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Agriculture: resources and current practices

J. Allwright

National Farmers Federation, PO Box E10, Queen Victoria Terrace ACT 2600

The theme of this conference underlines the need for objective analysis of our agricultural history and past practices and for informed debate on the nature of the agricultural development which will provide for our future. Sustainability is not a new issue to farmers. Access to markets, economic productivity, recognition that benefits from the care of the land are not restricted to farmers, better information flow and the need for continuing research and development are the important issues that are canvassed in this review.

Economic future for Australian agriculture

Trade reform, by opening markets, raising farm returns and generating global economic activity will provide countries like Australia with sufficient resources to adopt new farming techniques and to invest in greater effort in research and development (R&D). The continued productivity and export competitiveness of our farm and mineral sectors creates the basis of our national wealth and future increases in our living standards. Australia is going through a period of intense introspection on how to develop exports and reduce the structural imbalance between national spending and national earning; however, it is clear that our export future and the direction of our trade balance will remain heavily dependent on agriculture. Benefits will come to Australia via agricultural exports and those benefits will grow as our productivity increases.

Asia is undergoing the most rapid economic transformation and growth of any region on the globe. Asia's demand for industrial raw materials and basic foodstuffs will continue to rise dramatically over the next two or three decades as its economies prosper and the disposable incomes of its peoples increase. Australian agriculture is particularly well-placed to capture and exploit growth in demand in Asia. Over the same period, the growth of populations in Africa and Latin America will provide opportunities for exporting food either as part of trade ties or aid flows. Currently, declining terms of trade in Australia, are inducing a cost/price squeeze wherein farmers must seek to maintain or increase productivity while reducing the cost of their inputs. However, our medium to long-term future looks bright. Population and economic growth in Asia promises to provide the foundation for demand-led price stability and reduction in international trade barriers as sought by the Cairns Group in the Uruguay Round will help to ensure increases in the prices of commodities.

That farming is a business needs to be understood, since the parameters of business operations place limits on the capability farmers to act. Business forces also provide incentives for farmers to continually search for better and more efficient land-use systems. Economic sustainability is, therefore, an integral part of ecologically sustainable agriculture. Healthy farm incomes will pay for the care of the land but to achieve these incomes farm costs have to be reduced and productivity growth has to be maintained.

Landcare will help, as will strategic research and new technology. However, it must be remembered that the care of the land has been the basis of good farm management for decades. Landcare as an activity remains buffeted by the harsh exigiencies of business, stunted by current economic policies , and constrained by limited political recognition that Australia's national well-being will benefit from the prosperity of agriculture.

Farmers' attitudes to land degradation

It is easy to overlook the past in the debate on land care. Many public commentators appear to suffer from myopia which distorts their vision of the present and the future. A film clip, recently viewed by the author, showed the Minister for Primary Industry and Energy stating that soil erosion is the greatest problem confronting Australia and that loss of vegetation, loss of soil to wind and rain and accompanying salt problems are a national disaster that is progressively turning productive country into wasteland. The film was from the 1940s and while the words were strikingly similar to the language of the 1980s, the visuals were a world apart. The problems depicted in the film were desolate landscapes, devoid of all vegetation, with vicious duststorms and teeming hordes of rabbits. Today's land care problems are quite different and for many regions less extreme; however, I would hasten to add that there is no less urgency in the need to find solutions. It is important to realise that, over the last half-century, farming has come a long way in improving the state of our agricultural landscape. Farmers have many achievements to be proud of even though much remains to be done. Those who are quick to criticise the current farming generation would do well to look back before they speak out too loudly.

Farming, by tradition, has a view to the long-term future. After all, over 95 per cent of farm enterprises arc run by families. Farming has relied largely on two main sources of technical information. These were local knowledge gained by experience and technical advice from Government through the extension and scientific communities that it supports. Overarching sources of technical advice have been the policies of Government which affect the very nature, distribution and diversity of farming. There are many examples of policy decisions that have led to agricultural developments that are now under intense scrutiny. The development of the Eyre Peninsula railway and the irrigation schemes of the Murray-Darling Basin are two.

It was with the long-term growth of agriculture in mind that the farming sector urged that greater attention be given to formulating policy relating to land degradation. This has happened since 1989, but too often Government has failed to address questions which arc fundamental to the economic future of farming and that deal with farming equitably. Equitability is only achieved by recognising the particular socio-economic features of farming, which arc so different to those of urban-based industries.

The public attention that has been focussed on agriculture and its associated resource use is unlikely to subside in the the forseeable future. Hence there is a heavy responsibility on agriculture and its associated sciences to guide that public interest by providing an accurate scientific and historical information. If this is not done then informed public debate will not occur and prejudiced and emotive conclusions will likely emerge that could result in 'knee-jerk' and ill-advised policy moves by Government.

Research and development

It is disturbing that the debate on land care rarely recognises that our knowledge of the processes that underly either improvement or decline is far from being secure. All too often, bold statements imply that we know with certainty what needs to be done. Rarely, does the debate suggest that we should invest in research that would tell us how and why the land behaves as it does. A dogmatic approach that makes 'black and white' judgements fails to recognise the risks which are an inevitable and unavoidable part of managing the land. Such an approach is devoid of reality and avoids the real world processes that should influence decisions on policy.

The public does not recognise the contribution made by farmers to R&D. S ustainability criteria are written into the plans of all rural R&D corporations and considerable funding from growers are raised by levies based on farm production. The Government recognises the community value of this research and by matching funds dollar for dollar to a certain level. Rural R&D corporations are continually adapting to new requirements, generating enhanced production techniques, new strains of pasture plants and crop products with environmental benefits. Drought resistant crops and pastures help retain surface cover under difficult conditions and new minimum tillage practices add organic matter to soils and reduce soil structural damage. There are new developments to come from the expansion of genetic engineering and biotechnology. This is an area that holds great promise for agriculture; but there is need to ensure that its objectives and methods of experimentation build public confidence in this type of research.

The activities proposed for the new Co-operative Research Centre on Soils and Land Management (Adelaide) provide an example of the need to apply cross-disciplinary thinking for evaluating farming's natural resources. This holistic view on research management is mirrored by the steps taken by the Land and Water Resources R&D Corporation to merge resource studies with farm management issues.

The european approach to sustainable agriculture

Farming in Australia differs markedly from the agriculture of Europe and from farming practice in the USA. These differences have to be kept in mind when evaluating the policies for agricultural sustainability in Europe; certainly these policies need close examination as to their relevance to Australia. The Dutch, for example, have land care policies that arise from problems in the Netherlands which are of a different order to ours. Between 1950 and 1985 the numbers of cattle and pigs in the Netherlands increased by 400 per cent; for the same period, the increase in human population was only one-tenth of this (1). This increase in intensity of animal production has raised issues which dominate Dutch environmental policy such as:

  • mineral bookeeping to monitor discharge of nitrate into the ground water;
  • use of the enzyme phytase in fodder to reduce the phosphorus (P) content required in feedstuffs and consequently the P addition to soil and groundwater via manure; taking legal measures which will affect the production, use and disposal of manure; these are implemented through a Manure Control Program (1);
  • injecting manure into the soil to reduce ammonia production and acid rain;
  • recirculating water from 'non-soil' farming (e.g., greenhouses);
  • overuse of soil decontaminants.

Proposals to levy farm inputs to encourage a low-input sustainable agriculture (LISA) might be appropriate for Europe and the USA where farmers can be compensated for falling production. However, in Australia we have an inherently low soil fertility and low-input farming when compared with other developed countries. Australian farmers will support further research to allow reductions in inputs provided that this results in profit and growth; however, they will not accept inappropriate and alien ideas which would reduce the competitiveness of their industry.

Landcare and equitability

In preparing for the future growth in farm trade, it was sensible for the National Farmers Federation (NFF) to move to ensure that our resource base was capable of sustaining productivity increases. NFF has sought to make land care a public and political priority and this has been done in association with the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF). By aligning our interests on care of the land with those of the ACF we jointly achieved public prominence for the issue of sustainability.

The Landcare program has been enthusiastically adopted by farmers across Australia. It has an important catalysing role. By giving farmers greater resources for conservation of the land, the program has found immediate favour with its primary audience. It has added to the already strong conservation ethic that characterises farming in Australia. Farm planning plays a vital role in developing a greater awareness of the various causes of land degradation and a district-based approach has extended the farmers' management horizons.

The benefits of care of the land are not limited to farmers. who perform two functions, farming and land management. The Government, itself, cannot afford to manage the land and this is recognised by departments of treasury and finance, both here and overseas. It is a great pity that the new interventionists, including many of the agencies that assert an interest in the environment, have not yet reached this conclusion.

The links between agriculture and the wider economy are strong and permanent and the care of the land is a common good and must be recognised as such. Whether better land management comes through the self-interest of farmers, or by regulatory control, there will be a cost to the

community. While Government trades on the success of its Landcare program, it has also to spread the cost of the program's development and implementation between the farmers and those others who benefit, the Australian public.

Yet again, there is little sober-minded setting of priorities on the costs of improving the resource base for agriculture. In its place, we see strategies being developed such as the enhancement and re-establishment of biodiversity. Instead of ensuring that representative samples of biodiversity are preserved, we will no doubt, face a policy which seeks to oblige landholders to take steps which are beyond maintaining the existing ecological value of their land. This will undoubtedly be done without a clear-cut program, management support or compensation payouts. The Committee which is advising the Government on a biodiversity strategy is well and truly divorced from reality. There has been only one farmer representative on this Committee despite the wide impact that biodiversity policy would have on primary industry. I would urge more careful and rational assessment of the impact of many new environmental policy initiatives. If the public is not prepared to pay the cost of implementing policy proposals, then these proposals need to be thoroughly reworked. At the same time, the economic framework, within which agriculture takes place needs to be improved to allow farmers to help themselves. Finally, we must work towards the policy objectives of the community in a stable and predictable manner.

Delivering Australian policy on landcare

NFF considers that the taxation system, despite its complex and cumbersome nature, provides the most suitable way of spreading the costs of land care in an equitable manner. NFF has proposed to Government that existing taxation incentives for conserving soil and water resources should be extended to developing or conserving timber and other vegetation.

Incentives arc very important to help bridge the gap between acceptance of the need to undertake new approaches to farming and the implementation of those initiatives which require considerable outlay. Incentives have to apply to and be available for the largest number of farmers and the broadest coverage of land. It is important for taxation incentives to be available to landholders who face the toughest choices about the allocation of scarce farm resources. NFF has sought a continuation of the 100 per cent level of tax deductions for an increased range of expenditures that are required for land care activities plus a separate, optional 40 per cent tax rebate or credits for those in particularly low income circumstances.

The majority of members of the recent Commonwealth Working Group on Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) in agriculture has recommended that taxation assistance be extended to water management, conversion equipment for minimum tillage and revegetation related to land care activities and that the effectiveness of such provisions be evaluated after five years (2).

Managing information

Supply of information is particularly important for supporting sustainable and profitable farming. It is clear that Landcare groups need much more information on farm planning, from improved liaison with other groups, co-ordination of catchment activities and advice on dealing with Governments at all levels. Today, geographic isolation should not delay the flow of information. Farmer idea exchange programs of the USA may provide a worthwhile model.

There is a common interest in improving communication between agriculture and the scientific community. Our futures and theirs are interlinked and we both want to see a strong, vibrant land sector and a healthy farm landscape. We must both increase our participation in the debate in ESD to ensure that it is driven by facts and logical argument and less by emotion and wishful thinking.

The Landcare and ESD debate lacks a mechanism for obtaining information on marketing and economics. NFF is planning to establish a National Agricultural Marketing Centre (NAMC) to ensure a two way flow of information on:

  • economic and business data from the bush to ensure that Government and industry policy makers are better informed on current issues;
  • marketing and other information to the bush to asist farm decision making on planting, livestock activity and other areas that affect farm business. Our statutory marketing authorities (SMAs) provide excellent channels for the flow of information between processors and growers. Together SMAs and R&D Corporations provide a sound base for enhancing the efficiency of both production and processing.


Australia's agriculture is export-based and the industry's future depends on trade reform. New trading patterns will emerge and their potential for agricultural products is considerable, especially in the Asian region. Sustainable development will continue to depend on economic returns being conducive to investment in the farm asset. However, the maintenance of our national agricultural resource is a common good and the community should bear an equitable share of its cost. Farmers have the culture of sustainable management but some incentive is necessary and taxation concessions for resource enhancement provide the best mechanism. It is important to present the history of Australia's farming and the analysis of causes of resource decline in an objective way in order to encourage an informed public debate on sustainable agriculture and to assist in the formulating of a sound national policy. Agronomists can make important contributions in these areas. Research skill has a great deal to contribute to understanding of the nature of sustainable land use for agriculture. Farmers will continue to support holistic research along with the development of new technology that promotes sustainable development which is environmentally responsible in an Australian context.

The Landcare program acts as a catalyst for sustainable agriculture. Farmers strive constantly to understand the sustainable limits of their land and the relationships between environmental and biological forces that underlie those limits. Accordingly they look to science for help in that process. To his critics, the farmer would say, 'Don't tell me that I am making mistakes in looking after my land, show me what is right without leaving valuable land lie idle or seriously under-utilised'.

Farmers, like most people, want the answers, not the problems.


Grontmij, N.V. 1991. In: Towards Sustainable Agricultural Development (Ed M.D. Young) (Belhaven Press: London and New York). pp. 147-172.

Green, R. 1991. Ecologically Sustainable Development Working Groups, Final Report -Agriculture. (Australian Government Publishing Service: Canberra). pp. 166-167.

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