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How much will we pay?

By Fay Helwig - posted Tuesday, 24 June 2008

There are many issues causing the present food shortage in several parts of the world. I will address two of these issues from an Australian point of view.

Is there enough arable land? What is Australia’s role?

Food shortage is a serious international problem, but I believe that poverty is a greater problem. I have been blessed all my life to have sufficient food that I’ve never needed to experience hunger. My childhood was spent on a Queensland property, which had a dual income from beef cattle and dairying.


Following my marriage I continued to be a primary producer on farms which grew grain, fed pigs, milked cows and fattened cattle.

During the past 15 years I have lived on a non-productive farm on the Granite Belt of southern Queensland, using it as a base for tourism. My farm has a river frontage and an irrigation license allowing me to irrigate 4 hectares (10 acres). Once this farm consisted of orchards and fields of vegetables, but now it is currently fallow land growing nothing more than grass and each year the river water is allowed to evaporate.

As a child my father explained to me that I had no shoes in the summer because we were land rich, but cash poor. I experienced poverty, but never hunger. My family killed their own beef and poultry. They had eggs, milk and cream for butter. They grew vegetables and some fruit. Family circumstances changed in 1958 when the USA opened its doors to the import of Australian beef and family income doubled overnight.

Again circumstances changed in 1974. Australia experienced a glut of cattle and was unable to export sufficient meat. At that time my father was one of many cattlemen mooting the idea that one in ten head of cattle should be shot by their owners. If the cattle herd could be reduced (wasted) by one tenth then the remainder would be able to be sold at a reasonable price. As it was, this didn’t happen voluntarily. Instead, many cattlemen were forced to sell their land to pay their debts and cattle sold at less than the cost of production. Droughts took their toll and cattle numbers within Australia were reduced.

In effect this means that if there is a market for beef, Australia is capable of breeding, feeding and selling many more cattle without impacting on the environment of Australia.

At issue is the price that cattlemen receive for beef.


The Granite Belt where I live once sent train loads of second grade apples to factories for juicing. These are now wasted. The trains no longer run, as the factories have ceased buying such apples. Apple juice is imported into Australia from other countries, including China.

Once farmers here grew table grapes for the Queensland market, but due to competition from other Australian regions and countries such as the USA they couldn’t remain price competitive. They were subsidised to pull out their table-grape vines and encouraged to grow vegetables. Their vegetables now compete on price against imports from overseas, as well as interstate produce.

Pear trees and canning peach trees were bulldozed out as the public no longer chose to bottle fruits like pears and peaches. In 15 years I have seen many hectares of arable land fallowed under grass because it wasn’t economic for the farmers to produce a crop.

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About the Author

Fay Helwig is a primary producer and operates bed and breakfast accommodation in South East Queensland's Granite Belt. She is author of Wildflowers, wilderness and wine.

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