Can Australian Farmers keep up the Food? - 28 July 2006

Submitted by Webmaster on Tue, 08/08/2006 - 10:35

Mother of Erosion Gullies - near Burdekin River - click on images to enlarge Mother of Erosion Gullies The most offensive message in the book Collapse was that Australia is agriculturally speaking, a waste of time and that in the future, Australia could well struggle to feed itself. I was brought up on the understanding that Australia is one of the great food producing nations of the world, with more arable land per head of population than any other country. However the book could not be dismissed, as the American who wrote the book knows Australia better than most Australians and has spent most of his life investigating the question of why some civilisations prosper and some disintegrate. The book was Collapse by Jared Diamond. Some of the information presented in the book includes:

  • Our poor soils mean that in comparison Australia has to use more land to produce the same amount of produce and this in turn requires larger fuel and fertiliser inputs and it is largely these factors that makes Australian farmers struggle to compete with the prices of imported produce;
  • Agriculture including grazing accounts for 60% of Australia’s land area and 80% of human water use, yet produces only 3% of our Gross National Product; and
  • 99% of agricultural land in Australia does not produce a profit once all of the hidden subsidies are taken into account;
  • 80% of profits come from the 0.8% of land under agriculture.

Diamond also discusses the human costs of this situation. Today most farms are propped up by farmers working in off-farm jobs. The vast majority of farmers children do not wish to endure the hardship farming and will leave the land. In the coming decades, I wonder if it is our food security (ie. having enough to eat) is guaranteed. Diamond states that if the current patterns continue, Australia may become a net food importer in the future. In fact his closing statement is that young people who are alive today will live long enough to see the outcome.Food security will probably emerge in a powerful way within a few decades. China already has a population overhang of about 70 million people and these people are fed with imported food. India is self sufficient in food, but much of that food production is based on fields irrigated with groundwater. Nobody knows what will happen when the groundwater dries up and at present time the groundwater reserves are being rapidly depleted. Many large and economically powerful nations will be competing for the same food on the world market. For this reason, I don’t think that being a net importer of food will not be an option for Australia – to allow ourselves to be put in that extremely stupid position by allowing urban development to swallow our cropping land would be to loose control of our future. This article is not a review of Diamond’s book, it is a exploration of our choices at this point in time. However, I will test Diamond’s claims against the evidence at hand. Even before reading the book, I had grown tired of hearing how the land in Australia is fragile and prone to degradation. It was becoming an annoying rhetorical phrase, the sort of standard phrase the media use without thinking about what it really means. If our land is fragile then show why it is fragile, show me also land that is not fragile, then you will have opened my eyes. Due to my work and travels over the last year, I have been able to answer some of these questions for myself. Ungrazed poor quality land looks fine but similar land under 'normal' grazing pressureis obviously loosing top soil and nutrients (Upper Burdekin) Ungrazed Poor Land One simple definition of land degradation is that degrading land losses resources whereas virgin or sustainable land retains/recycles its resources. Degrading land suffers from net loss of nutrients and soil erosion whereas land that is not being degraded protects its soil and recycles its nutrients. This framework was created by the CSIRO for use monitoring land condition in pastoral regions and for use in assessing mine site rehabilitation and goes by the name of Ecosystem Function Analysis. It is fairly easy to look out the window of a low-flying aeroplane and see whether the land below is losing soil and nutrients and is therefore being degraded. The claim that Australia is particularly prone to erosion can be verified from the air and so can the claim that overgrazed land recovers only slowly. In an landscape that undisturbed has few gullies, a small 4WD track has become a canyon. (Walsh River Crossing west of Chillagoe) On a recent low level flight from one end of Queensland to the other, it rapidly became obvious how much more tolerant the good lands were to grazing than the poorer lands. In lightly grazed areas, poor land and good land look much alike. Both support savanna woodland with an understorey of tall native grass such as spear grass or kangaroo grass. The key difference seems to be that the better land is tolerant of grazing and despite much higher grazing intensities, little bare ground was exposed. Indeed the growing season produced too much grass for the cattle to eat and much of it cured to a reddish grey-brown when the dry season ended the growing season. Soil erosion was also scarce to non-existent. Disturbed soil would be carried a few metres until it encountered dense vegetation and then settled again. The ability to recapture disturbed soil is also partly due to the ‘physical’ fertility of the land. Areas with better soils tend to have better drainage and stormwater flows are smaller which in turn reduces erosion potential. Good land in north Queensland comes in two main flavours – hills and plains with red volcanic soil and black soil plains. The red volcanic soils are fertile, however they are lots of air space and are very free draining so they become very dry during the dry season, which limits their potential for thirsty crops. Black soil plains were created by dry conditions. They form in places which have short growing seasons followed by long dry seasons. Organic matter produced by the grass which grows in the wet season cannot break down completely and humus accumulates, making a fertile black clay. During the dry these clay soils crack deeply, something which many trees cannot survive, so black soil plains are often natural grasslands or are peppered with distinctive deciduous small trees. Despite being entirely different in origin and soil properties, both soils are similar in the way they resist grazing impacts. Grass cover on the black soil plains seems to stand up to the grazing pressure - Wrotham Park, Chillagoe A rehabilitated waste rock heap at Red Dome Mine near Chillagoe. At the top where the ground is flat and resources are kept, the growth is good. Lower down were the slope helps the leaf litter and nutrients escape the growth is poor. Large contour banks were made to try and trap the soil and nutrients. My review does not include cropping lands as the are very rare in northern Australia. Cropping land requires good soil and access to water for irrigation and the routes that I have flown did not have areas suitable for cropping. Having been involved in a government project to look for new cropping districts, I think that we are already farming almost all of suitable land already and that Australia does not have very much in the way of a reserve of arable land.As I study the factors which separate good agricultural land from poorer lands, two important factors have become more apparent. The first is how little good agricultural land Australia really has. The second is how challenging life is for our farmers. Even what passes for good agricultural land is Australia often has to be carefully coaxed by a farmer to become productive and is easily damaged. Creating a productive household garden in Australia is beyond most people yet overseas it seems everyone with a patch of ground has a decent vegetable garden. The lack of good vegetable gardens in Australia is probably a reflection of the challenge of the Australian environment more than anything else. Australia has a great need to protect the agricultural land which produces easy results.



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