Friday, February 08, 2013

Agricultural blocks squander our chance to play vital food role

Bad policies underpinned by warped environmental priorities don't just hold back agriculture in Queensland and hurt farmers in the state.

They have a disastrous impact on poor people living in the region.

Australia has long been a net exporter of food, currently producing enough to feed 60 million people.  Queensland has the largest area of agricultural land of any Australian state and produces almost a quarter of the nation's gross value of agricultural commodities.  Australia and Queensland could double their agricultural output if it weren't for policies that block agricultural development.

Dam building, for example, has been blacklisted from state and federal policy agendas for two decades because of pressure from green activists.  Queensland has only built three dams in the past decade, compared to 15 in the 1990s and 20 in the 1980s.  Yet the CSIRO cites lack of water availability for why 5 to 17 million hectares of arable land in Australia's north isn't used for agriculture.

Food prices in the Asia-Pacific have doubled in the past decade.  If Queensland was to operate at anywhere near its agricultural potential, the resultant increase in supply would ease this pressure for millions of the world's poorest.

In light of the 578 million people in the Asia-Pacific who are malnourished and the 3.3 million children under the age of five who die each year from hunger and malnutrition globally, this state of affairs should be viewed as the disgrace that it is.

As assistant director-general of the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation Hiroyuki Konuma rightly said last year, ''huge investments in the agricultural sector'' are needed to address malnutrition in the region.

Undoubtedly, Queensland is blessed with incredible natural treasures that warrant protection from the effects of building dams.

But not all of the state is the Great Barrier Reef or the Daintree Rainforest.

Likewise, live cattle exports were halted to Indonesia last year in the wake of a Four Corners report depicting horrific treatment of the animals.  There were further calls to ban live exports after similarly barbaric treatment of sheep was filmed in Pakistan.

Beef is Queensland's largest rural-based industry and its second biggest export industry (behind coal).  The state easily has the largest beef industry in Australia, providing almost two-thirds of Australia's beef exports to high-value, premium overseas markets.

But it could be even bigger and more beneficial to Queenslanders and those beyond our shores.

Maltreatment of animals is reprehensible and efforts must be made to prevent it from happening again.  But Indonesia sources 25 per cent of its beef from Australia.  And there are 65 million people living in extreme poverty in Indonesia and Pakistan combined.

Incredibly, in combination with policy decisions made by the Indonesian Government as a result, the ban caused beef prices to double in Indonesia, denying poor people access to an important source of nutrition.

Putting aside the fact that there are ways to solve this problem without completely halting live exports, do supporters of the measure really think that animal welfare is more important than the lives of some of the world's poorest people?

A further barrier to Queensland fulfilling its agricultural potential are farm labour costs, which rose 151 per cent between 1996 and 2008 in Australia.

This rise was substantially contributed to by the scrapping of individual workplace agreements.

This, in combination with other burdens such as the carbon tax and the duplication of state and federal environmental regulation, has made it less profitable to run a farm and discourages investment in increasing production.

For example, after being subjected to a three-year-long approval process that cost more than $30,000 to meet state and federal obligations just to grow a cassava crop, one Burdekin farmer commented, ''once you realise all this (regulation), you would never start''.

It has been argued long and hard by those who support agricultural development — and oppose the blacklisting of dam building, a ban on live exports and the over-regulation of Queensland's agricultural sector — that such policy positions put Queensland industry and jobs in peril.

They are right.  But these are not the only considerations in play.

Queensland's agricultural sector can feed millions of people in the region — many of whom are extremely poor.  But the state is passing up the opportunity to be Asia's food bowl on the basis of environmental claims that are questionable at best.

No comments: