Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Agriculture, the environment and Australia's future

During the week the World Wide Fund for Nature released a report suggesting that it took nearly eight hectares of land to maintain the lifestyle of each Australian, up from nearly seven hectares in 2006.

At the same time in Food Shortages In Australia Thanks To Anti-Farmer Free Trade and Environmental Policies, Steve Truman suggested that Australia might become a net food importer within forty years. We presently feed two people globally for every Australian. There is an error in Steve's maths re the rate of population increase, but it does not affect his argument.

In August, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released data showing that Gross Farm Product (the valued added in agriculture) in NSW in 2006-2007 had fallen to $3.8 billion, just 1.1 per cent of Gross State Product.

We lock increasing areas up in National Parks, then cannot find the money to manage them properly, creating significant problems. We impose wholesale restrictions on land use, restrictions that fail to take varying local conditions into account and that farmers have then to manage around.

Governments are presently buying back water licenses. This is equivalent to putting a bull-dozer through some local communities. Our population concentrates in metro centres and on the coastal strip, leaving country communities that have water and existing infrastructure drained of people.

Regional infrastructure built up over generations has declined to the point that services for many regional communities are worse than they were sixty years ago. This has created a vicious cycle. We have almost painstakingly created islands of poverty that stretch from some outer metro areas through parts of the coastal strip into the inland.

Our policies are developed at a macro level, driven on one side by concepts of efficiency and measurement, on the other by ad-hoc responses to particular crises and perceived need. We live in an issues driven society in which cause based groups have come increasingly to dominate the policy and political debate.

I know that this must sound like something of a diatribe. One of my key frustrations is that, at least as I see it, the information required to make informed judgements is either not there or hard to find. I also get cranky at what I perceive to be an anti-rural bias in current thinking.

Back in October 2006, I wrote:

Australia faces a serious drought, perhaps the worst on record. Whether this drought is simply a bad drought or a sign of global warming is an important issue. But in the conversation I am talking, about discussion went from drought to water to the need to phase out primary production dependent upon water, especially irrigation crops. Part of the argument was couched in terms of the need for the metro cities to have access to more water, part in terms of the need for the environment to have more water, part on the belief that farming and grazing was no longer viable in many parts of Australia.

This led me to re-check the trade statistics, something that I had not done for a while. These suggested that our export dependance on a small number of mining and agricultural products had in fact increased.

For a long time our mainly urban population has been buying more from overseas than we sell. The gap has been met through overseas private borrowing. This is not sustainable in the longer term.

We have to either increase our saving rate or, alternatively, find new things to sell internationally. If we lose our coal and agricultural exports, the position becomes much worse. Should Steve Truman's gloomy prognostication that Australia may become a net food importer prove correct, then we may find ourselves in diabolical trouble, as will those in other countries that we presently feed.

I am actually far more positive than Steve. However, I am worried about our tendency to assume that we can have our cake and eat it too, about our desire for simple solutions.

Take, as one example, the suggestion that we should reduce our population increase by cutting back on migration.

If we cut our migrant intake to zero, and I doubt that this is practical, the growing emigration of younger Australians could well offset the natural increase, leading to a stable or even declining population. However, in this event issues with population aging will bite very quickly.

My personal view in all this is that we need something of a paradigm shift in our thinking, that we need to ask new questions. If we keep on as we are, Australia is likely to find itself caught between a rock and a very hard place within twenty years.


Anonymous said...

Jim, you are an optimist hoping that we will be around in twenty years. I don't. There are just too many bombs ticking.

Jim Belshaw said...

Yes, Ramana, I do remain an optimist in part because I see little other choice.

Unless and until we can get off this planet into the solar system, we know that the earth must end in the collapse of our own sun. So there is an ultimate end point. We also know that there is a statistically significant chance in the meantime that we might get wiped out by some planetary body. In the meantime, we just have to do the best we can.

I am not blindly optimistic.

When I look back over the last three generations of my own family I see two huge wars, multiple smaller wars, a cold war during which we sometimes came close to nuclear destruction, two major economic depressions, a global pandemic that wiped out 18 million, multiple cases of ethnic madness including Hitler's destruction of the jews and gypsies.

I have never expected that we will be able to avoid at least some of these things things in the future.

Objectively, the risks of catastrophe are higher today simply because our technology and sheer numbers gives us greater capacity to destroy ourselves. The biggest risk lies in events that may simply out-run our collective capacity to respond in any sensible way.

We can see this in the First World War. Here a series of misjudgements and tactical errors by the European powers led to mass destruction during which, if my memory serves me correctly, some ninety million died.

My hope, the grounds for my optimisim, lies in the human capacity to learn from mistakes.

Anonymous said...

Jim, I am now 65 years old. I have seen a bit of the world and have personally experienced many ups and downs, insults, adulation, joys, sorrows and have participated in many 'worthwhile' interventions. I have however not seen the kind of madness that I have been seeing the last five years. If anything, with all the knowledge available, communication being as fast as it is, and well meaning people everywhere wanting to do the right things, I see deterioration everywhere. There certainly appears to be a lot of motion everywhere. I dare say however, that there is hardly any action to reach the utopia that you think is possible in our life time.

I have therefore reconciled myself to make the best of a bad bargain, do my little bit to the extent possible, and pass the rest of my life with as much dignity and joy as possible. I abhor what I am leaving for my son.

Jim Belshaw said...

Ramana, there are a couple of points in your post that, I think, deserve a full post response, in fact a couple of responses,to pull together some of the things that I have been thinking about. More then!