Australian farming is in crisis. Multinational corporations are buying up prime food-producing land, just as free trade treaties come into play that will allow them to sue governments that affect their profits by attempting to regulate their use of that land. This is a massive threat to Australia’s family farmers’ ability to continue to produce sustainable clean, green food to feed our population and export globally. Both foreign and domestic corporate interests are buying up our best agricultural land by whatever dirty trick they can manage, so they can directly export our best produce for premium overseas prices, leaving cheap and toxic imports for domestic consumption. This process of expropriating family farmers for corporate agribusiness takeovers is being carried out as a multi-pronged corporate attack by banks, corporate raiders, mining companies and by the supermarket duopoly of Coles and Woolworths, which keeps prices cheap for consumers by contracting producers at prices too low to make a profit or sometimes even to cover costs.
Australia’s major grain competitor tried to buy all our East Coast grain handling infrastructure, including ports, with the enthusiastic support of the ALP. Corporate raiders like Gina Reinhart and Gerry Harvey have bought dairy farms at bargain prices, and are now switching to factory farming dairy cows and have the funds to build processing plants that can process and export the dairy products directly to the expanding middle classes of Asia. Reinhart has now bought the Kidman beef cattle empire, in partnership with a Chinese company. Once bought, there is nothing to stop these corporations from establishing the industrial agriculture that has destroyed American farmland and small farmers. Our farmers who manage to cling to their farms are increasingly crushed, by lack of alternatives to corporate supermarket contracts, into powerless managers contracted to fill quotas of specified seed and chemicals at whatever cost to themselves and their land.
At the same time there is increasing speculation in water rights. Farming cannot survive without clean water. The most reliable source of water is artesian, which the mining industry can access unregulated and pollute at will. The Adani and Shenhua coal mines will waste and poison the Great Artesian Basin, and fracking and unconventional gas production threatens aquifers and catchments across the whole of Australia. Meanwhile banks are foreclosing on drought-struck farmers so they can sell the still-viable farms to corporations, both domestic and foreign. At a time when increasing climate catastrophes are hitting, farmers increasingly can’t afford insurance, and the banks don’t offer affordable loans to rebuild. Some lenders were devaluing properties across the QLD drought-affected region by up to 30%, forcing graziers to pay higher interest rates because the loans were now considered higher risk.
Farmers cannot win this battle against the corporations without allies. Australia is one of the most urbanised countries on earth. Eighty-nine per cent of Australians live in urban areas. We have some of the cleanest, most regulated food production in the world.
If you want to protect that quality, it is time to step up to support and protect our farmers and our water.
There is considerable alienation of urban and rural Australia. The ABC’s traditional rural radio coverage has been slashed, and there is little overlap of urban and rural newspapers. This lack of understanding is disastrous. Too many of the 89% of Australians who live in urban areas believe that farmers are the sole cause of land clearing. They are unaware that the Queensland Statewide Land Cover and Tree Study for 2012-2014 shows tree coverage in the state has actually increased by 437,000 hectares over the three years, despite the clearing of 300,000hectares in the same period, most of which was done as regrowth control on previously cleared ground for fire and grassland management. Much of the rest of the clearing was in the 80% of the state which was drought declared, where there was reliance for livestock fodder on resilient acacia and mulga which regrow vigorously after rain.
Urban Australians do not see the impact of the concrete and lawn sprawl of suburbia and development covering the best farmland in Australia like a creeping disease. It is a terrible fact that retiring farmers have little choice if they want a decent price to retire on but to sell their land to developers to subdivide, or to foreign or domestic corporations. We really need a Land Trust sponsored by the government to buy fertile farmland at a decent price, so farmers can retire in comfort, and keep it reserved for farming use by young farmers and cooperatives, to supply the present and future domestic food needs of Australia. If cities and towns need to expand, then they should spread up or down, not outwards like giant cancers.
Farmers are disillusioned with all the major parties. None are tackling the big issues. And Greens and Socialist lack of understanding of rural issues does nothing to break down old antagonisms and prejudices. Dozens of new rural parties are being created, and the rise in support for One Nation (which has a good anti-CSG policy) is one result. However even if every rural voter voted for just one single one of those parties, with only 11% of Australians being rural they could never form a government. What is needed is a manifesto of constructive solutions that can be taken to every candidate, urban or rural, whether independent or in a party, to get a commitment of support for those policies, ideally with an accountability clause to allow a recall vote by constituents if politicians break their commitments.
Farmer are environmentalists. Unlike corporations, they farm for the long term, for their children, not for the quick buck. Farmers and agricultural businesses — according to the latest ABS figures (2009-2010) — manage 52% of the Australian environment. If they don’t manage it sustainably they go broke very fast. They are on call 24/7, generally have to rescue themselves in disasters, and may sometimes make a profit but seldom make a wage. It costs a lot more to live in the bush because everything is so far away, and internet, phone and school services urban people take for granted are not available. Health services are far away.
There are approximately 134,000 farm businesses in Australia, 99% of which are family owned and operated, and as of 2010-11 they employ only 307,000 people to manage 417.3 million hectares of land, including the 46.3% of Australia that is marginal land. Marginal land is where poor quality vegetation and bushfire fuel is converted by free-ranging livestock into high quality human-edible protein.
A 2013-2014 White Paper showed that agriculture contributed $51 billion (2% of GDP) and accounted for 15% of our merchandise exports. More than half the continent is under agriculture. Yet the value of agricultural operations 2011 Bureau of Statistics study shows 40% of Australian farms earn below $50,000 per annum. In a recent survey of 93 family farms, 48% were living on additional wages drawn from outside of the farm, 12% had ceased operation due to low farm-gate prices, and 35% were considering leaving the farming industry for the same reason. Increasing climate change disasters just add the last straw. We need state-owned rural banks that provide long-term low interest loans for general rural production, supporting sustainable farm practices and water infrastructure. We also need state-owned rural insurance programs to enable farmers and rural communities to survive the increasingly severe and frequent climate events without crippling insurance premiums.
Every part of Australian agriculture is under relentless attack. Big Ag is moving in, and this is the real threat to animal welfare. Humane family farmers are being replaced by toxic factory farming.
The standard market solution is to bring down farmers’ costs. Farmers have little control over input prices and output prices. With a high Aussie dollar from the mining boom, exports were dear and imports were cheap. The government pushed farmers to get big or get out, to go into debt to expand, to buy more land, more machinery, more inputs to supposedly make more profits, to use herbicides and pesticides instead of labourers. Now we have a perfect storm of farm debt of more than $68 billion (as of 2011), increasing climate disasters, and corporations keen to move in and bring in high-input American Big Ag GM crops and methods like spraying glyphosate on grain prior to harvest, to speed up the harvest. Industrial agriculture makes bigger profits by “externalising” the costs of the degradation of soil structure and water quality and the toxins that accumulate and pollute our environment and our food, so that these real production costs are not included in the price. If we don’t want to use those unsustainable methods to “bring down farmers costs”, we need alternative policies to reduce those costs.
1. Protect clean water. Enforce Section 100 of the Australian Constitution and protect sustainable farm and environmental use of water. Prosecute and ban the operations of mining and agribusiness corporations that pollute water, the banks that fund their operations, and the politicians who allow them to continue to do so. Charge full remediation costs for total damage, past and present, by industries, not “make-good” bandaids.
2. Focus support on small farmers rather than corporate agribusiness. Target to replace emissions-intensive high-input industrial agriculture with small-scale sustainable agriculture. Keep clean healthy food cheap for consumers and increase farm gate returns for farmers, while protecting producers and consumers from cheap and toxic factory-farmed imports and supermarket price-fixing.
This can be done two ways:
a. Ban speculation on water, farmland, and agricultural and food prices. Limit the power of corporate supermarket retailers and control middleman profit margins and encourage alternatives;
b. Make farm labour affordable by establishing a Land Army. A mobile farm labour force with the federal government paying award wages, all transport and all insurance costs.
3. Build alternatives to the supermarkets:
a. Farmer-owned rural cooperatives. Encourage their establishment in areas such as purchasing inputs, food processing, and marketing produce. These bodies have an impressive history in rural Australia. Farmers markets, direct-farm ordering and ethical internet farmer/consumer links would allow producers to receive more than 80% of the price of produce compared to the 15%-25% that most supermarkets offer.
b. A national milk pool to establish a floor price. All milk would be sold through the pool and processors would bid for milk with a fair minimum price. It would be based on a 100% farmer-owned cooperative where each supplier only has one share and one vote.
c. Government and superannuation-fund investment in food processing and infrastructure upgrades. This would be for national food security, instead of encouraging sell-offs of farms, food processing, ports and railways to multinational corporations who are major competitors to our farming industries. Bring down the cost of freight and revitalise our rural communities by re-nationalising and expanding the railways and building a national high-speed rail network. Put the priority back on moving agricultural products by rail rather than mining products. Bring back night trains for moving livestock.
Keep the WA freight lines open for farming not mining, and minimise the trucks on our country roads. Protect the truckies that are the key link between farms and rail networks and end-point freight delivery.
4. Establish an agricultural wages board to ensure fair pay, fair working hours and safe conditions for farm employees and truckies;
5. Block agribusiness profiteering from farmers and trashing our environment for profit:
a. Ban all patents on plant and animal genetics;
b. Place a moratorium on the planting of GM crops until it can be proved they will not cross-pollinate or contaminate adjacent farms,
c. Ban the use of bee-killing neonicotinoid pesticides and amphibian-killing glyphosate/RoundUp. Label all domestic and imported produce with all pesticide and all GM content, including feed fed to meat components of product content;
d. Invest in farmer-led research into holistic solutions and integrated pest management rather than on corporate research on profitable new inputs to sell to farmers. Keep responsible research in public hands, freely accessible by all. Stop corporatising the CSIRO and re-fund pure research into solving global problems;
e. Abolish the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and their forcing of industrial farming on small farmers. Defend the right of every country to food security and food policy control (food sovereignty). No signing of free trade agreements that put our quarantine protections and clean food production at risk. Ban Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provisions, which allow multinational corporations to sue the Australian government in secret courts if our laws affect their future profits. Ensure all businesses pay at least the small business tax rate on all operations within Australia and end public subsidies to corporate operations.
f. Stop all fracking, oil sand extraction, coal and uranium mining and any mining that leaves toxic poison in our water, soils and air.
g. Protect wilderness from toxic development.
6. Improve environmental and animal welfare standards of farming by subsidising costs of transition to agroecology instead of agrochemicals.
Encourage respect for nature and natural resources and protection of biodiversity. Adopt the 5 Freedoms and stop factory farming of livestock, and instead integrate them into traditional methods of crop rotation, land preparation, fertilising and pest control, and recycling crop residues and clean farm wastes. Use livestock to manage marginal country and weeds. Encourage establishment of wildlife corridors, both urban and rural, to link wildlife communities. Stop feeding grain to fatten cattle and sheep, and ban use of cereals for biofuel production. Instead subsidise the costs of processing environmental weeds into biofuels.
7. Integrate livestock, wild and feral animals into sustainable grasslands and marginal country management, wildfire hazard reduction and carbon storage.
Encourage farmers to increase productivity by allowing co-grazing of native wildlife and certain feral animals like brumbies and donkeys in controlled areas, by enabling farmers to harvest them to manage and protect the land in times of drought or to control animal population growth beyond the ability of the land to sustain without damage. Introduced feral animals, particularly cats, are driving native animals and plants into extinction. The cost of controlling any of these animal species on its own is prohibitive. Subsidise the establishment and marketing of a feral animal products industry that will cover the costs of a total feral animal control program nation-wide, and provide farmers with supplementary income.
a. More regional abattoirs.
b. Mobile abattoirs.
c. Bone grinders on trucks to produce fertiliser.
d. Turning entrails into sterile maggot meal to replace using unsustainable fish meal as animal feed.
e. Converting hides and fur to leather and felt, and fat to tallow.
f. Changing legislation to allow regulated and humane home kill sales.
g. A campaign to win public support.
8. Protect catchments and waterways. Rivers are the lifeblood of our country. Research also shows that the best way to help freshwater species is to restore rivers. This requires subsidised fencing-out of livestock from riparian zones and building water troughs away from fragile water sources; and subsidising feral animal control, stabilising river banks, removing weeds, replanting native vegetation and expanding floodplain areas.
Landholders also need assistance to transition to low-input agroecological farm and land management. We can make it cheaper to protect freshwater wildlife by including farm and land management, subsidising cell fencing to assist in rotating pasture; reducing erosion through smart burning practices; and replacing microbiota-destructive pesticide, herbicide and nitrate fertiliser use with integrated pest management and livestock manures.
9 Create a Land Trust as a land access scheme for Australian new entrants and a retirement plan where old farmers can sell their land for a fair price and have it kept for Australian-owned farming, not mined or developed.
10. Establish a Rural Bank to supply low-interest long-term loans to sustainable farmers and new entrants, and a cheap farm insurance scheme to re-establish food production after climate disasters;
11. Institute democratic community agricultural policy formation systems in rural communities and local government.
12. Full human rights for rural people, including rights to food, water, employment, housing, education, healthcare, communication, rest and culture. Limit maximum private dam sizes rather than charging for rainwater stored in farm dams for irrigation, and subsidise irrigation efficiency technology to limit water wastage. Restore basic services cut off from remote West Australian Aboriginal communities. Bring rural areas up to the same mobile phone coverage, internet speeds and lower costs as those accessed by urban Australians, to facilitate access to healthcare, education and government and business services. Restore ABC Radio National rural coverage including the weekday Bush Telegraph program and shortwave transmission for remote regions. Make an immediate and substantial increase in the Living Away from Home Allowance and Allowance for Isolated Children to enable equitable access to education for all Australians and to reduce pressure on rural Australian communities to relocate to urban areas.
Elena Garcia, Margaret Gleeson, and Dave Riley, Brisbane branch
Alan Broughton, member at large, Victoria