Updated: June 13, 2012
Australia’s north no food bowl
This editorial from our Northern Australia Campaigner, Gavan McFadzean, first appeared in the Australian Financial Review.
Since before federation, our collective national psyche has been uneasy with the lack of development and population in Australia’s north. ‘Populate or perish’ described our xenophobic fear of our overpopulated northern neighbours.
Having already made significant inroads in to securing access to northern Australia’s mineral wealth, China now also looks to Australia’s north for ‘food security’. In China’s state owned corporations, we may finally have a partner with deep enough pockets to succeed where we have failed in countless attempts to establish large scale agriculture across northern Australia.
In the last year, both major parties have turned their attention to overcoming the considerable constraints to agricultural development. Last September Tony Abbott announced that if elected the coalition will pursue an ambitious plan to double agricultural production by the middle of the century, through a network of new dams across Australia’s north.
Now Labor has joined the national discourse, with Craig Emerson launching a joint investigation with China into the feasibility of a northern food bowl. It’s as if both sides of politics view the lack of agricultural development in northern Australia as a perplexing anomaly that must be addressed.
At first glance you can see why. Covering an area from Cairns to Broome north, Australia’s tropical savanna is huge and receives half the nation’s rainfall, creating more than 60 river systems, almost all of them unregulated. It is Australia’s final frontier - our food security insurance policy to the collapsing, overburdened Murray Darling system.
But the promise of developing northern Australia for agriculture has proven to be a mirage, and not through lack of trying. In 2009 the Northern Australia Land and Water Taskforce, created by the Howard Government in 2006, released its final report.
The Taskforce, informed by the best science available, found that northern Australia will never be the food bowl of the world, Asia or even Australia, and it never was going to be even though people have been dreaming it for nearly 150 years.
Modest increases only
Under a best-case scenario the Taskforce found agriculture could be modestly increased from 20,000 hectares currently farmed to 60,000 hectares, a tiny proportion of the 100 million hectare study area and way short of the aspirations of either of the major parties or the Chinese.
There is plenty of rain in the north, but the Taskforce's final report found that building new dams was not appropriate because evaporation is so high and flooding rains occur only during a short and intense wet season, leaving the rest of the year in effective 'drought' conditions.
It found that due to remoteness and lack of infrastructure the economics of new dams don’t add up, the geology is unsuitable, the climate hostile and the ancient soils nutrient-poor and highly fragile.
The report noted that the river systems and flood plains are so close to the coast that the water runs quickly to the sea and relatively little of the rainfall occurs in the upper reaches of rivers where the topography for dam construction is more favourable.
We have been here before. The recent experience with the Murray-Darling Basin has shown that science is too often the first victim of political debate and this is no different. But even in northern Australia there are the real-life failures that are impossible to ignore.
The Ord Irrigation Scheme is not a success story of northern development. In 2010, rural media breathlessly reported the return of rice cultivation to the Ord after an absence of 30 years. This was to be the bedrock crop for the entire Ord region.
Two hundred and twenty million taxpayer dollars ploughed into the long stalled Stage 2 of Ord River Irrigation Scheme in the eastern Kimberley. The brave new world of agricultural development was to be created by a rice bonanza.
With much less fanfare, the same outlets quietly reported twelve months ago that the 2011 crop, the second, had been infested with the destructive rice blast fungus that the agriculture department has acknowledged can never be eradicated. It was the first time that Australian rice crops had been infested.
Our most expensive northern food bowl experiment is now dominated by sandalwood plantations, not food. Despite this, state and federal parties on both sides have indicated their willingness to pour good money after bad into Ord Stage 3.
Even without these massive constraints, farming the north would cause a host of environmental woes we are already grappling with in southern Australia – the impacts of vegetation clearing on a massive scale, polluted rivers, soil erosion, dredging, port and infrastructure development, salinity and loss of species.
This is on top of the negative impacts on northern Australia’s grazing, fishing and tourism industries. Northern Australia is not a wasteland waiting to be industrialized. It is home to a breathtaking interconnected mosaic of escarpment country, heathlands, rainforests, coastline, floodplains, mangroves and coral reefs.
The region contains no less than twenty-five percent of the world’s tropical savannah, by far the largest proportion of this habitat in the world and the only significant area in an economically developed, politically stable country. Similar woodlands once covered parts of Africa, Asia and South America, now tragically seventy percent of the world’s tropical savannah is lost forever.
This is not to say that the only future for northern Australia is as development free zone, but dreams of a food bowl to feed Asia are not supported by the science. It is almost guaranteed to be an expensive, tax payer funded environmental disaster.
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