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Agriculture in Australia's north – now that's a plan

By David Leyonhjelm - posted Friday, 14 September 2012


Various people have pointed out that the National Food Plan green paper, while claiming global food security is at the heart of social and political stability and in our interests as a nation, fails to acknowledge the enormous potential for food production in Australia's north.

The government's contribution to global food security, according to the plan, is technology and expertise transfers to developing countries, trade-related development assistance, advocacy and support for appropriate policies (mainly trade), and short-term emergency food assistance.

While there are references to food producers becoming more productive and competitive, with access to new technology, there is no expectation of a significant boost to food production. Indeed, there is an assumption that a major increase is not feasible given limited agricultural land and competition from urban encroachment and mining.

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As for the north of Australia, the Plan says "large-scale expansion of irrigated agriculture in northern Australia-the scale of which would be required to create a northern food bowl-does not appear to be sustainable or feasible."

This is a curious point of view. Anyone who has toured the area around Kununurra will know what is possible when there is a reliable supply of water during the dry season. Water from Lake Argyle has transformed the country from 'clapped out buffalo country' into highly productive agriculture land capable of growing a diverse range of crops.

In fact, water is the key requirement for most agriculture in Western Australia. Huge wheat crops are produced year after year from soils that comprise little more than sand, simply because small amounts of rain fall at the right time. Or perhaps more accurately, WA farmers are smart enough to plant their crops to take advantage of the rain.

The idea that northern Australia is not capable of becoming a massive food bowl is too silly for words. What is required is a reliable, consistent supply of water.

That there is enough water cannot be doubted. The country is not a desert. The amount of rainfall in northern Australia is eight times the annual runoff in the Murray-Darling basin. In fact, during the wet season there is so much water that getting around is difficult. The problem is that it only falls during the wet season and massive quantities flow out to sea.

The solution, fairly obviously, is to build more dams like the Ord so the water can be used during the dry season. There are some infrastructure improvements that would be needed as well, particularly transport, but water availability would make it feasible to address these.

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However, the Food Plan relies on a 2009 report from the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce which dismisses the potential for dam construction in northern Australia. This report is a deeply flawed document from a taskforce that was captured by the anti-development green lobby with the aim of locking lock northern Australia into a low-development future, primarily as a large nature reserve.

Among many howlers, the report envisaged the cattle industry almost doubling its productivity by 2030 due to rapid advances in biotechnology and farm management practices, but with a 30 per cent decrease in water use and methane emissions. This "intensification" of pastoralism would allow large areas of pastoral land to be taken out of production and "managed for a range of other cultural, conservation and economic activities."

Without offering a skerrick of evidence it also concluded that dams to support irrigation were: ".. unlikely to meet public cost-effectiveness criteria, and hence will not attract significant public funding."

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About the Author

David Leyonhjelm is the Liberal Democrat Senator for NSW.

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