Australian and international farm policy news

New Minister for Agriculture

Australia’s new Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources, David Littleproud, came to the portfolio in December 2017 with just 18 months experience in federal government. The 41-year-old Nationals Member for Maranoa has a background in agribusiness and rural banking.

‘I’ve been very keen to hit the ground running and… I think Australian agriculture is in for a big year,’ he said.

Mr Littleproud has entered the political fray swinging as tensions rise over the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, following the Senate’s rejection of proposed changes and subsequent threats from the NSW and Victorian governments to withdraw from the Plan.

‘This is an act of bastardry,’ he said. ‘Halting the return of water to the river will not fix the river.’

Basin Plan review backs upwater targets

Consultants Ernst and Young (EY) have completed their analysis of efficiency measures in the Murray-Darling Basin (MDB), commissioned by the MDB Ministerial Council last year.

The 300+ page EY report drew on studies of the social and economic impacts of water efficiency measures, including the effects of infrastructure investment and recovery programs. It provided advice on the recovery of 450 GL in additional environmental water through efficiency measures, with neutral or improved socioeconomic outcomes, to enhance environmental outcomes.

The 1 million square kilometre Basin extends across four states and one territory. In 2014–15, the Basin produced $7 billion of irrigated agricultural output, forming an integral part of Australia’s economy.

The 2012 Basin Plan, as part of the Water Act 2007, was enacted to achieve a healthy MDB and address an identified over-allocation of water rights – but more than five years after it was legislated to return 3200 GL to the environment, the Plan remains contentious. Irrigators are still concerned the additional 450 GL of ‘upwater’ yet to be recovered could cause further pain for communities. Upon delivery of the EY report, Agriculture Minister David Littleproud said he was committed to ‘delivering the plan to which all Basin governments agreed (450 GL).’

‘Upwater’ comprises 450 GL of the plan to return 3200 GL to the river system. The ‘recovery target’ of 2750 GL is the volume needed to limit irrigation take to 10,873 GL (the sustainable diversion limit), deemed the maximum amount within a sustainable, healthy river system. EY also recommended a greater focus on centrally collecting data specifically relating to water efficiency measures, in order to better understand the socioeconomic impacts of these measures and risks in achieving the program within budget.

National Farmers’ Federation Water Taskforce chair Les Gordon said it was crucial the plan be put into action in a way that minimised negative impact on Basin communities and industries.

Genetic modification laws under review

Australia’s gene technology regulator Raj Bhula has proposed reducing regulations around gene editing techniques such as CRISPR.

Current regulatory frameworks are based on the placement of unrelated genetic material into another organism, whereas gene editing is manipulation within the existing organism. As such, gene editing would not be considered ‘modification’ under revised regulations. If approved, the reforms could benefit agricultural research by fast-tracking the research and commercialisation of disease, salt or drought-resistant crops, or high yielding varieties.

Chinese researchers have used CRISPR to make barley resistant to a fungal disease known as powdery mildew, and the results are now being replicated in wheat. The University of Queensland is using gene editing to breed bananas resistant to Panama Tropical Race 4.

Globally, CRISPR has been used in rice, soybeans, potatoes, sorghum, oranges and tomatoes, and could help to eliminate certain livestock diseases.

The proposed changes are currently open for consultation, and will need approval by Commonwealth, state and territory governments.

National crop estimate variations sow doubts

Questions have been raised about government crop forecasts after the release of the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) estimate of last season’s bumper wheat crop came in almost 5 million tonnes lower than the ABARES figure.

In January, the ABS delivered a preliminary figure for the 2016–17 wheat crop of 30.35 million tonnes – 4.65 million tonnes less than national grain forecaster ABARES, which had issued a figure of 35 million tonnes.

The ABS data is released almost a year after last season’s crop was harvested, as it relies on a series of surveys for its calculations. The variation between the two government agencies’ crop predictions appears to be a difference in wheat area planted. The ABS estimated 11.72 million hectares of wheat was planted, and ABARES estimated 12.83 million ha.

The United States Department of Agriculture revised down its Australian wheat crop estimates for last season in mid-January, in line with the ABS figures.

Image:  FAOALC