The 'R' Files

Article excerpt

Blueprint for a Living Continent: Australia's Latest Attempt at Self-Destruction

At regular intervals, groups of activists and scientists declare that modern agriculture is destroying the natural environment. According to the refrain, not only do current practices destroy natural attractions, but they also undermine the land's productive capacity.

Although the claims may be put forward by people with scientific and economic knowledge, this is overwhelmed by their `commitment to the cause'. Moreover, the claimants' prescriptions will usually enthrone them as environmental dictators.

The latest such warning, Blueprint for a Living Continent, was issued by the so-called Wentworth Group, largely comprising activists on the payroll of government or with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). The report prescribes government spending of $3.6 billion over the next decade. This is both to provide a contribution in its own right and to induce an additional $12.7 billion of private spending on transforming the agricultural system. Ambitious though $16 billion appears, it is modest when compared with the ambit claim hatched by Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and National Farmers Federation (NFF) involving a $65 billion fund.1

The Wentworth Group sees us heading towards a precipice. It claims that:

* `two thirds of landholders report that their property values will decline by up to 25% over the next three to five years';

* dryland salinity is rising and `could affect' 22 per cent of cultivated land, and that the sustainability of our agriculture is under threat.

Even though these sentences are ominously pregnant, close reading reveals them to be sensationalist factoids, devoid of any real meaning. Thus

* Landowners think their property values could fall by up to 25 per cent;

* Dryland salinity could affect 22 per cent of cultivated land.

On these flimsy foundations, the report proceeds to erect a superstructure forged from evocative phrases such as these:

* `Salt destroying our rivers and land like a cancer.'

* `Many of our native plants and animals are heading for extinction.'

* `About 50,000 km of streams have been degraded by sand deposition and sediments are moving off hill slopes much faster than soil is formed.'

* `We are taking more resources out of our continent than its natural systems can replenish.'

The jeremiad is redolent of Theodore Roosevelt who, in 1911, said,

... the time has come to enquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, ... when the soils have been further impoverished and washed into streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields and obstructing navigation.

Yet, not one of Roosevelt's anxieties has proved well founded. America (like Australia) now has more forest than in 1911, its soils are more fertile and its rivers less polluted. All this has occurred in tandem with an increasingly productive agricultural sector.

Roosevelt was reliant on patchy agricultural output statistics in arriving at his misconceptions. The Wentworth Group has no such excuse. It did not take the time to examine the data on Australian agricultural output. This has shown real growth of 2-3 per cent per annum in every decade since the 1950s, notwithstanding dark forebodings from many Wentworth Groupies that have dominated the debate for more than 20 years.

Drought in the current year will force agricultural production down by ten per cent. But this is a natural phenomenon unrelated to any human actions. It signals no trend. Indeed, with genetic modification of crops still in its infancy, an upward kink in productivity growth is likely from greater pesticide tolerance, lower water usage and increased useable output.

Having set up its straw man, the Wentworth Group offers its solutions. Predictably, none of those include genetic modification-- clearly new technology like this is unacceptable to the WWF, while CSIRO apparently has no compunction in remaining silent if it means a funding boost. …