregularity of the Australian climate, which differed from the reliable patterns of Europe.

Others such as Charles Sturt went in search of a fabled inland sea. Observing that rivers west of the Great Dividing Range flowed towards the centre of the continent, it was thought that they would drain into an inland sea as was the case in parts of Europe. No such sea was discovered, instead, a chain of salty ponds in the Darling River.

However, the fabled inland sea did exist. It was below the surface in the form of the Great Artesian Basin. Inward flowing rivers and draining aquifers fed the water into a vast depression, the remains of the ancient Tasman geosyncline which had been filled with the eroding sediments of its surrounding ranges. Salt from the sea that covered the area over millions of years ago was also pressed into these sediments. An ecosystem developed to cope with the resulting geological conditions while still taking in the large volumes of water draining in from intermittent floods. The spectre of soil salinity was not obvious and would not be a problem until disturbed by inappropriate future land use.

Once this extensive sea was discovered by Europeans, the apparent answer to the dry, barren inland space was forthcoming – just add water. Early reports of the first bores spoke of how high the water would gush unassisted above the ground, leading many to believe that there were boundless supplies under their feet. The water was allowed to run free into watering ditches for grazing stock, mainly beef cattle. Today, it is all too clear that the inland sea was not boundless. Bore pressure has dropped and a widespread capping program has been initiated to preserve the dwindling supplies. Exacerbating the situation, many bores are excessively salty and the trapped salt is being brought to the surface with devastating consequences to the surrounding area. In addition, huge amounts of water were lost to evaporation in these arid and semi-arid areas.

As settlers began to understand that Australian environmental and climate conditions were different to those of Europe, a new belief arose: perhaps the conditions could be conquered.


SUCCESSIVE AUSTRALIAN GOVERNMENTS have been instrumental in promoting the mismatch of farming activities based on the European model and the underlying ecosystem, for example, in the early attempts to promote irrigation as a nation building exercise. Sadly, remnants of this misguided vision linger on today in certain vocal rural circles as seen in calls to direct easterly flowing rivers west into the dry interior and the construction of a water channel from Lake Argyle in the far north of Western Australia as far south as Perth, with stirring rhetoric of drought-proofing the nation.

The litany of such attempts can be traced back to the Chaffey brothers in Mildura, who encouraged stirring nation building that could be best described as a real estate exercise based on the North American model of bringing in some key infrastructure into low value land, subdividing it and selling it at value added prices while pocketing the profit. Meanwhile, poor, unsuspecting or deluded individuals seeking riches in a new land of opportunity were dumped on undeveloped blocks, becoming victims of the climate and the environment. Even a casual reading of the trials and tribulations of the blockies will leave the reader with the feeling that the exercise was ill-conceived.

The nation building fervour was further inspired by Sir Samuel McCaughey's attempts to channel the annual flood cycle from the Murrumbidgee River to the adjacent flat dry land that the explorer John Oxley had written off in 1817. Oxley had described the desolate plains as ‘unlikely to be visited by civilized man' in the future. McCaughey's ‘just add water' solution has also been accepted as the inspiration for the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area (MIA). To ensure this real estate development was given the correct importance, none other than Henry Lawson, the iconic poet, was invited to take up residence in Leeton (centre of the developing MIA), from where his voice would lend encouraging support in attracting new settlers to this endeavour. Returning soldiers from World War I were encouraged to take up blocks in this planned rural utopia – a development fit for heroes. The Leeton Co-operative Cannery was opened by the distinguished novelist, D.H. Lawrence. The MIA was to become the food basket to feed Mother England. This eventually failed when the United Kingdom joined the developing European Union and gave preference to European suppliers.

As early as the 1920s the Department of Agriculture documented soil salinity problems. The clearing of the Mallee scrub which was responsible for keeping the water table low, plus the widespread use of flood irrigation, raised the water table and brought with it the salt. In a challenge to overcome this, deep tile drainage systems were devised to keep the water table low under the valuable permanent plantings of citrus and vines. As a result of poor planning, drainage areas were set up to hold the salty water – the water evaporated leaving salt scalded waste areas. The salt demon still lurks today.

The long term viability of the area depends on the true cost of water, which has probably never been factored in. Bruce Davidson, an agricultural economist, claimed his publication Australia, Wet or Dry: the physical and economic limits to the expansion of irrigation (1969) that water was being supplied at a price only sufficient to pay operating expenses and not the interest on the capital invested in them. He went on further to ask, ‘how can irrigation be termed a profitable investment?'

The role of science was to address the symptomatic problems that arose in the quest for increased agricultural production in water-scares areas. Often engineering was called upon to remove physical impediments. It seems the bigger the challenge the greater the sense of glee in pursuing the problem's resolution – for example, the practice of laser levelling the land to suit the use of irrigation water while removing the naturally developed surface drainage patterns. When the natural world gave warning signals, they were brushed aside or seen as just another obstacle to be dealt with in this quest.

One of the favoured vehicles for educating farmers and their families was the round of agricultural shows, field days, field trials and competitions, where the latest scientific wonders were promoted by government extension officers from the various research stations dotted across the country side. There was a heavy focus on judging to a standard – a strict written description of what the desired features of an ideal plant or animal specimen might be. This approach was based heavily on external appearance, so the exhibits were painstakingly selected, groomed, appearance enhanced, correctly paraded or staged for assessment. These competitions became mere exhibitions of the handy work of skilled presenters.

Farmer education today is more likely to come from large agri-businesses promoting such things as a total cropping system under the strict control of the company's technical branch. The participating farmer is little more than a crop or animal minder while the company organises the production, processing and marketing. This is a big step from the farmer as a producer of a product. For the farmer, the job stopped at the farm gate.

Today, agricultural research and development is directed towards biotechnology, in the hopes of  producing plants and animals that will cope with the difficult conditions of climate change, drought, disease and salinity. Some blind faith is at work in the response to the overseas discovery of a drought resistant gene in an obscure plant – again, the faith is placed in shoring up a perceived weak link, rather than adopting a systems view of what conditions are in play and asking whether crops should be grown in marginal areas in the first place.


OVER TIME, AUSTRALIANS have developed a set of cultural values aided and abetted by the tyranny of isolation and hardship. To ensure commercial interests were served, a romance of disadvantage was cultivated so effectively that it is now part of what is claimed to be Australian, embedded so deeply in the national psyche that it borders on treasonous to even question it. As a result, we now have a culture that fails to come to grips with the environment in which it operates and one that is largely unaware of the damage it is doing to the biosphere we share. There is a culture of beating the odds as a way of coping with seasonal adversity such as droughts and floods. Coping with climate change has been reduced to a series of probabilities, fed into computers in the modern quest to beat the odds.

This inhibiting culture is, essentially, parochial, inward looking and narrowly pragmatic. Heavily absorbed in its immediate surroundings, it becomes highly defensive of those surroundings. Outsiders are treated with suspicion and seen as intruders to be warded off. To use the food chain analogy, they represent the first link and are not much interested in the rest of the chain. Those at the other end of the chain (city dwellers) are treated as belonging to another race and are the butt of provincial humour. The inward thinking is often a product of isolation, preoccupation with the local surroundings and concentration on self survival in extreme conditions. Such thinking has little time or room to embrace wider ideas.

Despite the emergence of some key women in organisations such as the Country Women's Association (CWA), the culture is heavily male dominated with clear roles and expectations of the sexes. Change or open mindedness is more likely to come from women who seem to have a better handle on global thinking – maybe  it is because they have to live in the circumstances. Girls are more likely to be accepted if they behave and act like blokes especially if they share the characteristics of irresponsible behaviour and risk taking.

While there is some evidence of a changed culture in some parts of agriculture, here is a suggestion for a system based on a changed thinking. This would need to at least have the following features to overcome the perception of operating in isolation as created by the current linear thinking. It needs to be accepted that the farmer operates as part of a larger picture. One in which the larger picture impacts on the farmer and the farmer also impacts on the larger picture. Such a successful food production system would need to be thinking of and using the following:

  • Be a business and interact dynamically with the market/economic system. The food supply system needs to generate income to justify the investment of capital, expertise and time or these would be better placed in pursuits elsewhere in the economy. It needs to be directly connected to and respond to the market and its signals. To participate, reliability of supply and product quality is critical to its operation. There is no place for beating the odds.
  • Be technically savvy. This is crucial to being able to respond to present and future market signals. Included here is the careful selection of the type of technology so it meets the strategic plans of the operation, not just simply process more and more raw data. The selected technology should enhance, not confuse or hide, critical features of the underlying system or simply further valid current taken as givens.
  • Operate in a socially responsible manner. Despite the replacement of human input with technology, there is a need to look at how humans function in the system, not reducing humans to the dirty, demeaning and dangerous components of the system.
  • Not degrade the biosphere in which it operates. Our food production system should not consume the landscape and reduce the biodiversity we have inherited simply to feed one species that places itself at the top of the food pyramid. We have a stewardship role to the rest of that pyramid.
  • Have a legally enforceable land classification system to support and protect prime food producing land. ‘The soil is your asset' was a phrase used in the 1950s to promote the push for soil conservation. This is just as relevant today. Food producing soils need to be identified and protected in a similar way that natural heritage areas have been treated. After all, it is for our survival into the future.
  • Manage its risks. Working in agricultural production, of which food production is a major part, has a poor record in terms of occupational health and safety. Many of these risks are associated with machinery used to substitute labour where individuals are often working in isolation. Couple this with the fatigue associated with time pressures around key operations (for example, harvesting) and a high risk situation is created. The short-cutting of safety procedures is a temptation.
  • Be supported in the event of genuine exceptional circumstances, not just those contrived for political advantage. Food production in marginal areas needs to be reviewed and reassessed. Pleas for support are an easy option, compared to facing the structural reality. The taxpayer should not be underwriting risky private enterprises with little long term chance of success.
  • Have farmers directly engaged in a new smart research model as part of their life-long learning. Central to this should be a genuine specialist agricultural tertiary institution, not a patchwork of institutions scattered across the country side funded by commercial interests for the purpose of carrying out their commercial research. We need Australian developed research solutions to Australian conditions, not off-the-shelf solutions purchased from the global market. We need to confront and solve our own problems specific to our circumstances.

It would be hoped that such a food production system would be able to carry on into the future, keep us adequately fed, farmers gainfully occupied and the ecosystem maintained in a less degraded state. In order to achieve a vibrant agricultural industry attuned to the limitations of our climate and soil conditions, a new way of thinking is required.

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