In this article, Dr Peter Ridd contextualises and disseminates the findings of the IPA’s research into the Great Barrier Reef, conducted as part of the IPA’s Project for Real Science Program.
The Project for Real Science is an initiative of the Institute of Public Affairs to rebuild the integrity of scientific research in Australia.
Governments across Australia are forging ahead with their attacks on farmers, fishers and foresters, with the latest blow aimed against the Murray-Darling irrigators after the federal government recently passed legislation through the lower house cutting their water allocations.
The inevitable result of such legislation will be a fall in food and fibre production. In addition, the east coast Barramundi gillnet fishery is to be phased out by 2027, and two major agricultural dams in Queensland (Hells Gate and Urannah) have been shelved as a bribe to delay UNESCO declaring the Great Barrier Reef endangered.
The Queensland mackerel fishery was cut by 70 per cent in July, the Victorian hardwood forestry industry is facing closure in the next few years, and the West Australian hardwood forestry industry will go next year. As for the future, there is also the push for low-emission agriculture as part of Australia’s net-zero pledge. This is targeting methane emissions from livestock and the supposed problem of nitrogen in fertiliser.
But damaging these industries perversely increases environmental harm. For example, the continuously tightening regulations on Australia’s fish catch resulted in Australia becoming a net importer of seafood in 2007, and we now import well over 60 per cent of our seafood. By importing fish from countries such as Thailand that have far less strict environmental guidelines, damage from overfishing is far more likely.
Similarly, restricting or banning hardwood forestry simply means we must import from countries where sustainable forestry, which has been practised in this country for decades, is merely a dream. There is also a major environmental and biosecurity risk with importing fish and timber from overseas. The 2016 outbreak of white-spot disease in prawns is a good example of this.
Sadly, the rationale for most of these assaults on agriculture is based on poor quality-assured science. For example, cuts in Murray-Darling irrigation water are intended in part to allow more freshwater to reach Lake Alexandrina at the mouth of the river in South Australia. It is claimed the lake needs more water or it will go saline – like an estuary. But the lake was salty until the 1930s when the dams were built at the mouth of the Murray to stop the salt coming in from the sea. So, farmers are forced to cut water consumption partly to maintain a fiction that the lake is naturally, and should always be, freshwater.
Similarly, it was claimed that the Hells Gate and Urannah dams needed to be cancelled to help the Great Barrier Reef. But, if anything, the dams will stop sediment and nutrients reaching the sea – and UNESCO and most of the science institutions have been telling us the sediment is bad for the reef. For some reason, the government and UNESCO now prefer to wash the sediment into the sea.
Equally ridiculous is the promise by federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek to restrict fishing in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria, supposedly to protect the Great Barrier Reef, which is 800km away on the other side of Cape York. That is farther than the distance between Sydney and Melbourne.
Plibersek claims this is to protect fish that move between the Gulf and the Great Barrier Reef through the Torres Strait. I suppose that all creatures on Earth are interlinked in some way, but there is no evidence of any problems with the Gulf fishery or of there being a significant ecological link between the Gulf and reef.
After all, for most of the one-million-year history of the Great Barrier Reef, the Torres Strait was a land bridge, so to go from the Gulf to the reef one had to take the long way around Australia. And the reef did just fine.
At least for the Murray-Darling farmers there is one thing going in their favour – rising atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. It is beyond dispute that most food crops and trees grow much faster in an atmosphere with double the amount of the carbon dioxide – for wheat about 30 per cent faster and they need less water. And no Australian government can cut carbon dioxide concentrations because Australia’s emissions are negligible compared with those of China and India.
Other than that, politically harmful decisions have been based on poor advice from science organisations that have become ideological and hostile to the productive heart of the Australian economy. Not only does this harm the Australian economy but closing down agriculture, fisheries and forestry will simply export jobs and increase environmental costs in other countries. This is NIMBYism on a national scale.
We are witnessing a widening disconnect between the productive rural regions and the city nobility. We need a fresh start, beginning with a review of the science behind agricultural policy.