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Government agricultural departments: a new future or bastions of the past?

By Bea Duffield - posted Tuesday, 8 July 2003

More than a century ago Australia's survival depended on providing a continuous source of food and fibre to feed and clothe its growing population, and to develop a cash flow for the colonies. Each colony established its own "Department of Agriculture" (or equivalent) to develop and implement innovative scientific technology so that a reliable supply of food and fibre was available through drought, floods, fire, war, disease and whatever else the colonists were faced with.

Consequently, the traditional the role of Agricultural Departments was to apply the best possible science to agriculture. Government support for this role, and active subsidisation of farming (pdf, 218kb), remained unchallenged for most of the 20th century.

Changes have swept through Australia's rural communities over the last decade. These changes have impacted significantly on the role of Agricultural Departments which have gone through numerous adjustments in an attempt to come to grips with these changes.


Instead of being entirely focussed within the primary industries production sector, today's Agricultural Departments are required to meet the broader needs of rural communities. Many of these needs are completely outside the primary production sector. To be perceived as successful, today's Agricultural Departments must create benefits at the economic, ecological and social (i.e. triple-bottom line) levels.

So what's caused this shift?

First, although the value of Australian primary industries production has grown, the total value of food and fibre industries has grown faster because of strong growth of the post-farm gate processing sector that adds value to the raw farm-gate product.

Second, rural communities, in terms of the total number of people living there, have decreased in size and have diversified their sources of economic well-being to a greater extent than in the past. In the past a large number of people lived in rural communities. For example, 100 years ago, about 25 per cent of Australia's white population were employed in agricultural and pastoral industries which contributed to about half the GDP.

Today, rural populations are less dependent on the food-and-fibre sector and more dependent on industries such as tourism. Even within the food-and-fibre sector rural communities are more dependent on processing and value adding of primary production, as opposed to primary production itself. Today, five per cent of Australians are employed in primary industries production which produces less than three per cent of the Australia's GDP (pdf, 218Kb).

These trends of the past few decades suggest that rural communities will, in general, comprise fewer people, fewer towns, be more involved in food and fibre processing and value-adding of food and fibre and even more dependent on industries outside the food and fibre sector.


Third, primary industries have a poor image among some members of the general public particularly in urban communities. Consequently there's been increasing community concern about issues arising from food and fibre production and land management, animal welfare and food safety.

Finally, National Competition Policy and the increasing shift from government-supported "agri-socialism" means it is no longer politically acceptable to use public monies to assist individual landowners - in Australia anyway!

How have these changes affected Agricultural Departments?

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About the Author

Dr Bea Duffield is General Manager of the Office of the Chief Scientist, Queensland Department of Primary Industries, which is a member of National Forum.

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