Why Donations Won’t Fix the Plight of Australian Farmers

The immediate needs of farming families are obvious. Feed to keep stock alive, someway of holding onto their farms under the stand-over tactics of some banks, and Rain. Donations can fix the immediate short term to an extent but they cannot fix the long term trajectory. That requires difficult conversations and an acceptance of the reality.

There are only three sectors in Australia that get consistent subsidies and support from the Australian Government – Farming, Mining and Banking. The Banking Guarantee given by Australian Taxpayers saved them from the worst of a financial meltdown that engulfed others around the world. And the thanks we’ve gotten as the Royal Commission has shown, is conduct blatantly criminal and in my videw, Directors ought to be jailed. The subsidies given to the Mining sector in the form of exploration and development support run into the billions. And the thanks we get for that is a failure to repatriate mine sites, gas being sent off shore so that we don’t even access our own resources without being gouged, and environmental degradation so vast, we can no longer farm on land.

Which brings us to Farming. I’ve said frequently that Australia needs to decide if it wants to #EatOrExtract because it cannot do both. Once used for extraction, land CANNOT be used for food production. Mines and fracking also use so much water that allowing them to occur on or near farm lands exacerbates the current drought conditions. So let’s have that Eat or Extract conversation because without it, we cannot start to address the plight of Australian Farmers.

And following that conversations (or perhaps simultaneously if we have the guts to do so) we need to have the more difficult conversation. What is the best use of the water we have in Australia?

Last year I was invited to Byron Bay by a Private Equity firm, to talk to a number of Private Equity organisations at a delightfully run conference. I discussed emerging issues and opportunities. And as part of that chat I said that growing Cotton in Australia should be banned. As there were one or two investors in cotton, they pushed back from the floor as was their right to do so. It allowed us to expand on my observation – I stated that the issue wasn’t cotton, it was water and that arguing that an abundance is the time to grow missed the point because we’ve been draining aquifers for years and abundance of water (those rare occasions) ought to be when we allow aquifers to refil.

Climate Change is real, droughts (and floods) will get worse. But INSIDE the farming community, we need to talk about what products get the water we have. Investors will say ‘greatest return’. But that’s a silo approach that time and again does not work. We know it doesn’t work because time and again the Australian Taxpayer and or individiuals are implored to donate to supporting Farmers. So either we take the investment approach and let the business of farming face the consequences of the market conditions (which means allowing them to fail when they cannot run their business in the conditions they face, like many other businesses in other sectors do every day of the week) OR we accept that farming is a critical piece of Australia’s society (which is it) and that a systemic approach needs to occur.

In Australia, that means a DELIBERATE allocation of water USE. Not water ‘rights’, water USE.

As I recommended in my Masters Thesis looking at water issues around the Globe, that means water is allocated to those farming products that produce the greatest benefit for the LOWEST use of water. Cotton should NEVER be grown in Australia. We do not have the water to be able to do so. Grow it where there is a consistent abundance of water and Australia is just not the place. In my mind the water allocation goes to food first, from lowest use per kilo produced, to highest use per kilo produced. After food you have a toss up between fibres and construction. So you have Hemp v Cotton – no brainer – Hemp wins by the length of the Nullabor. You have Bamboo versus Pine trees – Bamboo wins by the length of Bass Straight, you have Aquaponds versus Beef and so on.

The Plight of the Australian Farmer is exacerbated by Climate Change. But the sector also needs to confront its own reality in this plight. What type of Farm Product and what type of Farming method should get access to our ever shrinking supplies of fresh water?

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