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Issue #1694      July 22, 2015

Australian farmers facing multiple threats

Long ago poet Dorothy Mackellar wrote about Australia’s “droughts and flooding rains”, but farmers now face additional threats, including coal and gas mining in agricultural areas, and the large-scale purchase of agricultural land by overseas interests.

Australia’s weather will also become extremely unpredictable as a result of climate change. A report from the International Commission on Sustainable Agricultural and Climate Change claims food production in Victoria and southern NSW may benefit in the long term because of increased rainfall and higher temperatures, but overall production will fall, particularly in central and northern Australia because of frequent droughts and heatwaves.

North-west NSW and Western Queensland are in the fourth year of drought, and a Melbourne University study, Appetite for Change, has found that crops now grown in Northern Australia will have to be produced in southern areas. Nevertheless, the Abbott government predicts that northern Australia will become the “food bowl of Asia”.

Its recently released white paper, Agricultural Competitiveness, promises economic benefits for struggling farmers. However, it fails to deal with the critical issue of climate change, and ignores the desperate need for improved rail freight services.

In the current negotiations over the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership the government will undoubtedly try to gain competitive trade advantages for Australian agricultural produce, coal and other minerals, by trading off manufacturing tariff protection. That’s what it did previously when it abandoned auto industry tariffs altogether to gain access for Australian beef to Japanese markets.

The tactic is inexcusable because manufacturing should be developed in the national interest. In the case of agricultural produce it’s also totally unnecessary, because there’s a tremendous demand for Australia’s clean, green and safe produce.

The same can’t be said for coal, the demand for which is falling, and which has a grim future because of international commitments to phase out fossil fuels this century. The Abbott government will sacrifice anything to preserve that market, even though it’s terminally ill.

Pitiless sky, pitiless market

Last week Coalition MP Dan Tehan wrote enthusiastically “the Agricultural Competitiveness white paper sets out the plan for Australian agriculture to flourish in a globalised world”.

Yet the paper mistakenly assumes that agricultural production will continue to increase, and it pays little attention to climate change, which threatens global food production, including within Australia.

Australia’s “pitiless blue sky” continues to bedevil farmers, with mortgage foreclosures, evictions and high rates of suicide in drought-ridden areas. Farm debt has risen 300 percent to $60 billion in the last 15 years.

That doesn’t worry big business. According to the Fairfax press, a finance specialist recently remarked with satisfaction: “Though drought will erode profits in the short term, it may present good buying opportunities by forcing distressed properties onto the market”.

Many farmers have now insured themselves against debt by leasing parts of their properties as wind farms. Yet Abbott, the obsessive advocate of fossil fuel energy, opposes them, describes them as noisy and ugly. He also considers them potentially unhealthy, even though scientific studies have disproved this.

Research into agricultural production and climate change are essential, yet the government has cut funding for scientific research and eliminated some government agencies that dealt with climate change. Abbott failed to shut down the Clean Energy Finance Corporation but he has now ordered it to cease funding wind and small-scale solar energy projects.

The elephant in the room

On the same day the Abbott government released the white paper it rubber-stamped the NSW government’s approval for construction of the Shenhua Watermark mine, Australia’s biggest open-cut coal mine, in the nation’s richest agricultural area, the legendary black soil Liverpool plains.

The mine would cover 37 square kilometres, 1.7 times the size of the City of Sydney, or 1.1 times the City of Melbourne. BHP Billiton also wants to construct a massive new mine in the region.

The Watermark mine would extract 10 million tones of coal annually for 30 years. Coal dust would pollute the surrounding agricultural areas, the local ecology would be destroyed and the landscape could never be rehabilitated.

However, the mine’s biggest impact would be on the groundwater of the great artesian basin which supports agriculture and grazing across eastern Australia.

When news of the Watermark approval broke, Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce wrung his hands, saying he had done all he could to stop the proposal, and declaring “the world has gone mad”. He could have threatened to lead the National Party out of the Coalition, but chose not to rock the boat.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt claims the approval is subject to “18 of the strictest conditions in Australian history”. However, strict conditions in other mining projects have all too frequently been avoided, or found to be totally inadequate.

Moreover, the impacts of the Watermark mine on groundwater are largely unknown. The government says it would not affect water supply, but the cotton industry contests that claim, and Shenhua has admitted the project would involve “the average annual relocation of 194 mega litres of water a year from agricultural purposes to coal mining”.

The government says if anything went wrong it could stop all mining activity, but it would be impossible to rectify groundwater pollution from the mine.

The state government approval is also being challenged in court by the community organisation the Upper Mooki Landcare Group, because the crucial definition of floodplain was altered before the assessment process commenced. Using the previous definition it would have been impossible to justify approving the mine.

Farmers face other problems, including the maintenance and extension of freight rail services, the brutal purchasing tactics of supermarkets, the rocketing rate of prime land purchases by overseas interests, occupational hazards and the speculative marketing of surface water.

But the biggest long-term threat will arise from climate change. A recent international study by London’s University College found that Australia must leave 90 percent of its coal in the ground to avoid a catastrophic two degree rise in average global temperatures.

The decision to approve the Watermark mine would jeopardise Australia’s best agricultural land to benefit a dying industry. The decision demonstrates the unwillingness of the Abbott government to take any action that would adversely affect the interests of the fossil fuel industries, who are the major contributors to climate change, the biggest single threat to the Australian farming industry.

Next article – CPA policy statement – NO to paternalistic recognition

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