Saturday, December 20, 2008

Don't blame Agriculture, Blame yourself

“Historically, farming is the single biggest cause of environmental degradation…” Paddock to Plate: Food, Farming & Victoria's Progress to Sustainability. The Future Food and Farm Project Background Paper. Australian Conservation Foundation, Melbourne.2008.*

It is common to find Agriculture described as the greatest contributor to environmental degradation in Australia. This is unfair to the land managers accused of committing the acts which undeniably damaged the natural resource base of the Nation. Two other parties must stand in the dock beside the farmer for this action: the Consumer and the Government.

Consumers: People who rely on agriculture for their food and sustenance, yet do not understand the agency-principal relationship that they as consumers have with food producers. No damage would have been done to the environment had the community not needed food and clothing from landholders. And the damage that has been done would have been less intensive had land managers not been forced to over-work the land in response to the low prices they are expected to take.
Governments: During the period of expansion of Australia’s agricultural base, Governments encouraged the clearing of millions of hectares of brigalow, mulga and other native vegetation species. In fact, it was often a condition of leases that the land be cleared and brought into production quickly. Further, if Australian farmers have mismanaged the soils by bad decisions, their government advisers who encouraged them should bear much of the responsibility.
Governments should acknowledge their role in environmental degradation in the past and the potential that such advice could cause damage now and in future.
Commentators who depict the farmer and grazier as the ‘problem’ often express sympathy for “our farmers” and see the agriculturalist as a victim of climate and ideas inherited from their parents, without considering their own contribution to the loss of community assets, ie. the natural resource base. Governments and environmental bodies, in many cases unaware of the primary producer’s dilemma, can be seduced into thinking that they will solve the ‘problem’ of Agriculture by forcing ‘non-viable’ producers off the land and/or by legislating a ‘duty of care’ to enforce a land management ideal. The slogan used to be “Get Big Or Get Out”. Now it is “Get Sustainable or Get Out” – entrenching the structural inequities in the system.
Ideally, those making decisions about Agriculture – including policy, land use recommendations, and the design of scientific research projects – should be required to have lived and worked on the land for long enough to understand the issues or undertake to engage meaningfully in rural affairs (as Tony Burke did on coming into the Portfolio).

*ACF is conducting a campaign against agriculture which should be watched carefully. It is able to get traction for its simpistic solutions because those they seek to convince - city-based decision-makers - know less than they do about what really goes on out here.

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