09 June, 2009

Remember, farmers feed us all
Paul Myers
April 3, 2009
If there's one industry in Australia that needs some decent PR, it's agriculture.
There are 175,000 farmers who feed Australia and contribute significantly to global nutrition. But they have lost the hearts and minds of the people who depend on them. Their status has sunk to an all-time low, and they are now regarded, variously, as environmental vandals, cruel managers of livestock and economic opportunists.

How times and attitudes have changed. Fifty years ago farmers (or more so, graziers) were at the top of the social and economic pecking order. It was a status symbol just to belong to a farming family, or to have relatives on and connections to the land.
Not now. In a world where the lines between perception and reality are blurred, all types of farming are viewed as being bad, and taking water to grow food and fibre is worse. Using fertilisers, herbicides and pesticides is untenable.

The farming community seems incapable of overcoming this negativity, incapable of working out how to make a public argument that sustainable food production is a national and global necessity.

A good starting point would be abandoning the word agriculture. Agriculture is no longer sexy. It is widely seen, inaccurately, as an outdated industry with anachronistic low-tech practices - one that the best young minds are increasingly avoiding.

Producing food and fibre may be a simplistic way of describing what farmers do, but there is an astonishing gap between what the public thinks of as farming and maximising food production.

Many farming critics don't seem to understand that inhibiting farmers' capacity to produce food limits the global supply, increasing the need for imports, making scarcer food more expensive and taking food away from those who need it more.

That arrogant disconnect is far graver than whatever environmental irresponsibilities farmers may or may not practice.

The planet has more than 6 billion people, but only enough for five. By 2050 9 billion people - the vast majority living in cities and towns - will compete for scarce food produced from less agricultural land than we have available now. Nutrition has to come from somewhere, and farms seem an obvious choice for continuing to meet that need. But the prospect of widespread food shortages does not, apparently, engender any greater understanding of the vital role of farming in the future of both the planet, and humanity.

Some of us who live in the developed world - with full bellies and ready access to cheap, wholesome food - are among the strongest critics of modern farming, yet many don't look beyond their next meal. Certainly not in Australia, and Sydney in particular, where planned urban developments will remove three-quarters of the Sydney basin's food production capability. It is a significant capability, still, and removing it means a lot of poultry, eggs, Asian vegetables, fruit and specialty crops will have to be produced elsewhere and transported, or not grown at all.

Agriculture - or whatever it should be called - urgently needs to start talking to its customers, not just to itself and governments. It needs to explain what's right, sustainable and good, and why. Not doing so threatens Australia's future food supply.

Take, for example, the way the federal and NSW governments trashed the reputation of responsible riparian pastoralists when they bought Toorale station in western NSW last year. Government and environmental spin machines went into overdrive to convince us the purchase was necessary "to restore water flows to the Darling River".
Not true. Farmers can take water from regulated rivers like the Darling only when there are certain flows and river heights downstream. They can't, and don't, take water when there isn't enough. Until recent rain, little water had been extracted by Toorale or nearby properties for years.

When farmers are allowed to take water, either so much flows that there's virtually no "return of water" to the river, or it spills out on to floodplains (where it is available for productive agricultural practices) and some returns to the river naturally. The lack of water in rivers is more because of the lack of rain than farmers taking the water, although water has been over-allocated on the Murray.

When properties like Toorale store water in the wet times, river flows are much better than when there are marginal amounts of water available.

Toorale is to become a national park, and will not be cared for like a private property. Within a few years it will be overrun by weeds and feral animals, to the detriment of the property, the neighbours and everyone.

The property has been taken out of production to satisfy an agenda that doesn't pass scrutiny. It was a $24 million stunt.

But it may be the policy blueprint for future food and fibre production and, as such, is an ominous signal that producers will ignore at their peril. A vocal minority can quickly sway a debate, as happened with mulesing, a debate the wool industry comprehensively lost.

The same outcome threatens the next big-ticket issues: carbon trading and genetically modified foods. Farmers will lose this battle if they don't take the initiative and sell it to the people they feed. The world will lose. We need it to eat, prosper and survive. Extreme views about agriculture are biting farmers hard, but losing control of the food production imperative will be disastrous for everyone. Farmers may have lost some battles, but the planet can't afford them to lose the war.

Paul Myers, a freelance journalist, is a former editor of The Land and an Australian trade commissioner in Canada.
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