Agriculture and Environmentalism

It seems I wrote this paper/speech in 1998 – 22 years ago. It reminds me of the saying “that the more things change, the more they remain the same”

The On-Farm and Industry Consequences of Environmentally Driven Land and Water Regulations

(A Darling River Farmer’s Perspective)

Speaker: David Boyd, Managing Director, Clyde Agriculture Ltd

Environmentally driven regulations pose what is probably the greatest single threat to the future growth and prosperity of Australian agriculture.

In this paper I will attempt to demonstrate why I believe this statement to be true, why resource protection is more important to farmers than anyone else, how public opinion (and thus Government) is being distorted, and make some suggestions as to what may be done to correct the situation.


It might help communication to know where “I’m coming from”.

It is my view that there are very significant market growth opportunities to Australia’s north for the food and fibre we are so efficient at producing. (We are not so efficient off-farm, but that’s another story). In a world with a population approaching 6 billion people, we have a moral responsibility to make the most of the God-given attributes of this country, together with the quiet extraordinary technological achievements of mankind, to maximise our productive capacity. Providing always that this is done in a manner which is sustainable and does not denude the resource base. If we fail to make the most of our opportunities with the tremendous endowments at our disposal, others in this world would have to be forgiven for questioning whether we should retain custody.

 Henry Lawson made the point in his 1904 poem “In The Storm That Is To Come”

I saw a vision in days gone by and would dream that dream again
Of the days when the Darling shall not back her billabongs up in vain.
There were reservoirs and grand canals where the Dry Country had been
And a glorious network of aqueducts, and the fields were always green.

I have seen so long in the land I love what the land I love might be,
Where the Darling rises from Queensland rains and floods run into the sea.
And is it our fate that we’ll wake too late to the truth that we were blind,
With a foreign foe at our harbour gate and a blazing drought behind!

Our Company grows cotton on the Barwon River at Brewarrina and on the Darling River up and downstream of Bourke. We grow wool, wheat and beef at Longreach, Quilpie, Bourke, Walgett, Coonamble and Warren. We are not corporate farmers as such, but are large-scale family farmers who strive always to take the long-term view.

Farmers’ Environmental Credentials

“Nations may battle and the world rock with revolution, but the land will care for those who care for it”. This quotation has appeared at the top of the editorial column of “The Land” since that newspaper was first published in 1911.

It appeared well before “the environment” became a fashionable issue! It is a maxim accepted and practised by the great majority of farmers throughout the country. Those who do not act accordingly, eventually fail and their land is taken up by those who do. And the land involved is resuscitated. The recuperative power of the vast majority of Australian land is extraordinary and is a characteristic which was quickly recognised by our early settlers.

There is no conflict between being environmentally responsible and being economically successful. In fact, they are one and the same thing. Like the great majority of farmers, we see protecting and enhancing the productive capacity of our major physical asset (the land) as absolutely central to our future survival and success. Responsible environmental behaviour is viewed generally by our Group as not only being right, but as representing enlightened self-interest.

Successful farmers are not environmental activists, but active environmentalists.

Public Opinion And Regulations

In a democracy, the underlying core objective of most, if not all Governments, is to get themselves re-elected. It helps if they are seen to be doing the things the voting public believe should be done. In other words, responding to public opinion is good politics. Whether the media is a reflection of public opinion or whether it shapes public opinion is a moot point. Does the media lead or does it follow? In any event, the enormous effort pressure groups of various types put into “massaging” the media, suggests that it is believed to have very considerable influence.

Likewise, Governments don’t have to be reactive! They can be proactive, take a real leadership position and with good communication, carry the nation with them.

My generation of farmers and others involved with agriculture, have seen enormous change in terms of agriculture’s standing in the wider community. We have seen agriculture move from a domination of our exports (80%) and being by far the most important sector of our economy, to a minor, but important sector (30%of exports) and a relatively small part of a much larger and more diversified general economy. Notwithstanding this relative decline, the gross value of rural production continues to grow significantly.

The ‘tyranny of distance’ exacerbates a growing communication gap. The country cousin visited for school holidays now seems a rarity.

New South Wales makes a good case-in-point, both geographically and politically. The most urbanised State in the most urbanised country with a physical barrier separating city from country in the form of the Blue Mountains.

The NSW Government holds power with only two seats west of the mountains! The key rural Minister is the member for Mt. Druitt, a former policeman. A fine man, but hardly steeped in rural folklore like a Doug Anthony, a Ralph Hunt or a Jack Renshaw! It is said that the current redistribution in New South Wales will allow a future Government to win a majority with no rural seats.

This Government came to power with a strong “green” agenda, driven by the activist groups, themselves generally short on any real agricultural knowledge. As a consequence, we have had the regulatory fiasco of SEP 46 (land clearing) and a very clumsy initial attempt at water reform.

The chief problem in all of this has been the lack of understanding, lack of good science, and lack of balance between environmental considerations and socio-economic factors.

The State clearly needs to set ground rules for the competing demands for fresh water. But it must strike the right balance between the various interests, and it must have a thorough understanding both of the behaviour of our rivers and the environmental and socio-economic forces involved.

In addition to the influence of the media, what the younger generation are being taught in schools and tertiary establishments should give agriculturists real concern. We seem to live in an age where negative views are seen in much sharper focus than positive views. Erosion, soil degradation, salinity are words that roll off the tongue and receive heavy emphasis in relevant courses. This is not to say that these are not real issues worthy of serious attention and correction. However, the problems need to be kept in perspective. For instance, many people will tell you of the enormous salinity problems in the MIA, but few will mention or be aware that salinity currently affects only 0.26% of the Murrumbidgee catchment. Heading off the threat of future salinity risks is a real issue, but does anyone tell us that within the Murrumbidgee catchment there are 85 Landcare groups working on such issues?

With land clearing we only ever seem to hear half the story. We are told of the negative effects, in photosynthesis terms, of clearing scrub, but are never told why the clearing is being done and what is replacing the timber. In many cases the substituted crop or pasture would be more beneficial in carbon dioxide terms. Nobody explains that soil moisture and nutrients can only support so much, and if we are going to feed and clothe people we often need to remove what is currently growing to allow substitution. I often remind people that if our earliest settlers had not removed trees to grow food crops they would not have nearly starved to death, they would have done so.

The late Bruce Davidson is reported as saying words to the effect of “the same area of land in Eastern Australia is now producing something like four times the production that it was thirty years ago. If this is degradation we should have more of it!”

Nothing is more provocative to farmers than for environmental activist, short on any real agricultural knowledge, to get up at a meeting and say that they represent “the environment”. This implies that farmers do not, or do not consider environmental factors. Further, what right do such people have to make such a presumptuous claim?

The shaping of public opinion by the media with its attraction to “shock/horror” stories, combined with a growing communication gap and weaker political representation, places agriculture in a very vulnerable position.

Regulation Administration

Seriously compounding the problems of excessive regulations is the cost and manner of their administration. Australia is generally seen to be a heavily over-governed country. Claims that we are not a heavily taxed country would seem to be in conflict with the previous statement. These costs must, one way or another, find their way into exporter’s expenses and thus affect our international competitiveness.

Probably more serious than this cost burden is the capacity of bureaucrats to frustrate the processing of development applications. The complete lack of any sense of urgency, constant requests for more and more information and a totally unacceptable practice of pursuing their own, often misguided agenda, all combine to discourage and delay desirable developments. The ideology of these bureaucrats is well paraphrased by many, in the term “watermelon” – green on the outside and pink of the inside!

There is a story, possibly apocryphal, that the Federal Minister for the Environment asked one of his senior bureaucrats what their job was. The reply was along the lines of protecting resources, etc.. “Oh”, said the minister, “I thought it was to implement Government policy”. Touche!

Where regulations are clearly essential, they need to be practical and fair and need to be administered positively and efficiently. Indulging in delay as the most insidious and effective form of denial is an unacceptable cost to the Australian economy, and probably the worst feature of the administration of regulations.

NSW Water Reform Process

It is interesting to observe the marked difference in approach between the NSW and Queensland Governments to the COAG agreements in respect to water reform. Through what is known as the WAMP (Water Allocation and Management Planning) process, Queensland is assessing the environmental needs and opportunities for further development along its river systems. Whereas the NSW approach is economically entirely negative. On the river management committees recently set up to “assess” Government proposals for a number of the NSW rivers, there are no less than five Government departments represented – Land and Water Conservation, EPA, NSW Agriculture, NPWS, and Fisheries. It didn’t even occur to anyone to invite State and Regional Development! Yet surely the whole process is about achieving a balanced outcome.

If the Darling River could speak for itself it would win more defamation settlements than all of our recent political leaders put together! It must surely be Australia’s most maligned river. The television footage of the widely publicised blue/green algae outbreak in 1991, which still appears regularly on Sydney television, is getting even greener as the film ages! When explorer Sturt reached the Darling in 1828 he reported the river was very low and the water was too salty to water his horses. Old-timers living on the Darling will tell you that there is nothing new about algae, in dry times when the river is low.

The facts are that the Darling is a “feast or famine” river, with huge irregular flows, the magnitude of which is generally not understood, including periods of very low or no flow. Providing extractions are taken from the bigger flows, when downstream impacts are minimal, there is the opportunity for further irrigation development on the Darling. Note that I have not used the usual term of Barwon/Darling. This “single trunk mentality”, deeply embedded in the thinking of regulators, ignores 30-40% of the Darling’s water sources. The Darling starts about 50km upstream of Bourke where the Barwon, Culgoa, and Bogan join. Of the huge land area drained by these rivers, 92% is unimpeded by a major dam. Thus to believe that man has more than minimal control of these river flows is a fallacy.

The proposed cap on annual water extractions for the entire length of the Barwon/Darling (to use that dreadful term), is the equivalent of less than two days flow past Bourke in a big river! The average annual flow past Bourke is 2.5 million megalitres. The median flow is a little less than 2.0 million megalitres. In 1996, the latest year for which we have figures, the flow past Bourke was nearly 5.0 million megalitres and the total extractions by all irrigators between Brewarrina and Louth was 139,000 megalitres, under 3% of the total flow!

Annual evaporation from the man-made Menindee Lakes Storage System exceeds the total extractions for irrigation from the Darling and all of its tributaries.

These figures highlight the absurdity of taking “an across the board/blunt instrument approach” to the target of reducing extractions. With the prime objective of river health, each reach of each river needs to be assessed on its merits, including impacts downstream. The outcomes would be variable reductions in extractions and some increases. As the Queensland Government has pointed out and as was finally recognised at the recent Kyoto conference, it all depends on agreeing the objective and assessing where you are starting from.

The Challenge for Agriculture

In the foregoing, I have tried to point out why I see regulation as such a threat to agriculture. The decline in agriculture’s relative economic importance, the decrease in its political power, the rise of environmentalism as a major issue, and distortions in education. The exaggeration of rural environmental problems by the city-based media, thus impacting urban public opinion and leading to increasing political pressure for action by Governments. The widening communication gap as a consequence of these trends and the increasingly distorted view of farmers as environmental vandals. The growing practice of bureaucrats to pursue their own agendas and the apparent powerlessness of the elected politicians to control the position.

All of this means that agriculture, using that term in the widest sense, is faced with a very real challenge if it wishes to continue to grow and prosper. It is fundamentally a communications challenge. It must explain, inter-alia, to the powerful urban electorates that:

  • agriculture is a sunrise, not a sunset industry, committed to long-term sustainability, adopting modern technological processes;
  • an industry that not only provides the Australian population with highly competitive, top quality food and fibre but also feeds and clothes millions offshore;
  • an industry which appreciates and protects the cultural, aesthetic, and historical values of its environment;
  • an industry that has struck an appropriate balance between social, economic, and environmental values. 


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