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Natural, but not free

Sound management of natural resources is essential for long-term productivity. Increasingly, it is also about sound management of agriculture's public image.

Words: Matthew Cawood

Natural resources provide the raw ingredients of agriculture, but they also represent the sector's greatest vulnerability.

The age-old task of the farmer has been to use natural resources for maximum benefit without degrading them. However, shifting consumer sentiment has added to the need to care for water, soils and livestock. In this respect, awareness of nature's fragility and finitude is becoming an important driver of consumer purchasing preferences.

All natural resources are essential, but on the world's driest continent outside Antarctica, water is the scarcest and most valuable.

The Millennium Drought of the 2000s prompted the development of the Murray-Darling Basin Plan to balance the basin's environmental, social and agricultural demands. The process leading to the plan's formal adoption in November 2012 was complicated and controversial, and in 2014 the dust still hasn't settled.

The plan allows the Commonwealth Environmental Water Holder (CEWH) to buy up to 1500 gigalitres of water for strategic environmental release. The CEWH has so far acquired about 1200 gigalitres-but, says NSW Irrigators' Council Chief Executive, Mark McKenzie, "We haven't yet seen a full water recovery plan from the Commonwealth, we haven't seen an environmental watering plan, and we don't have systems for monitoring and evaluation."

This lack of detail is just one of the uncertainties causing volatility in Australia's fledgling water trading market. In parts of the Murray-Darling Basin, McKenzie reports, producers have sold up to 100 per cent of their water allocation to capitalise on short-term profits. Water is being bought up by investors and as security by governments. Two summers of record heat have depleted storage and soils, and there are signs that another El Niño drying phase will develop over the 2014 winter.

The likely result: pronounced instability in a water market where trade uncertainties complicate the already considerable effects of climatic volatility.

We're a long way from seeing the full impact of the [Murray-Darling Basin] plan and what it does to the availability and cost of water.  

In the north, the understanding of natural resources is only just beginning. A CSIRO study, released in early 2014, found that approximately 10 million hectares of soils across northern Queensland are suitable for arable agriculture, and that approximately 50,000 hectares could be sustainably irrigated. A 2013 report prepared for the Office of Northern Australia found that small groundwater-based mosaic irrigation could enhance the profitability of northern beef businesses by reliably producing forage or other opportunity crops.

These northern irrigation prospects could relieve pressure on southern resources and be part of the solution to Australian agriculture's single greatest challenge: climatic variability.

The National Farmers' Federation's (NFF) Blueprint for Australian Agriculture observes that climatic variability appears to be escalating. Mitigation strategies must consider "radical change" approaches, such as shifting industries to new regions, the Blueprint urges.

The other response to climate change is adaptation-something that Australia's grassroots, hands-on environmental movement Landcare has now been grappling with for 25 years.

Formed in 1989 in a joint initiative between the NFF and the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF), the Landcare movement has grown to more than 6000 Landcare and Coastcare groups that work on the ground to repair degraded habitat and develop more environmentally friendly, climate-proof ways of farming.

Former National Landcare Facilitator Brett de Hayr says the movement's strength lies in its decentralisation: "Under Landcare, people can design their own program and implementation and not have to work in with a rigid government program. That's what has made the concept so robust."

On 21 March, the movement's 25th anniversary, NFF and ACF called for ongoing commitment to the movement.

De Hayr thinks there's another step that Landcare could take to consolidate the movement's next quarter-century. "We've never quite recognised the potential of Landcare as a promotional tool," he says, "but because of its level of recognition, it could be a valuable brand under which to market the virtues of our agriculture."

Blueprint Headline Strategies

Natural Resources

  • Develop sustainability indicators for agriculture.
  • Move agriculture up the priority list for land and water access.
  • Develop a food and fibre production register, including land use and soils.
  • Develop improved response mechanisms to extreme events.