Is our current agricultural policy defending the people?

Mailler’s excellent article ‘Why is Agriculture Different’, begs the big question of the extent to which the agricultural industry’s relationship with government policy has resulted in a viable, sustainable and world competitive Australian agriculture? And if not, is the government failing to defend the people?

Empirical data – as Mailler brings to the fore – tends to show that the relationship of agriculture with government policy (in the context of global competition and the myriad of factors that express themselves through industry performance data and trends), has resulted in the industry exhibiting signs of systemic failure. The ‘vital signs’ of this industry are not good.

If one sets aside short term factors of drought, flood, fluctuations of commodity prices and looks at the long term trends, it is inescapable that revenue has been ‘chased’ by costs and in some cases overtaken by costs. The trends are seemingly inexorable.

While in any industry there will be leaders and laggards and those who fall off the bottom, the situation for agriculture as Mailler points out is not just the ‘tail’ that’s failing – it’s many of the core businesses that make up the industry.

Whether one agrees or disagrees with past and current agricultural policy, one must surely accept the notion that the outcomes are not good?

So what of policy for agriculture?

Governments have a primary duty to ‘defend the people’ and see to their wellbeing.

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Photo: Courtesy Veeoz

For a couple of hundred years, most ‘western’ governments have taken this duty to extend from:

  •  basic ‘human rights’ of health and education systems (safe drinking water, sanitation systems, hospitals, primary, secondary and tertiary education), through …
  • reform and development of democracy (wide range of concepts of what is democratic!)
  • military defence of their territory and its people from aggressors and on to…
  • making their industries competitive in the markets where their goods and services are sold.

Governments develop and implement POLICIES to cover all these aspects and more of our national life in pursuit of their big job to ‘defend the people’.

Importantly, governments generally see it as prudent to make the nation’s export industries profitable and sustainable in the longer term because their profits contribute so much of the resources to fund the implementation of all other policies!

One of my observations in Australia over the last 40 years or so is that agriculture has been progressively de-capitalised and made less resilient as a result of government policy. Local control of the industry is being lost as new capital, new vision and new policy comes in from overseas. Continue reading “Is our current agricultural policy defending the people?”

Why is Agriculture Different?

“The farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale, and pays the freight both ways”
– John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Recently the dire situation faced by many farmers and graziers induced by yet another “drought” has reignited the debate around justification for Government financial support to farmers.

On one hand there is the visible and emotive scenario of dying stock and desperate farmers that demand immediate aid. This call for financial support externalises the disruption of drought and market interruption and deems them beyond reasonable management.

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On the other hand there is the cold and objective rationalist position that argues, ‘agriculture is a business like any other and hard times are a fact of life, and so if you can’t handle the pressure – get out’.

Continue reading “Why is Agriculture Different?”

Global area under biotech continues to grow while EU policy struggles.

While the EU struggles to define its policy on the cultivation of GM crops, the area under GM varieties globally continues to grow. Recent data from the ISAAA show that the total global area planted to biotech crop varieties in 2013 reached 175 million hectares for the first time. As 1996 was the first year in which genetically-modified crops were commercialised on a significant scale (the first GM crop planted was tomatoes in 1994), supporters of the technology point out that this rate of expansion makes biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in recent history.

While the EU struggles to define its policy on the cultivation of GM crops, the area under GM varieties globally continues to grow. Recent data from the ISAAA show that the total global area planted to biotech crop varieties in 2013 reached 175 million hectares for the first time. As 1996 was the first year in which genetically-modified crops were commercialised on a significant scale (the first GM crop planted was tomatoes in 1994), supporters of the technology point out that this rate of expansion makes biotech crops the fastest adopted crop technology in recent history.

Of the 27 countries which planted biotech crops in 2013, 19 were developing and 8 were industrialised countries. Latin American, Asian and African farmers collectively grew 94 million hectares or 54% of the global 175 million biotech hectares compared with industrialised countries at 81 million hectares or 46% of the total.image003

Just four major GM crops dominate the market: soybean, cotton, maize and canola (rape). In terms of the share of the total area cultivated, soybean and cotton are the most successful GM crops. In 2012, more than four-fifths (81%) of the total area of these crops grown globally were GM varieties. In the case of maize, over a third (35%) of the 158 million hectares of globally grown maize was GM and 30% of globally grown canola (with a total area of 31 million hectares). Continue reading “Global area under biotech continues to grow while EU policy struggles.”

The Sadness that is Kojonup

The battle in Court between two farmers from Kojonup is one of the saddest events in my career in agriculture, which now spans over half a century.

It is sad because it has given those for and those against, this time GM Canola, but it could just as easily been ‘Yellow Vitamin A Rice’ another stage, this time a Coliseum, to vent in public their malevolence and witlessness.

I admit to being a bit dim-witted at times but is there any way anyone can stop the flora and fauna of this world spreading seeds, either by wind or defecation where ever and wherever they wish? When that foreign seed germinates on organic land how does the foreign plant automatically become organic?

To some on the against side, and one can only judge those against by what they say and write, truly believe that many scientists and farmers, those on the for side are monsters, purveyors of teratogenic engineering, which has the capacity to cause the most awful damage to mankind.

That is sad and grieves me that they hold those opinions. Mainly because it means they truly believe that the for side are or would be, could be, complicit in poisoning, killing, their own families. An outrageous thought.

To some on the for side, those against are Luddites, nihilists and in some cases vandals and despoilers. It is regrettable that some of those against have been vandals and despoilers. Those against have been labelled as anti-science.

It has been known for more than a decade that by 2050 there could well be 9 billion mouths to feed on this earth. To feed those people food production will have to increase by at least 50%, some say more than that. I know I write about this often, that’s because it’s true.

In my working life of over half a century the population of the world has doubled. At the end of WWII world agriculture was basically organic.

We, that is science, farmers and their advisers have fed twice the number of people we started with 50 years ago. Today some eat too much and others go hungry and starve to death. There is no shortage of food though, we just don’t get it to those who need it, we are too busy. Instead we fly over the countries with the starving millions and marvel at international travel, which will take us to the next banquet. Continue reading “The Sadness that is Kojonup”

COSTS UP – PRICES NERVOUS – TIME FOR CHANGE?

Here we are at the start of a bright new 2014. Some Western Australian grain growers had a good harvest in 2013, but some still have plenty of debt and some have left the industry. It seems we are experiencing another period of adverse terms of trade as the economists would put it, or at cost-price squeeze as most of us understand it. But this situation has existed in one form or another since the 1980s and the industry has adjusted greatly to stay viable.

Let’s look at a little history. In the late 80s and early 90s the state average wheat yield virtually doubled from just under 1t/ha to just under 2t/ha. So how did that happen? Well, the cost-price squeeze was instrumental in focusing the minds of farmers mightily. They knew that something had to be done and furthermore they knew what. All the relevant findings were known, either through local research or through hard-won experience and observation.

The average date of sowing was advanced by about 3 weeks aided by the availability of the appropriate chemicals, semi-dwarf varieties and reduced or zero tillage among other things. At the same time the percentage of the crop that received a premium for quality (Hard, Noodle, Soft, APW) was increased from about 15% to over 50%. Continue reading “COSTS UP – PRICES NERVOUS – TIME FOR CHANGE?”

The China Enigma

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Be not afraid of growing slowly; be afraid only of standing still

There is now no doubt, there is unquestionable evidence that the Premier of Western Australia, The Hon Colin Barnett, MEc. MLA. Minister for State Development; Science and the Hon Ken C. Baston, Minister for Food; Fisheries, are intent upon doing everything they can to secure more Chinese investment into West Australian agriculture. How they are going to do it?
They are going to hold an investment conference especially for the Chinese. Mr Barnett and Mr Baston are certainly not standing still:

Western Australia – China Agribusiness Cooperation Conference.
State Reception Centre, Kings Park, Perth
9 -11 April 2014
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Premier Barnett with a hook for catching sharks.
Photo:WA Today.
Premier Colin Barnett is a passionate West Australian. There is also no doubt that Mr Barnett has determinedly used his Office, and the influence that goes with that Office, to secure major commitments from the Chinese to invest in West Australian industry, mainly into mining, but there have also been substantial Chinese investments in agriculture.

Mr Barnett has led delegations of business people from Western Australia to China to further cement relationships and to forge new ones.

I don’t think it would be unfair to call Colin Barnett a Chinaphile.

Premier Colin Barnett Southern China Airlines Gala Dinner
Premier Colin Barnett at Southern China Airlines Gala Dinner.
Photo: WA Tourism

There has always been a belief among the majority of West Australians that ‘Chinese’ investment in Western Australia in the past has been conditional upon the imprimatur, and investment of the Central Government of the People’s Republic of China.

In other words the Government of China is always involved somewhere in the deal as an equity partner. Mr Barnett must be aware of this and be unconcerned that a sovereign state is investing in and becoming an owner of, Australian freehold property.

As far as I am aware it has never been denied that the Chinese government will be a equity partner in any investment in Australia.

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Chinese Parliament.
Photo: China Today

Recently Mr Barnett was critical of Australia’s foreign investment rules, claiming they were sending the wrong message to China. Mr Barnett said that the United States could invest more than $1 billion in Australia without being subject to Foreign Investment Review Board Rules, but it was different for China’s state owned enterprises where any level of investment from $1 up was subject to review.

Mr Barnett believed this caused resentment in China.

In July 2013 speaking from Zhejiang province in China Mt Barnett said he believed the Chinese were not seeking to own Australian land – they just wanted to protect their investment for food and have a secure relationship with Australia.

Yet the previous month, June 2013, the Queensland Country Life reported that Chinese investors had spent $757 million in the first quarter of 2013 buying land in Australia, with WA, according to Landmark – Harcourts, topping the charts with sales of $350 million. True or false? We may never know.

Well, whatever is the truth, what the Premier really believes will be revealed on April 9 2014. Continue reading “The China Enigma”

No more farmers?

There is every chance we will run out of farmers before we know whether we can feed the people of the world.

It’s a frightening proposition but just look at the evidence.

In 1968, Paul Ehrlich in his book ‘Population Bomb’ made the prediction the world faced massive starvation due to overpopulation. He wrote:

The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now. At this late date nothing can prevent a substantial increase in the world death rate.

Then along came Dr Norman Borlaug, ‘the father of the Green Revolution’, and his team of plant breeders and the world was saved from starvation. In 1970, Borlaug became a Nobel Laureate.

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The ‘Green Revolution saved India from certain disaster.

Between 1950 and 2004 world wheat yields rose from an average of 750kg/ha to 2750kg/ha (FAO), due to the worldwide adoption of high yielding, high input short straw wheat varieties, developed by Borlaug and his teams. Similar improvements were achieved in the yields of maize and rice.

This revolution in plant breeding, combined with new chemicals to control pests and diseases averted the global starvation tragedy predicted by Ehrlich.

In the last forty years the population of the world has doubled and, by and large they have all been fed.

The millions, who have died of starvation over that period, didn’t die because there wasn’t any food for them; they died because we spent our money fighting wars rather than getting food to those who needed it. Continue reading “No more farmers?”

Self Inflicted Injury

This discussion paper addresses a few of the changes, which have taken place in the eastern wheatbelt of Western Australia over last twenty years. Changes, which have brought us to where we are today, to where some are claiming there is a ‘Crisis in Agriculture’.

Change in life is constant, no more so than in agriculture.

This discussion paper addresses a few of the changes, which have taken place in the eastern wheatbelt of Western Australia over last twenty years. Changes, which have brought us to where we are today, to where some are claiming there is a ‘Crisis in Agriculture’.

The question then becomes if there is a ‘crisis’ what has caused it?

The answer seems to be that it is self-inflicted injury.

Continue reading “Self Inflicted Injury”