Northern Agricultural Dream Would Turn Into An Expensive Nightmare

LYNDON SCHNEIDERS From: The Australian April 17, 2013 THE rapidly growing Asian middle class provides the Australian agricultural sector with an opportunity for new markets, but these opportunities will be illusionary unless we get smart about how to improve the sustainability and productivity of Australian agriculture. The existing agricultural sector is in decline and in need of a massive dose of investment and innovation. This should be the real priority in the race to revive the sector and build new, lucrative markets. Yet once again too many otherwise intelligent people are talking up the prospects of throwing billions of public and private dollars into the money trap that is the northern Australia food-bowl mirage. This will be a mistake of epic proportions and will mean the ongoing neglect of the existing industry. Over the past decade the Australian government has committed $10 billion to return our existing food bowl, the Murray-Darling system, to economic and ecological sustainability. The key to the success of this approach, now enshrined in the Basin Plan, is to use water more effectively and competitively to deliver the highest-yielding and most sustainable products. The scope for improvement is enormous, with a 2008 CSIRO report estimating that up to half of the water used in irrigated farming may be lost from inefficiencies in irrigation systems, on-farm distribution channels and over-watering. The latest Murray-Darling plan may address some of these problems, but there is still much to do. A recent ANZ report said that Australia needed to invest $1 trillion in our existing agricultural sector if we wanted to make the gains in productivity we need to capitalise on Asian markets, $600bn in investment and a further $400bn to support farm turnover, as ageing farmers make way for the next generation, and smaller farms are consolidated for possible sale to foreign interests. Even then this investment may reap as little as $390bn, but as much as $1.7 trillion. These are big figures for possibly questionable returns, so we need to be smart. Agricultural productivity has stagnated in the past decade as farmers have battled drought, ever-mounting debt and a lack of capitalisation in supply chains and infrastructure, especially in relation to our rundown rail networks and port bottlenecks. Fixing our existing food bowls may not be as sexy as jumping in the covered wagon and heading north, but it would be foolhardy of any government to shift its focus to grandiose visions that so far have been monumentally expensive failures. Yet both sides of politics seem once again obsessed by the northern myth. Northern Australia will never be the food bowl of the world, Asia or even Australia. The federal government’s Northern Land and Water Taskforce found that only 60,000ha was suitable for irrigated agriculture — less than the size of some individual farms in Australia. All large-scale irrigation projects in northern Australia have been expensive failures, including Humpty Doo in the Northern Territory and Camballin and the Ord in Western Australia. The Ord scheme was probably the best located. The poster boy for the northern food bowl, the Ord has had more than $1.3bn ploughed into it, yet all attempts at large-scale cropping have failed, including rice, sugar and cotton. The most recent rice crop, hailed far and wide in the late 2000s as the rebirth of the Ord scheme, was destroyed by rice blast, a fungus never found before in Australia and which now threatens every rice crop across the country. Apparently Chinese investment is now going to save the Ord. A few years earlier it was South Korea’s biggest food company, before that the Americans and so the story goes on and on. The cargo cult has a name and that is the northern food bowl. Almost half the Ord is planted with sandalwood for incense and perfume — hardly useful for feeding Asia. Camballin on the Western Australia’s Fitzroy River had 30 years of government and private funding pumped into it, yet its 23,000ha was eventually washed away in floods in 1983, leaving nothing. We shouldn’t attempt to dam any more rivers in northern Australia when we have already had such spectacular failures. Northern Australia has some of the last pristine rivers on the planet and they need to be treasured. The freshwater flowing into northern Australia’s estuaries is critical for biodiversity as well as a commercial fishery worth $232 million. That’s almost four times the economic output of the Ord and there is potential for growth. Why squander such opportunities with high-risk, unproven development models? The Coalition has suggested building 100 dams at a cost of $30bn, yet how realistic is this when the Ord has now cost $1.3bn? Even so, all mega projects in Australia are running late and over budget because of labour shortages and wages. Chevron’s Gorgon gas project blew out by 40 per cent from $37bn to $52bn. Where is this money going to come from when governments are scrambling to find $7bn to finish the long-promised duplication of the Pacific Highway or find $10bn for the West Connex project that may not even reach the Sydney CBD or Port Botany? Businesses are increasingly wary of public-private partnerships. Over the past 25 years $8bn of investment in PPP has gone belly up, including spectacular failures such as Airport Connections in Brisbane. Where would the investment come from for projects in the most remote parts of our country with a proven track record of failure when infrastructure projects in cities of four million people struggle to succeed? The Australian people and our economy deserve better than pie-in-the-sky stuff. We need fiscally responsible development in our proven food bowls if we are going to take part in the Asian century. Fix what we have, don’t bugger up any more. Lyndon Schneiders is national director of the Wilderness Society.

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