Wistful and fanciful dreaming versus factual analysis

Published 20150226

Two media articles dealing largely with the future of the agriculture sector were published today, – one in the Sydney Morning Herald and the other in the Australian Financial Review. They presented a remarkable contradiction in styles – one promoting a return to a more bucolic and less industrialised style of small-scale family farming, while the other focused on the challenges associated with re-engineering farming in order to almost double output to meet the projected future global demand. The contrast between these articles highlights the need for Australian farming to make careful and informed choices, rather than to become victims of fashion.

The two contrasting articles were a piece by Elizabeth Farrelly in the Sydney Morning Herald, and a piece by Asher Judah in the Australian Financial Review. Farrelly’s piece involved a brief commentary on US farmer Joe Salatin, who advocates for a return to smaller-scale farming, with the implication being that this is more environmentally friendly and produces better-quality food that is more nutritious. In the piece, Farrelly criticises the work of Professor Norman Bourlag, whose research into better wheat varieties is universally lauded, triggered the “Green Revolution”, resulted in him receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and numerous other international awards, and being credited as “the man who saved a billion lives.” 

In criticising Bourlag, she favourably cites a US cardiologist who has written;

that current epidemics of obesity, diabetes, mental ailments including depression, ADHD, bipolar and paranoid schizophrenia and a range of autoimmune diseases including Crohn’s, thyroid, lupus, endometriosis, vasculitis, coeliac disease, ulcerative colitis, peripheral neuropathy are linked to the deliberate but uncontrolled mutagenesis – essentially a primitive form of genetic modification – that Borlaug induced.”

Surprisingly, Farrelly did not go on to blame Bourlag for climate change, the black plague, the rise of terrorism, and dog droppings on Newtown footpaths, but no doubt those themes will be developed in the future!

The piece by Asher Judah is a more objective analysis of global developments associated with the growth in wealth and urbanisation of large populations in Asia. Judah points out that over the next two decades, the global middle class will almost triple in size, increaseing from 1.8 billion people at present to 4.9 billion people by 2030. The resulting increase in demand for food will meant that 50% more food has to be produced by 2030, which will mean that “more than just an explosion of food production will be required. A complete re-engineering of of global distribution systems and storage will be necessary.” Judah sees these developments as an enormous future opportunity for Australian agriculture, if the sector is able to gear up production and increase productivity in order to take full advantage of the opportunity. 

The contrast between the two pieces is interesting in the light of developments in the agriculture sector of the UK. From a nation that was self-sufficient in food just a few decades ago, the UK now imports 40% of its total food supply, and is projected to annually import more than half its total food requirements in the next few decades. There are multiple reasons for this change, but the general theme is a retreat from the pursuit of a more productive and industrialised agriculture sector, and the imposition of a multitude of environmental and other production constraints – especially in relation to the livestock industries – that have drained the profitability and vitality of the sector, and made UK farmers ever more reliant on government handouts. Somewhat ironically, British consumers now happily consume imported food produced using farming systems that are banned in Britain!

Farrelly appears to somewhat naively assume two things – first that modern agriculture is inherently destructive of people and the environment, and secondly that the approach taken by Joe Salatin is a model that is widely applicable in Australia. 

On the first, the throw away lines about the environmental destructiveness of modern, industrialised agriculture simply do not stand up to scrutiny. Take the simple example of GM cotton in Australia – GM crops seemingly being the epitome of industrial agriculture. Prior to it’s introduction, there was an enormous amount of pesticide applied to the cotton fields of NSW, so much so that pesticide levels were regularly high in local rivers, and residues were frequently detected in cattle. Since the introduction of GM cotton in the late 1990s, the use of pesticides has dropped to minimal levels, there have been no pesticide detections in local rivers or cattle since about 2007, and cotton production has increased, with output per unit of water use also having improved markedly. 

This example is not an isolated one. In fact in a whole range of different areas of agriculture, it is being recognised by both scientists and environmentalists that the best way to respond to future food demands without destroying the environment is sustainable intensification of agriculture – using all the available tools and technologies that science and so-called ‘industrial agriculture’ provides to maximise agricultural production on existing farmland and using existing water resources, and to minimise the need to expand agriculture’s environmental footprint.

A similar comment can be made about the ‘healthiness’ of modern agricultural products. Despite the armchair critics, food is now much healthier and safer than it has ever been in the past, and there are endless reams of statistics to support this contention – not the least in developing nations where safe and reliable food supplies have dramatically improved life expectancy, reduced infant mortality, reduced hunger, improved human health and helped to create harmonious and peaceful societies.

On the second issue – the applicability of Joe Salatin’s farming methods to Australia, there is no doubt that in some markets (especially the newly-trendy inner-city suburbs) there is a market for food produced using the farming systems advocated by Joe Salatin – at the sort of prices it is necessary to charge to make that form of production viable. In fact, there are many Australian farmers already well ahead of Joe Salatin in their thinking about sustainable, low-input farming systems which target these markets. 

But unlike the USA with its huge domestic market, the majority of Australian farmers largely need to rely on export markets which are highly competitive, and which generally are not so concerned about credence issues beyond safety and quality. This means that such farming systems are not viable in many instances, and if Australian farmers adopted those approaches they would be quickly outcompeted in export markets and face increased import competition in domestic markets.

The other issue Elizabeth Farrelly might like to consider in her musings is the differences in farm policy settings between Australia and the USA. The USA has a raft of direct and indirect farm subsidy systems including biofuel mandates, subsidised crop insurance and food stamp programs, and a mandated Farm Bill which regularly redirects approximately $US 20 billion from taxpayers directly into US farmer’s pockets every year, and a lot more indirectly through elevated grain and commodity prices. Australian farmers receive minimal government subsidies and impose the lowest cost on their taxpayers of any national farm sector on earth – a claim which even the ABC’s Factcheck unit decided was correct. 

As a consequence of markets, the Australian environment and policy, Australian farming systems are recognised as being some of the most efficient in the use of inputs like fertilisers and chemicals, and achieve water use efficiency levels that farmers in other nations can only dream about. The implicit assumption that the modern agricultural methods used many Australian farmers are harming people and the environment is not supported by evidence. 

While the current food fashions trends followed by wealthy consumers suggest a return to small scale farming producing hand-made, artisan foods with minimal ‘artificial’ inputs, market realities dictate that for the majority of Australian farmers, productivity and efficiency – made possible by science and technology – are critical to future profitability and viability.

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