Redraft of Agriculture Policy

Redraft of Agriculture Policy

The following redraft includes in bold new additions to existing policy. 

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The problem

Farmers and agricultural businesses, according to the latest ABS figures (2009-2010), manage 52% of the Australian environment.[1] There are approximately 134,000 farm businesses in Australia, 99 percent 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[2], including the 46.3% of Australia that is marginal land[3].

Since the introduction of European land management and European plants and animals in Australia, compounded by a shift to industrial agriculture in the 1950s, the quality of Australia's soils has dropped dramatically. Inappropriate agricultural practices and methods and massive feral plant and animal infestations have led to ongoing riparian erosion, soil loss, salinity and soil structure collapse across the country, threatening the viability of many rural communities, and endangering Australia's future food security. Although 70 percent of arable farmers have now adopted both direct drilling and minimum tillage practices[4], 12 percent of businesses use animal manure as fertiliser, and 19 million hectares of farmland nationally was prepared using zero-till methods in 2009-10, [1] past mismanagement has left huge damage to our environment.

In many areas, irrigation water is dangerously over-allocated, frequently wasteful and used on inappropriate crops, and is becoming more and more scarce, threatening the viability of agriculture in many parts of Australia. Access to water has been turned into a tradeable commodity, allowing speculative trading in “water rights” that has led to over-allocation, severe financial pressure on family farms, and serious damage to ecosystems as vital ground water and river systems are depleted.

The rise of the coal seam gas industry and its massive water use and toxic threat to groundwater and water catchments now threatens the future of our entire agricultural industry.

At the same time, agricultural profits have increasingly gone to non-productive commercial sectors. In 1900, 40% of the food dollar went to farmers; now it is less than 15%, as farmers are forced to receive lower and lower prices under threat of cheap imports and supermarket price-fixing. Farm workers, many of them casual labourers, are amongst the worst paid and suffer some of the worst working conditions of Australian workers, and unemployment and poverty in rural Australia continue to rise. As a result, the average farming age has risen to 55[1] and continues to rise, because young people are put off by the economic and environmental challenges of farming, and because land speculation by developers and the pressure to increase production has made the price to buy a farm skyrocket while returns drop.

Australian agriculture is also threatened in the most fundamental way by climate change. The present global trend of greenhouse emissions will, if continued, make most agricultural production in this country impossible by the final decades of the century. Although agricultural emissions dropped by 40% between 1990 and 2006[5], emissions from the rural sector are still the second-largest element in Australia's greenhouse accounting. Pressure to increase production levels is pushing farmers down America's unsustainable path of industrial agriculture and factory farming. Industrial agriculture increases monoculture farming and the nitrous oxide emissions from synthetic nitrogen fertilisers. Factory farming of livestock involves toxic pollution of air, soil and water, increased net enteric methane emissions from cattle and sheep, and not only wasting grain on but poisoning and torturing an increasing proportion of our livestock meat supply.

The Socialist Alliance believes that the long-term sustainability of agriculture is an essential component of the well-being of Australia's economy, society and environment, and major reform must be subsidised in order to save it, and the environment, from the catastrophic effects of current and past mismanagement.

Sustainable Agriculture

The term “sustainable agriculture” is profoundly misused by governments and corporate agribusiness, while current agricultural research and education is overwhelmingly geared, not to developing truly sustainable agriculture, but to increasing farm outputs and corporate profits at the expense of the environment and farming communities.

The drive to increase farm outputs is pushing Australian agriculture towards the US industrial agriculture system and its catastrophic impact on the environment and small farmers. The 20th-century industrialisation of agriculture and factory farming of livestock is totally unsustainable and a direct threat to our environment. It "has increased the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by the food system by an order of magnitude; chemical fertilizers (made from natural gas), pesticides (made from petroleum), farm machinery, modern food processing and packaging and transportation have together transformed a system that in 1940 produced 2.3 calories of food energy for every calorie of fossil-fuel energy it used into one that now takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce a single calorie of modern supermarket food. When we eat from the industrial-food system, we are eating oil and spewing greenhouse gases."[6]

"To take animals off farms and put them on feedlots is to take an elegant solution -- animals replenishing the fertility that crops deplete -- and neatly divide it into two problems: a fertility problem on the farm and a pollution problem on the feedlot. The former problem is remedied with greenhouse-intense fossil-fuel fertilizer; the latter is remedied not at all"[7] and is a toxic source of air, water and soil pollution. “And while animals living on farms will still emit their share of greenhouse gases, grazing them on grass and returning their waste to the soil will substantially offset their carbon hoof prints, as will getting ruminant animals off grain... [6]" and onto pasture and crop wastes.

The sustainable agriculture that the Socialist Alliance stands for means farming based on natural processes, requiring the development of well functioning agro-ecosystems both above and below ground, providing cheap nutritious food for people's needs while causing no degradation to the natural environment, and adequate income and working conditions for farmers and farm workers.

The Socialist Alliance will:

  • Phase out corporate agribusiness farming, particularly in the Murray-Darling basin, and regulate for sustainable water use in irrigation, including changing land-use practices and water efficiency practices in line with long-term water sustainability.
  • Review the allocation of free irrigation water licences to wool, lamb and beef farming enterprises, and review irrigated rice and cotton growing licences.
  • Reverse the process of water privatisation and put all water allocations under public control.
  • Stop the Coal Seam Gas Industry. Clean water is our greatest natural resource and its protection must be our first priority. Industries that pollute our catchments and groundwater must be stopped immediately. The Coal Seam Gas industry will destroy the agricultural industry, along with the rural communities that depend on agriculture. Socialist Alliance actively supports the Lock The Gate campaign, which is uniting city and rural workers against CSG to protect Australia's food industries and the water resources that they depend on.
  • Reduce reliance on synthetic pesticides and fertilisers by harnessing biological capture of carbon and nitrogen, by re-integrating livestock into crop rotation, and by reprocessing urban waste and water, including sewage, into organic fertilisers.
  • Encourage pest and disease minimisation by reliance on factors such as enhanced natural immune systems of plants, integrated management and related ecological principles and by ending monoculture and factory farming. Eliminate the use of antibiotics as a standard part of stock feed to prevent livestock sickening in inhumane and overcrowded factory-farming conditions.
  • Encourage mulching, composting, carbon sequestration in pasture, animal manure fertiliser, crop rotation, direct-drilling crops into pasture, and no-till and reduced-tillage farming through development grants and incentives.
  • Ensure effective management and removal of invasive feral plant and animal species by subsidising equipment, infrastructure and labour to control them, and by subsidising the establishment of a national feral animal meat harvest.
  • Prevent use of genetically modified organisms until exhaustive, independent, testing can definitively prove they do not have potential to cause harm to people, livestock or the environment, and introduce strict laws and fines against contamination.
  • Increase and maintain crop diversity and ban the patenting of seeds.
  • Extend public funding of agricultural research and education to ensure the further development of sustainable agriculture, particularly the development of perennial grain, legume and oilseed crops.

Sustainable farming Communities

Unsustainable farming practices, environmental degradation, economic pressures from the artificially low farm-gate price of food and the labour drain to the mining industry, and the effects of drought and climate change are seriously threatening the viability of our rural and agricultural communities.

Agriculture is a knowledge intensive sector, with a strong demand for skilled professionals. Estimates indicate a potential demand for 6000 tertiary qualified graduates per year. However, the sector faces a significant undersupply of graduates, with Australian universities graduating fewer than 800 graduates per year in agriculture[8]. The mining boom has also drained away rural workers, leaving farms struggling to continue and forced to get deeper in debt to mechanise to get the work done. ABS statistics show the average farmer is a grazier aged 55 working an average of 49 hours a week [9].

The Socialist Alliance believes that most existing farming communities can be made economically and socially viable again, but only through a drastic overhaul of the agricultural sector and its practices. We will consult and work alongside communities in finding solutions to the problems they face, encouraging public participation in both creating and implementing specific measures needed.

The Socialist Alliance will:

  • Provide funding, resources and training to farming communities, in combination with sustainable agriculture organisations, to make the transition to sustainable agriculture.
  • Rewrite farm employees' industrial awards and subsidise farm labour costs to ensure that both farmers and farm employees, including casuals, receive comparable pay and conditions to other workers.
  • Establish a “Land Army” of farm labourers paid award wages by the federal government, to meet the increased labour needs of switching from industrial agriculture to organic farming.
  • Prevent the forced sale of indebted farms and provide alternative funding on the basis of ongoing agricultural viability. Guarantee a fair land price for farmers leaving the industry, and subsidise the entry of young farmers into the industry, setting up a national farm land bank if necessary to hold rural land in trust for farming purposes.
  • Encourage national agricultural self-sufficiency, minimising the need for food imports and strengthening the Australian farming sector.
  • Encourage farming cooperatives, local farmers markets, and state or cooperative marketing authorities, to ensure all farmers receive a fair price from processors and retailers. Subsidise the establishment of cooperative-owned processing, and nationalise closed processing facilities and abattoirs under local cooperative control.
  • Increase Landcare funding assistance for farmers to subsidise the costs of environmental stewardship to keep our water catchments healthy and to increase the sustainability of local farms and farming communities.
  • Encourage food processing and trading practices that reduce transport, packaging and waste, including processing in productive regions and establishing mobile processing units for remote areas to minimise transportation costs. Encourage and subsidise the production of alternative stock feeds to grain, such as antibiotic-free ethanol wastes, and high-protein maggot meal from abattoir waste-blood-and-guts to replace the unsustainable one third of the global fish catch presently turned into dehydrated high-protein fish meal for pigs, poultry and fish farms [10].
  • Re-open regional abattoirs and get livestock off trucks and back onto railways. Re-open and extend rail services to transport agricultural products and supply rural towns. Re-nationalise privatised railway and port facilities and prioritise agricultural not mining shipments.
  • Support the research, development and production of farm machinery, chemicals, biological products and selectively bred plant varieties that support better, safer and more affordable farming practices.
  • Increase research and development of more efficient agricultural water use practices. Subsidise water conservation measures such as covering open water channels and replacing overhead irrigation with underground irrigation to reduce evaporation.
  • Increase and redirect agricultural research into improving the sustainability of agricultural ecosystems and regions.
  • Stop the use of prime agricultural land for urban development or mining.
  • Encourage the creation of urban and peri-urban “city farms”, community and “permaculture” gardens to maximise the proportion of food produced in cities and large towns, integrating livestock like poultry, pigs, goats and guinea pigs into recycling appropriate city wastes into meat, eggs and fertiliser, and improving food quality and reducing emissions from unnecessary transport.
  • Increase the scope of agricultural education, including at a primary and secondary school level, and establish comprehensive fully-funded scholarships in agricultural professions.
  • Amend and simplify health regulations to allow food wastes to be hygienically recycled by omnivorous livestock and surplus home-garden food products to be sold or bartered legally.

Food security-at home and abroad

There are few things more important than maintaining a secure and reliable supply of healthy food. In a world where over a billion people are starving, the deliberate destruction of food crops is criminal. Food should be produced and distributed to satisfy need, not to make profits. Farmers should receive a living wage to supply healthy nutritious food, rather than be pushed to unsustainable shortcuts in order to make ends meet. If necessary, farmers should receive price subsidies to keep nutritious food cheap for people to buy. Farmers also need to be buffered from going broke from supermarket price-wars that drive prices below the costs of production.

Australian farmers produce almost 93 per cent of Australia's daily domestic food supply and export 60 per cent (in volume) of total agricultural production [11]. But their markets and continued viability are threatened by imported food produced unsustainably at artificially cheap prices by highly exploited workers. Australia should assist our neighbours in the region — especially in the developing world - by sharing our sustainable agricultural practices and surplus food in order to improve the well-being of humanity as a whole.

The Socialist Alliance will:

  • Expand on projects like Food Bank, redistributing “excess” food to meet social needs, preventing food wastage and ensuring public access to nutritional food sources.
  • Increase foreign aid aimed at developing self-sufficient sustainable food production practices in developing countries and seek to prevent “food dumping” both domestically and internationally.
  • Develop “fair trade” policies with like-minded countries and increase foreign food aid programs in order to help prevent starvation and malnutrition.
  • Guarantee a living wage and covered costs for Australian farmers who produce sustainably, to protect them from unsustainable supermarket “price-wars”.

Agriculture and climate change

Agriculture accounts for around 16% of Australia's greenhouse gas emissions, and current industrial agricultural practices — from fertilisers to food transport — consume huge quantities of fossil fuels. Land clearing and outdated forestry practices account for a further 6% of our greenhouse emissions. The higher temperatures and drier conditions from global warming are producing more intense bushfires and their carbon emissions, and land management becomes a careful balance between minimising fuel build-up and preventing overgrazing, particularly in forests and marginal country.

Preventing climate disaster will require that net emissions from the rural sector be minimisedTo do this, farmers will be subsidised to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through carbon sequestration in pastures, reforestation, including farm forestry, and improved farming practices. Methane recycling for power generation in dairies and piggeries etc will be subsidised.

Soil carbon levels need to be enhanced through encouragement of no-till and organic farming methods, including moving livestock out of factory farming into pasture and crop waste consumption. Switching from chemical fertilisers to animal manures will be encouraged.

46.3% of Australia is marginal country, much of it semi-deserts with natural vegetation. This land is used for cattle grazing and is too dry and infertile for conventional agricultural use[3]. Farmers must be subsidised to continue to sustainably manage this land to prevent its destruction by devastating bushfires and feral animal and plant infestations. Infrastructure to prevent overgrazing and to assist in feral animal harvest will be established and subsidised in the national interest to assist farmers to protect our soils and water catchments. Land which climate change renders too dry for cropping, must be returned to native vegetation or managed in an environmentally sustainable way for native pasture or tree farming.

The Socialist Alliance will:

  • End the unsustainable, inhumane and environmentally destructive system of factory farming, and re-integrate livestock into rotational cropping methods. This will improve stock management to minimise net methane emissions per head.
  • Encourage a shift from fossil-fuel based chemical pesticides and fertilisers to animal manures.
  • Encourage “Carbon farming”: increasing the amount of carbon locked in the soil and the ecosystem through methods such as carbon sequestration in pastures, permanent reafforestation and the use of sustainable farming practices such as composting.
  • Expand research on the production and use of biochar in order to increase crop yields, water retention, and plant nutrient availability, to enrich soil biota and to reduce reliance on synthetic fertilisers.
  • Prevent industrial biofuel or biochar production or broadscale carbon “offsetting” through unsustainable plantations that lock up prime farming land.
  • Permit land clearing only in exceptional circumstances and only when offset by the reforestation of equal areas of similar native vegetation. Stop the urbanisation of prime rural land around cities.
  • Promote the restoration and remediation of native vegetation and ecosystems, reducing the release of greenhouse gases and limiting serious soil degradation. Subsidise catchment management infrastructure to keep livestock and feral animals out of riparian zones.
  • Develop sustainable grazing practices and subsidise cell-grazing infrastructure, in order to improve soil stability and water availability.
  • Drastically cut the numbers of feral ruminants, especially camels, and subsidise the establishment of mobile abattoirs, refrigerated trucks and mobile blood-and-bone grinding equipment to enable the humane and hygienic harvest of feral animals for meat, hides, felt and fertiliser. Establish regional feral animal management plans run by regional councils and National Parks staff.
  • Encourage the establishment of rural industries to produce feral animal products and recycle wastes into organic fertiliser and maggot meal for fish and poultry food, and promote the consumption of feral animal meat by educating consumers and subsidising its production costs to keep it cheap.
  • Set up a national farmer insurance scheme to provide affordable insurance to keep sustainable farms going after climate disasters.

Footnotes.

1.Australian Bureau of Statistics: Land Management and Farming in Australia, 2009-10

2.Australian Bureau of Statistics, Labour Force, Australia, cat. no. 6291.0, Canberra.

3.Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_clearing_in_Australia

4.OECD (2008), Environmental Performance of Agriculture in OECD Countries Since 1990: Australia Country Section

5.Australian Government Department of Climate Change, National Inventory by Economic Sector 2006

6. Source: http://www.cornucopia.org/2008/10/farmer-in-chief/

7.Wendell Berry, source: http://www.cornucopia.org/2008/10/farmer-in-chief/

8.Australian Council of Deans of Agriculture, Pratley and Hay 2010, The job market in agriculture in Australia

9.Source: http://www.nff.org.au/read/3769/farmer-numbers-fall-productivity-grows.html

10. Source: http://www.abc.net.au/rural/news/content/201212/s3646656.htm

11.PMSEIC (2010). Australia and Food Security in a Changing World. The Prime Minister's Science, Engineering and Innovation Council, Canberra, Australia

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