Unleash water to boost growth
For the first time in 50 years, Asian income growth means Australian farmers are facing long-term demand for their products. Unfortunately, the government's national food plan green paper, issued last month, was largely framed by the threat of reduced rainfall and increased salinity. The green paper addresses water usage as a problem, not an opportunity, emphasising "producing more with less water and a lower carbon footprint".
Although Australia is mostly semi-desert, rainfall per capita is, after Iceland and Russia, the third highest in the world.
About half a million gigalitres of our annual rainfall is largely unused and flows into the sea from northern rivers. Yet only about 22,000 gigalitres, of which less than half is used for irrigation, flow through the Murray Darling. So 28 per cent of the value of Australian agricultural output is derived from the half a per cent of the continent's land that is irrigated.
If only a fraction of these northern rivers were harnessed for irrigation, we could double our $50 billion a year of agricultural production.
Dams for irrigation (and power generation) have, however, been demonised for three decades. The Labor Party developed its green credentials on the strength of the proposed Tasmanian Franklin dam which it vetoed in 1982. This campaign also marked the birth of the Greens.
Further impetus to curtail agriculture was maintained with publications of the "Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists", largely comprising government and World Wildlife Fund activists. Its 2002 signature work, Blueprint for a Living Continent claimed that: dryland salinity was rising and could affect 22 per cent of cultivated land, and that the sustainability of our agriculture was under threat. and salt was destroying our rivers and land like a cancer.
The green paper addresses salinity and land degradation, though its alarmism is more restrained. But in fact Australian land, notwithstanding regulatory restraints on usage and clearing, has steadily allowed increased production of agricultural goods. Salinised farmland is confined to only 0.2 per cent of nation's land area and that is overwhelmingly in Western Australia in areas that in recent geological time were under the sea.
Alarm over salinity and land degradation has instigated successive layers of environmentally inspired regulatory restraint on farming activities.
Perhaps the most damaging of these was the Queensland and commonwealth governments' embargo on development based on the state's northern rivers. The commonwealth's national food plan contains no indication of a policy re-think. Campbell Newman's government has however started to unpick the prohibition on using the available water in Australia's north to expand agriculture, offering scope for national benefits as well as opportunities for many Aboriginal communities to become involved in productive activities.
A willingness to sacrifice agricultural productivity is also evident in the commonwealth's on-going push to reduce available irrigation water in the Murray Darling by 20 per cent. That measure gained impetus from the recent drought which reinforced hype about permanently reduced rainfall caused by global warming.
The uncertainty it has introduced continues to hamper forward planning of new agricultural developments.
To access the opportunities for agricultural growth requires a roll-back of the anti-development tide that has quarantined much of northern Australia from adopting productive agriculture and which is constraining output in the Murray Darling. Water is the key to agricultural expansion. The Coalition is signalling a major change in support of agricultural expansion by making greater use of the northern rivers. Unfortunately, the Government's National Food Plan is mired within its climate change agenda.
Moreover, as the Indonesian beef imbroglio demonstrated, Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig is over-attuned to vociferous media-driven opinion.