It came as something of a surprise to me the other day when I realised that my wife Lynne and I have lived in Australia for over fifty years — half a century! Most of that time in Western Australia.
As I write, it is Australia Day. For some there are parties and fireworks. For others there are protests, rallys and marches because they believe that today should be a day of shame, because it is the day that the British stole Australia from its indigenous people.
Australia Day is often heralded by ads about lamb and barbies being ‘Australian’. But what does it actually mean to be Australian? I am half Warlpiri and a mixture of Irish, Scottish and Welsh. My sons are of Warlpiri, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Malay, Indian, French, African, Chinese, Scandinavian and German ancestry. My stepson is half Scottish and a quarter Mauritian. They are all 100% Australian. My husband and stepfather of my children is Scottish but calls himself a ‘Scaussie’. What we all have in common is a love for this multifaceted and beautiful nation.
My great grandfather’s grandfather was convicted of ‘robbing a soldier of his arms’, in 1832 in Kilkenny at the age of 21. He came as a convict in 1833. He was an Irish patriot fighting for his faith and people. In the current political climate I would not be expected to acknowledge and celebrate his life because I have a Warlpiri mother. Most of the self-identifying indigenous members of our community who claim to feel hurt by Australia Day being held on the January 26 would also have white ancestors in their family trees and may not even have been born if the First Fleet hadn’t come.
If anything serious happens in world affairs, like a little war, which interrupts for a couple of weeks the flow of fuel tankers reaching Australia, life as we know it will very quickly grind to a halt. Australia has less than 30 days supply of fuel and oil in the country. Farmers will unable to sow or harvest their crops. They will be unable to get their produce to market whether it be grain, livestock or fresh food. It is said that everything at some time in its life is moved by truck. Take a long look at Fig 3 below and calculate how long you can manage without your medicines at home and in the hospital and how long you can manage for food if there isn’t any in the supermarket. The freight trains will stop. The power stations that rely on coal will have to dig into their reserves and then what? No fuel for the coal trains. There is just three days supply of petrol in the petrol stations. When that runs out how do the kids get to school and how do the majority get to work?
In this issue I republish the simple truth from a leader in Australian grain marketing, Mr Palmquist from GrainCorp. He confronts us with the unpleasant reality that an antiquated infrastructure is being paid for by grain growers and I suppose by definition he is saying the only ones paying, are the growers. An expensive infrastructure, together with the poorest world wheat prices for more than a decade are wrecking the budgets of Australian wheat producers. This grain trader says he has no option but to pass the costs on to the grower — he would say that wouldn’t he? He only has to answer to shareholders — growers only have to answer to the bank. As an example he claims it’s cheaper to move grain from Ukraine to Indonesia than it is to move it 350 kilometers from Swan Hill to Geelong.
There is a paradox, an absurdity of enormous proportions happening in agriculture in much of the Developed world. In spite of the US$486 billion a year being paid to farmers in the 21 top food producing countries in the world – heavily subsidised farmers in the European Union (EU) have embarked upon a civil disobedience campaign, some of it has been violent and massively disruptive to the rest of society. Their problem is that in spite of being paid over US$100 billion a year in subsidies, they are going broke. Their costs are greater than their returns. Across Britain, France, Germany, the low countries – everywhere in Europe, mainly family farmers are saying ‘enough is enough.’ They are taking to the streets and the supermarkets to show those who buy and consume the food what the difference is between what it costs to produce food, what the producers are being paid for it and what the consumers are paying for it at the supermarket. There is a sober lesson here for Australian agriculture as the value of the food we import goes up every year it is mostly from countries who subsidise their agriculture. According to the Worldwatch Institute, ‘Agricultural subsidies are not equally distributed around the globe. In fact, Asia spends more than the rest of the world combined. China pays farmers an unparalleled US$165 billion. Significant subsidies are also provided by Japan (US$65 billion), Indonesia ($US28 billion), and South Korea ($US20 billion).’
The value to Australian agriculture from Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) can be put into perspective when we contemplate having to compete against the home grown subsidised produce of much of Asia. If their ‘home grown’ produce, for instance beef, is subsidised, then to compete we have to be price competitive with a subsidised product – can we compete with subsidised agriculture? Only if we can sell at a price that is competitive, which may mean lower, than the subsidised product. For decades, since the seventies, Australian farmers have been duped by politicians of all colours and from agriculture, that ‘market forces’ and a ‘free market economy’ will eventually prevail. Fig 1 and Fig 2 (later) puts a lie to that propaganda and shows what it has cost. To compete we can see that Australian farmers ‘chased’ the ‘get big or get out’ mantra of the 70s with debt. More of that later.
As a child growing up in post-war Britain anything from Australian from wool to meat, to apples both fresh and dried, dried fruit and the delicious Sunday treat of Australian canned peaches, was a sign of absolute quality. The only exception to that rule was the processed cheese we were served in the army in the nineteen fifties. I am sure it had been imported during the war. Second World War, I think – maybe?
How times have changed. Britain is part of the EU, the European Union. This is what the EU say about themselves:
The EU is an attractive market to do business with:
We have 500 million consumers looking for quality good
We are the world’s largest single market with transparent rules and regulations
We have a secure legal investment framework that is amongst the most open in the world
We are the most open market to developing countries in the world
That is a proud boast and if you look at the link you will see the truth of it. They are indeed a powerful union – even a nation. To protect their agriculture the EU pays their farmers subsidies amounting to about US$100 billion a year.
In ‘Farming on Line’ a UK farming journal came this alarming news on Wednesday 29 July 2015. Copa and Cogeca warned at the EU Milk Market Observatory meeting today that the EU dairy market situation has deteriorated rapidly in the past 4 weeks, and without EU action, many producers will be forced out of business by Winter. Speaking at the meeting, Chairman of Copa-Cogeca Milk Working Party Mansel Raymond said “The market is in a much more perilous state than it was 4 weeks ago, with producer prices far below production costs. It’s a critical situation for many dairy farmers across Europe”.
Who or what are ‘Copa’ and ‘Cogeca’? ‘Copa’ was formed in 1959 to represent farmers within what we now know as the EU, it had 13 affiliates at that time. It now speaks in Brussels for sixty farmer organisation’s within the EU and another thirty six affiliates like Norway and Turkey, outside of the EU, but in Europe.
Cogeca? Straight off their website : On 24 September 1959, the national agricultural cooperative organisations created their European umbrella organisation – COGECA (General Committee for Agricultural Cooperation in the European Union) – which also includes fisheries cooperatives.
COGECA’ s Secretariat merged with that of COPA on 1 December 1962.
When COGECA was created it was made up of 6 members. Since then, it has been enlarged by almost six and now has 35 full members and 4 affiliated members from the EU. COGECA also has 36 partner members.
So ‘Copa & Cogeca’ to our antipodean ears may sound like a dance from South America, is in fact a very powerful agricultural lobby in Brussels and the Parliament of Europe. Stuck down here at the other end of the world we tend to forget that Europe is now a bigger trading bloc than America and China.
Vive la France !
French farmers are a passionate lot and in support of Copa & Cogeca, last month on warm summer days in the middle of the tourist season they dumped loads of animal manure in the middle of Paris and other cities. For those who don’t know what the machine below is, it’s a ‘muck spreader’. Normally filled with animal manure and coupled to the power take off on the tractor it ‘spreads’ the manure on the fields or paddocks. In this case it looks like it is being used to ‘clean’ windows – on a bank perhaps?
Below is an email I received on June 3 from Jay Horton from Strategis Partners, the company that is promoting Multi Peril Crop Insurance. I have attached a copy of the spreadsheet to the email I sent to you informing you of this article. I hope it works, if not then write me in the comments section at the end of this piece and I will forward it to you.
I circulated the email among consultant friends and I have to say that none have been enthusiastic. One said he could see ways of taking advantage of the proposition. Some of the comments I cannot repeat. Let’s say they were from non-believers. But here is a sample of the comments and questions about the commercial proposal to provide MPCI:
Fire and hail is only 1% or $5/ha compared to $$21/ha. Do not tell me that isn’t an extra cost.
It will happen(government assistance) and I wish I could have that sure bet on it.
Benefits are imaginative. In risky areas where the cover would be most useful the premium will reflect the risk.
I fail to see why interest is saved. We normally pay insurance (F + H) after harvest. I am sure they will require payment before.
What about the interest on extra inputs?
Real cost $32,000 net of saved insurance. You could get the yield by extra inputs anyway, nothing to do with insurance.
For every winner with forward pricing there is a loser. Is the farmer better at this than the speculator? In the end forward pricing is a COST. Frankly it has to be to pay for the broker of the deals. Otherwise everyone would be in on the act. It is only sensible when prices are towards to top decile as currently with wool. How much can you cover forward anyway, safely? (Remember this was written early June, just this morning wool has continued to go down and wheat up. It needs an expert to comment but I have noticed the Shanghai Stock exchange has taken a hit over recent times. Once again China controls the market this time in wool. Ed)
Only a % of the output is covered. 70% as I read it. To me that business will have a serious loss if only 70% of the proposed output is achieved.
Jay relies on security of income to make business decisions that could or might pay off. Returns from extra inputs. Forward pricing. True should they work but they are not assured. Observe Canola prices this year. Early pricing, which looked pretty safe has been eclipsed. Do you hedge currency as well?-you should at extra cost.
End of comments. I welcome comments from farmers and anyone else in agribusiness. If in this article I have missed something, then tell me. Same goes if you think I am wrong.
Bob Hall is a well-known agricultural consultant based in Darkan, Western Australia.
Back in the sixties Bob challenged us all about the way we managed our merino sheep.
There was nothing theoretical about Bob’s challenges. They were based on sound, practical and proven experience gained through working with his clients.
Bob offered solutions stretching from sheep yard and shearing shed design, to management practices designed to improve the efficiency and profitability of growing merino wool, which are still, maybe even more, relevant today.
Bob now manages a broad portfolio of consultancy covering all aspects of farm management in the wheat sheep belt of Western Australia. Here he presents his views on a hot topic of the day, Multi Peril Crop Insurance.
I was reading just today that the view is commonly held in the world of Geo-politics that the 21st century is ‘The Chinese Century’There have been numerous articles in the ‘Global Farmer’ about China and the challenges that country faces in feeding it’s people today and more importantly the problems it will face in the future as it becomes home to a third of the worlds population. China is the world’s biggest wheat grower and something like 70% of that area is irrigated. Like many areas in the world the extraction rate on the aquifers on which China relies is greater than the re-charge rate. Soon we will reveal what food China already imports.There are numerous articles on the www of China’s plans to build a canal from Tibet into China. A State engineer claims in can be done without pumping, which seems extraordinary. Perhaps that will solve their problems, but I gather there are many barriers, not the least being India and international conservation groups. See: The Globalist.The view is held that irrigated wheat is unsustainable in China and that the area of dry land wheat will grow and China will continue to buy wheat land in other counties where ever it can. With a rapidly ageing farming population in Australia, a large number of farms either for sale voluntarily or being pushed, and with Australian investors keeping their hands in their pockets and off their wallets, I don’t think a few extra dollars will deter either the foreign urban or rural land investor. In fact I think the measure is just plain silly and ignores reality and is a lolly for the anti foreign investor chatterati.The reality is that real estate, both rural and urban is for sale and there is nothing to prevent anyone from anywhere in the world from purchasing those assets. We have the most expensive houses in the world, don’t believe me well have a look at this article from Business Insider. So we have only ourselves to blame if we can’t afford our houses and others can.As for farming land in the next Global Farmer we will show how Australia is the second most expensive country in the world to grow a tonne of wheat, Canada believe it or not, is the most expensive.The following by Prof Dearing from Southampton UK has certainly helped me get a better perspective on what seem to be China’s voracious appetite for Australian real estate including our farming lands from the far south to the far north.
China farming boom has left ecosystems in danger of total collapse
More intensive agriculture has reduced poverty, but China’s environment can’t handle the pressure.
China’s push for more intense farming has kept its city dwellers well-fed and helped lift millions of rural workers out of poverty. But it has come at a cost. Ecosystems in what should be one of the country’s most fertile region have already been badly damaged – some beyond repair – and the consequences will be felt across the world.
This is part of a long-running trade-off between rising levels of food production and a deteriorating environment, revealed in recent research I conducted with colleagues from China and the UK. Yields of crops and fish have risen over the past 60 years at several locations we studied in Anhui, Jiangsu and Shanghai Provinces in eastern China. But these are parallelled by long-term trends in poorer air and water quality, and reduced soil stability.
You may ask if this a bad thing. After all, increasing agricultural productivity has been one of the factors responsible for lifting millions of rural Chinese out of poverty. Does it really matter that the natural environment has taken a bit of a hit?
Well yes. For agriculture and aquaculture to be sustainable from one generation to the next, the natural processes that stabilise soils, purify water or store carbon have to be maintained in stable states. These natural processes represent benefits for society, known as ecosystem services.
Throughout the latter half of the last century, these services were being lost relatively slowly through the cumulative, everyday actions of individual farmers. But the problems accelerated in the 1980s when farmers began to use more intensive methods, especially artificial fertilisers – and again after 2004 when subsidies were introduced.
Worryingly, in some localities, the slow deterioration has turned into a rapid downward spiral. Some aquatic ecosystems have dropped over tipping points into new, undesirable states where clear lakes suddenly become dominated by green algae with losses of high-value fish. These new states are not just detrimental to the continued high-level production of crops and fish but are very difficult and expensive to restore.
These natural processes are degraded and destabilised to the point that they cannot be depended upon to support intensive agriculture in the near future. The whole region is losing its ability to withstand the impact of extreme events, from typhoons to global commodity prices.
What can be done?
National policy must prioritise sustainable agriculture. This will mean big changes on the farm: fertiliser and pesticides must be applied in the correct quantities at the right time of the year, cattle slurry and human sewage must be disposed of properly, chemicals getting into streams and rivers must be reduced, and fish feed has to be controlled.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Farmers are still generally poor, badly educated and ageing. Good agricultural advice is lacking and big cities still tempt the younger farmers away from their fields. All these factors mean that rapid action is unlikely.
The recent introduction of the Land Circulation reform policy, allows farmers to rent their land to larger combines. The policy is designed to overcome the inefficiencies of small farm holdings but it may not be taken up widely in the more marginal landscapes where potential profits are low.
All the evidence points to a need for a significantly improved system of information and technology transfer to individual smallholders, probably involving a more efficient coordination between agencies.
But there’s a larger-scale context to this problem that may affect us all. China’s grain production has risen fivefold since the 1950s, outstripping the pace of population growth. Despite this, the nation is no longer self-sufficient. The shift towards more meat production has placed a demand for soybean and cereal animal feed that can no longer be met internally. In 2012, China imported more than 60% of all the world’s soybeans that were available for export, and cereal imports are also on the up.
Reliance on imports to fill a shortfall in home produce is nothing new. But in China’s case, the additional risk that agriculture is increasingly unsustainable may amplify the demand. The potential scale of demand for imports is bound to have repercussions for global food production and food prices. Unless reforms are introduced quickly, the rest of the world may well find that they are sharing China’s trade-off with nature – through the weekly shopping bill.
THIS ARTICLE ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN ‘THE CONVERSATION’ ON FEBRUARY 26 2015. The Global Farmer thanks ‘The Conversation’ for making this article available.
Professor of Physical Geography at University of Southampton
John Dearing receives funding from NERC-ESRC-DfID Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation Programme. He is a member of the The Green Party.