How to green Australia’s food system

This is an edited version of the Socialist Alliance’s agriculture policy adopted in May.

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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.

Any sustainable and justice-oriented agricultural practice needs to place Aboriginal self-determination, empowerment and participation as its framework.

Since the introduction of European land management and European plants and animals to Australia, compounded by a shift to industrial agriculture in the 1950s, with lessened diversity, monocropping, and the heavy use of oil, pesticides and herbicides, 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 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.

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. The overflow of toxic water from 50,000 abandoned mines is also poisoning our drinking and farming water. The mining industry is now pushing to pump toxic water from flooded operational mines into rivers and drinking water catchments.

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 must be reformed in order to save it, and the environment, from the catastrophic effects of current and past mismanagement.

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 a year.

However, the sector faces a significant undersupply of graduates. Australian universities have delivered fewer than 800 graduates a year in agriculture.

The mining boom has also drained away rural workers, leaving farms struggling to continue and forcing them to get deeper in debt to mechanise. The Australian Bureau of Statistics says the average farmer is a grazier aged 55 working an average of 49 hours a week.

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 campaign to:

• 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 to ensure that farm employees, including casuals, receive comparable pay and conditions to other workers.

• Establish a permanent pool of farm labourers employed under appropriate public sector wages and conditions, 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.

• Increase Landcare funding assistance for farmers to cover the costs of environmental stewardship to keep water catchments healthy and to increase the sustainability of local farms and farming communities.

• 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.

• 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 to recycle appropriate city wastes into meat, eggs and fertiliser, and improving food quality and reducing emissions from unnecessary transport.

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 more than 1 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, whether by regulated prices or direct subsidies, 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. 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% of Australia's daily domestic food supply and export 60% (in volume) of total agricultural production.

But their markets and continued viability are threatened by imported food produced unsustainably at artificially low 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 campaign to:

• 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”.

• The two supermarket giants, Coles and Woolworths should be nationalised and farmers guaranteed a fair price for their produce. This will not happen if they remain as private corporations.

Agriculture and Climate Change

There are serious predictions that climate change will cause a 4C rise in global average temperatures, over historical levels, as soon as 2060.

These impacts would include reduced average rainfall, and much less predictable rainfall, along with dramatically increased evaporation rates. Together, these effects would make most rain-fed agriculture in inland Australia impossible, along with a lot of pastoralism.

Average runoff to streams would decline by as much as 15% per degree increase, turning the Murray-Darling river system into strings of waterholes most of the time — except during occasional periods of catastrophic flood.

Agriculture accounts for about 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 minimised. To 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.

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.

The Socialist Alliance will campaign to:

• End the unsustainable, inhumane and environmentally destructive system of factory farming, and re-integrate livestock into rotational cropping and pasture rotation. 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, holistic grazing, 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.

• Stop the urbanisation of prime rural land around cities. Permit land clearing of previously uncleared land only in exceptional circumstances and only when offset by the reforestation of equal areas of similar native vegetation.

• 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 [riverside] zones.

• Supplement and eventually replace live animal exports for meat production with Australian frozen processed meat exports.

• Set up a national farmer insurance scheme to provide affordable insurance to keep sustainable farms going after climate disasters.

From GLW issue 968

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