For this section the Institute invites comments from two differing policy viewpoints. In this edition of farm institute insights, The Hon Brendon Grylls, MLA and Senator Rachel Siewert examine northern Australia’s potential as a future food bowl.


Potential and limitations of northern Australia as a future food bowl

Hon Brendon Grylls, MLA

Western Australian Minister for Regional Development and Lands, and Parliamentary Leader of the WA National Party

The vexed question of a northern food bowl will not be resolved until federal and state governments direct time, energy, financial resources and political willpower to where the possibilities are greatest.

Government green and red tape are some of the biggest threats to ensuring productive and sustainable agriculture across our expansive North.

I believe most Australians remain bemused that we are still struggling over a national land use blueprint and foreign investment formula that will allow us to use the high rainfall zones and river aquifers of northern Australia for agricultural enterprise.

The ever-growing stockpile of non-committal technical reports, lukewarm water and environmental assessments, and confusing land use profiles has tended to firewall governments and the private sector from the opportunities.

Upon winning office in September 2008 the new Liberal-National Government in Western Australia (WA) resolved to cut through pervading negative sentiment to fund the exciting Ord Stage Two expansion. The funding was delivered through the Royalties for Regions program which quarantines 25% of royalties for non-metropolitan projects.

Royalties for Regions, the WA National Party’s core 2008 election strategy, provided foundation capital of $311 million to ensure farmland could be doubled to almost 30,000 ha. The Federal Government provided an additional $195 million to revitalise Kununurra’s community and social infrastructure.

In May this year, Kimberley Agricultural Investments (KAI), an Australian entity wholly-owned by the Shanghai ZhongFu Group, won the opportunity through an expression of interest process to commit an estimated $700 million to develop 13,400 ha of new irrigated farmland on leasehold title. More than 1000 ha of new farmland has already been cleared.

The need for scale is the biggest factor in growing the North into a resilient and productive agricultural region. While diversity is important, it is critical for the agricultural industry to be underpinned by anchor crops that are of sufficient scale and profitability.

The WA Government’s Ord Stage Two strategy focused on the provision of multi-user infrastructure and land availability, but the task of winning Commonwealth environmental approval for the initial 7400 ha Goomig area of expansion was extremely arduous and at times daunting.

Kimberley Agricultural Investments will require similar approvals to open up the remaining 6000 ha Knox Plain area. Northern Australia’s agricultural prospects will be further enhanced if the Ord scheme can be expanded into the Northern Territory, with 14,000 ha soils suitable for a range of broadacre crops.

The Northern Territory Government is working with WA and the Commonwealth to progress this objective. The development of northern Australia as a future food bowl will take many forms and face many challenges.

Sustainable large-scale mosaic farmlands using water harvesting from ephemeral rivers and tapping aquifers will only occur, however, if potential private investors are not summarily dispatched by vested interest groups and government regulation. The national intent should be an approvals pathway to assist private capital through the maze of environmental, native title and tenure issues.

Underpinning productivity gains in general agriculture and drought-proofing the increasingly important Australian beef industry, is critical if we are to take advantage of emerging export opportunities.

Targeting groundwater opportunities in northern Western Australia is a priority for Royalties for Regions. For example, we want to use for agriculture the estimated 190 gigalitres of surplus freshwater licensed for discharge annually from mines operating below the water table in the arid Pilbara region.

At Woodie Woodie manganese mine, 120 kilometres east of Marble Bar, a trial plot funded through Royalties for Regions in 2012 produced sorghum yields of  240–300 tonnes per hectare using surplus fresh water from an operating manganese mine pit.

Woodie Woodie is licensed to discharge up to 60 gigalitres annually from large, shallow aquifers across its mining precinct and offers an amazing opportunity to farm the desert for fodder and other crops at commercial scale.

Rio Tinto currently uses water from its Marandoo iron ore mine near Tom Price to produce more than 30,000 large bales of hay per annum from 14 centre pivots for its Pilbara beef enterprise. It proposes a farm operation treble that size at its new Nammuldi mine west of Tom Price.

I’m excited about the potential for northern Australia to become a future food bowl for the nation, but unnecessary green tape is the biggest risk factor in preventing positive outcomes.

In 2013, the Hon Brendon Grylls MLA contested the North West seat of Pilbara, with a plan to increase focus on the north of the state. He is in his second term as Minister for Regional Development and Lands, and remains a passionate advocate for making regional Western Australia a better place to live, work and invest.



A future for northern Australia without intensive agriculture 

Senator Rachel Siewert

Australian Greens spokesperson on agriculture and natural resource management

The Greens want a broad based sustainable economy for northern Australia that supports the diverse people, cultures and communities across the region. Any development in our North must be based on a set of key principles to protect this precious and unique part of Australia.

These principles recognise:
  • the need for an economy to serve the people and the community
  • that the natural environment and Aboriginal culture are the region’s greatest assets and that local communities must be empowered to make decisions about the future of the region
  • that Aboriginal people have a right to live on their country and enjoy economic opportunities
  • the importance of multiple small, locally owned businesses to help create a diverse and strong regional economy
  • development must be subject to thorough assessment including cumulative effects on the environment and community.

We are concerned that the Government sees northern Australia as the last frontier for development and exploitation, through large-scale agriculture and industrial and resource development projects that are unsustainable and threaten to irreversibly damage the region.

Large-scale agriculture across Australia’s North remains a pipedream for some, but the evidence doesn’t support such development. The CSIRO has demonstrated that the water for large-scale, intensive agriculture does not exist in the North. The water that is present in the North plays a crucial role in the region’s ecosystems, and the impact of removing or redirecting it will be significant.

We are conscious of ensuring past mistakes, both in northern Australia and other parts of the country are not repeated. Unsustainable development has caused land degradation and species loss. The North already faces a number of serious and cumulative pressures such as climate change, changing weather patterns and more extreme weather events, large wild fires, weeds and other invasive species, degradation and an extinction crisis.

Instead of rushing into developing large-scale infrastructure that may not be environmentally or economically sound, we should be investing wisely in truly sustainable agriculture and sustainable development of northern Australia. Investments should be respectful, long term and sustainable, so as to support communities, rather than just delivering on the demands of big business. Agricultural development should be innovative, mosaic and adaptive. More funding needs to be directed to research and development to support this type of agricultural development.

We also need to consider other industries for the region that can operate alongside sustainable agriculture. Sustainable fishing industries with management and practices in place allow for stocks to be protected into the future. Tourism, Indigenous Rangers and carbon farming all exist and can be operated in ways that benefit communities and do not damage the region’s environment.

Ensuring Australia’s food security means investing in sustainable agriculture and helping farmers and growers around the country deal with the increasing threats they face from declining returns, resource development such as coal seam gas, climate change and extreme weather. The idea of a food bowl in the North may be appealing, but it isn’t realistic.

WA Senator Rachel Siewert is the Australian Greens Whip and Chairs the Senate Community Affairs References Committee.

Coming from an agricultural science background, Rachel worked for the WA Department of Agriculture and spent 16 years as the Coordinator of the Conservation Council of Western Australia before entering the Senate.

Rachel is the Australian Greens spokesperson on a number of critical issues, including agriculture, natural resource management and fisheries.

Back to November 2013 Insights contents page.

Images: AGO, certified su, Ord Irrigation