Saturday, July 02, 2011

No shortage of land or food ... or hot air

Despite the economic populism and political fear mongering of Senators Brown and Joyce in recent days, Australians need not fear running out of arable land.

Nor should they worry about an impending food security crisis.  In fact, the only thing they should worry about is a shortage of politicians prepared to speak the truth about how strong our nation's agricultural future really is.

As the world's ninth largest agriculture producer, Australia is one of the most food-secure nations in the world.

According to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Australia's terrestrial and aquatic food producers are capable of producing enough food to feed approximately 80 million people per year.

And despite the lingering effects of a debilitating national drought, Australian farmers still grow enough to provide 93 per cent of our domestic food supply, including 98 per cent of all locally consumed fresh produce.

Instead of facing a serious food supply problem as alleged this week by Senator Brown, Australia in fact enjoys a healthy oversupply -- to the tune of $14 billion per year.  This production makes us one of the world's largest food exporters, unlike the 131 other nations around the world who are net food importers.

One of the key reasons Australia produces so much food is because we have so much arable land.

Measured by people per square kilometre of arable land, Australia has 68 times more than Japan, 25 times more than the United Kingdom, 22 times more than China and four times more than the United States. 

In fact, Australia has more arable land than Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, Japan, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea combined.

Rather than running out of arable land as routinely suggested by Senator Joyce, Australia has the largest oversupply per person of any nation in the world.  If anything, we should feel more relaxed about selling it.

But our agricultural edge doesn't end there.

Despite living on the world's driest inhabited continent, our farmers happen to be amongst the worlds most resourceful.  Over 60 per cent of the Australian land mass is used for agricultural activity each year, resulting in the production of over $40 billion worth of agricultural goods.

Our farmers are also ranked amongst the worlds most productive.  According to the Productivity Commission, between 1974-75 and 2003-04, Australian farmers consistently achieved productivity growth levels of 2.8 per cent a year -- the third highest of any industry sector in Australia.  These amazing productivity gains have made our farmers one of our nation's greatest economic success stories, attracting solid foreign investment and sustaining thousands of jobs in regional areas.

Put simply, even in the face of challenging climatic conditions, distorting trade rules and growing competition for land use, Australia's farmers still know how to grow success.  Rather than imposing more control over their businesses, as proposed by Brown and Joyce, the Government should just butt out.  If a NSW farmer wants to sell his land to a Chinese extraction company, it's his God-given right to do so.  Now is not the time to start impinging on farmers' rights for the sake of political popularity.

Through this century, our farm community will face many serious challenges in regard to how it chooses its farm businesses.  Vexed issues like live exports, carbon taxes, GMO's, salinity, labour shortages, drought, trade access, pest control and water and native vegetation management will test the farm sector.

As a result, what the farm community needs is not a phony political campaign about a problem which doesn't exist, but a proper discussion on the issues which genuinely threaten their social and economic wellbeing.

Australian farmers have a bright but challenging future ahead of them.  Our political leaders could do a lot worse than speak the truth about it.


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