For the sake of future generations, Australia must not give away its birthright for a mess of pottage.
I wrote the following after a long on-line discussion. It was the culmination of a larger debate about the real cost of renewable energy. I have tidied up a few phrases for clarity.
Thank you for your considered replies. I am in my eighties. My profession is agriculture from farming to science to agribusiness.
I have watched this country change substantially over the last 50 years or so. That we have largely lost our ability to be self-sufficient in some of the vital parts of our economy concerns me greatly.
Manufacturing jobs have been exported, it started way back when, when it was to Japan because their labour was cheaper than ours. Then there were others others like Taiwan, Singapore, Korea and Russia for wool. Now we have China.
There was a time we were self sufficient in food, now we rely heavily on imports, our food processing and manufacturing industry has fled due, in the main, to high power costs, much of it has gone to NZ, where they now process Chinese produce and then send it here — we eat frozen Chinese fruit and vegetables.
The news that China accounts for thirty percent of Australia agricultural exports demonstrates how reliant the Australian rural economy has become on the People’s Republic of China.
That news caused some to question the wisdom of the marketers of Australian food and wine in placing such a heavy reliance on just one customer.
That is valid question, but did you know that China buys 30% of everything Australia exports.
Agricultural exports are just a mirror image of what is going on in the rest of the country. In 2017-18 Australia exported goods and services worth a staggering $123 billion to China equal to 6.7% of the Australia Gross Domestic Product.
Success is not final, failure is not fatal: it is the courage to continue that counts.
There now seems to be a general consensus within the community and especially within the agricultural community, that Australia’s reliance on China has lulled us all into a false sense of security. We have been complacent. We have been happy to accept the contribution China has made to our standard of living by making available to us a range of ‘goods’ at prices that have been more than acceptable.
We have been more than happy to receive their tourists in their tens of thousands and a similar number of students without whom some of our universities, especially the regional ones, cannot manage. There could well be cold economic winds this winter on some campuses.
China has infiltrated our lives to the extent that there is an argument that we cannot now manage without them.
But manage without them we must; we must change. China’s aggression towards Australia is a sober reminder that they are a communist totalitarian regime intent upon the control and subjugation of others including Australia.
“An economic rule states that one should never underestimate the inability of free marketers to use common sense,”
K J Galbraith 2006. Lincoln Journal.
One of the interesting aspects of the current debate on the behaviour of China towards Australia, after Australia asked for an enquiry into the source of Covid19, is that many of those who are well known as journalists and commentators, and even some hopelessly naive Australian politicians, and we have our share of them, have shown most clearly that they know little to nothing about the art of negotiation or as many of us know it by another name ‘bloodless warfare.’
It is well known that when it comes to selling their wares farmers around the world are weak, some weaker than others. It is also well known and oft quoted the statement by President J F. Kennedy “The farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale, and pays the freight both ways.” These days we would say ‘person’ but the statement remains correct. The question is what have farmers done, particularly in Australia, to redress what is an iniquitous situation?
Since I started this look at China and our reliance on them for some of our vital goods and equipment, as well as our reliance on them to buy our raw materials like coal, iron ore, beef and wine; the relationship between Australia and China has deteriorated considerably.
The outburst by the Ambassador of China, threatening our beef, wine and tourism relationships, simply because our government made a valid request that a pandemic that has brought this world into lock-down should be investigated and the source found, was nothing short of Imperial bullying from the Middle Kingdom.
The United States sent its war ships into the South China Sea a few days ago. Whether in retaliation or not, reports are that China has sunk a Vietnamese small boat, probably fishing; has rammed boats from Malaysia and locked its radar onto a Philippine warship, which is hostile and usually means you are about to be fired on.
This means that China is quite prepared to escalate tensions in the South China Sea in an effort to distract the world away from asking the question China must answer regarding the origin of Corvid19 from Wuhan.
It must be determined whether Covid19 came from the wet market, or escaped from what appears to be a very insecure laboratory in Wuhan. China owes that information to the world.
In 2018 Australia imported goods from China to the value of US$57.7 billion or A$77 billion with an average exchange rate of .75 That is nearly $6.5 billion a month, every month.
It came as a shock to almost everyone to learn recently that we import over 90% of the medicines we use and most of them come from China and America. If China doesn’t make the final product they do make many of the ingredients. This alarming fact may never have come to light without the outbreak of the COVID19 corona virus. If China stopped supplying us and or America with medicines, what would we do?
We no longer live in a world of ‘It can’t happen here’ Because we know it can. We rely on China for so much; over US$13 billion in electrical goods — that must be most of our TVs and phones surely? Is this a danger to our independence and sovereignty?
I wrote last year about the alarming and strategically dangerous state of our national fuel oil reserves, in as much as we hardly have any. Bill Shorten the Leader of the Opposition in a recent speech told his audience that, “Right now, we have just 23 days of jet fuel, just 22 days of diesel and only 19 days of automotive gas.(petrol)” He added that when Prime Minister he would fix it. The Prime Minister, Scot Morrison, has not mentioned the problem, maybe he doesn’t want us to know?
Both of our would-be leaders are more interested in the show-time of denigrating each other and so winning the upcoming election — the security of the nation runs a distant second to getting their hands on the keys to The Lodge and even better, Kirribilli House.
‘When you’ve got them by the balls their hearts and minds will follow.’
Australia and its sophisticated agricultural industry have to decide whether they want to be a feeder of others, or be fed by others. Don’t laugh at that. Of course the world can feed Australia— it’s already started as we increasingly become more reliant others for food. We have no more people in this country than there are in a couple of big Chinese cities and we are an attractive proposition to feed, if only for access to our resources and for what food we can produce that others can’t. I read somewhere recently that China would only have to increase its horticultural production by about 3% and it could feed Australia. Think about that and the global fresh food trade. There are Egyptian oranges for sale in my town. So how important are we to China and how important is China to Australia? You may be surprised.
Over recent times as Australian agriculture has endured droughts, poor prices and incompetent governments; amid the chaos there have been two major overriding topics for discussion.
The first has been trying to separate the rumours, the gossip and the chit chat from the truth regarding the extent, the size of Chinese investment in Australian agriculture, in land, as distinct from agribusiness or food processing.
There is a body of opinion that claims Chinese interests, including Sovereign Funds have made substantial purchases of land in Australia, using a variety of investment vehicles, which have enabled them to avoid scrutiny by the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB).
We have the figures from the FIRB and we name who the biggest investors in Australia agriculture have been over recent times and the results will surprise you. China is at the bottom of the list, below Hong Kong. So why the public and in some cases political interest in China who ‘officially’ appear to be a minor investor? Is it xenophobia, fear, nationalism? — they all mean the same thing really. Do we fear China and is that because we don’t understand them? Whose fault is that?
These are difficult questions for us as a people and as an industry. It is a far more serious question for the media, and I believe the media should shoulder a great deal of the blame, because they have wrung every bit of emotion they can out of China and Chinese investment in Australia, giving voice to rumour and innuendo. Yet the records show that the media have been at least less than diligent and probably lazy in failing to report who the big, billion dollar plus, non-Chinese investors have been in Australian agricultural land over recent years.
The second big question is, forgetting agriculture, can we now manage, as a country, without China? We have all but exported our manufacturing base, everything from engineering, to clothing to hardware to food processing — you name it, what we once made ourselves we now get from China.
If it’s ‘Made in China’ it’s designed to be affordable. The more we buy from China the more dependent we become on them and the more vulnerable we are as the alternatives become uncompetitive.
The resource boom of the last last decade should have made Australia strong but there’s a fly in the ointment, Barclay’s Bank Kieran Davies reports that Australian household debt is equal to 130% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) this compares to an average of 78% average across the advanced world making us more vulnerable than most to another financial crisis.
So we’ve spent the boom on paying ourselves wages and salaries big enough to build the biggest houses in the world with ‘entertainment centres’ and a bathroom for every resident, double garages to hold the boat and the dual cab 4wd ‘trucks’. Enough left over to holidays to exotic destinations and the like — instead of spending our money on our country, on the infrastructure future generations will need to make us world competitive.
China is now the world’s largest economy. America will fight them for that position — but no matter what happens, China’s influence on the Australia will continue to grow.
Australia’s challenge will be to find the point of balance in our relationship between our greatest ally, America, and the country we cannot manage without — China.
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.