Quite a few months ago now I took part in a session on water at the Melbourne Writers Festival, where I got to meet Gwynne Dyer, whose work on international politics I’ve been reading for many decades and also Maude Barlow from Canada and Paul Sinclair of ACF. Peter Mares chaired the session and subsequently broadcast it on The National Interest. You can read the transcript here. There was a lot of agreement but also some fairly sharp disagreement: Maude Barlow took a localist line on food production while I stressed the need for Australia to remain an exporter of food (the audience tended to agree with Maude).

15 thoughts on “Parched

  1. Ethnic and religious tensions aside, it might be better if population distribution were somewhat matched to local food production. A looming example is the live cattle export trade to SE Asia. This raises many issues; animal welfare, the health effects of increased meat consumption, NT land degradation, methane, how the importers will pay, transport after Peak Oil, using crops to feed cattle instead of people. It might be simpler in the long run if people ate what was available locally or relocate if resources are insufficient.

  2. a fun talk, doesn’t get into too much detail (which is good and bad). I wouldn’t worry about the audience reaction tho, they hardly seem a representative sample.

  3. Global warming is drying out the major agricultural food bowls of our planet. Australia’s major food bowl, producing 42% of Australia’s food is the lower Murray darling Basin, which as we are all aware is dry, in fact its so dry the river red gums are dying and the ecosystem is being irrevocably damaged.

    Meanwhile you have operators like Timbercorp and Waterwheel buying up water licenses and planting Tasmanian Blue Gums and rice. Upstream we grow cotton with liberal applications of pesticides.

    Tim Flannery says that the world population will peak at 9 billion within 50 years and fall to 1 billion by 2110. The unfortunate 8 billion face famine and disease like HIV and drug resistant TB. The best placed populations are those that can farm the arctic and antarctic regions.

    I like the idea of control of the water basin being held by the inhabitants of that water basin, after all they will live with the consequences of their decisions.

  4. You are spot on about maintaining and increasing Australia’s food exports. Withdrawing water rights from rice, cotton and grass production, whether by capping or trading, does nothing to undermine the importance of dryland crops, notbaly wheat, to world food security. The localisation rhetoric is powerful but misplaced in this case. The lack of (audience applause) for the hopeful economist saying “well it’s a little more complex” is to be expected, yet somehow the arguments have to be put.

  5. I agree with Hermit and billie and when I listened to the National Interest broadcast I found myself in agreement with Maude Barlow and Gwynne Dyer.

    Marginal Notes, localisatio is teh only sustainable option in the longer term.

    The way economists in the service of corporations have convinced country afer country to abandon local food self-sufficiency in favour of cash crops for export to other nations in recent decades is criminal. (Of course there should be global trade, but it should comprise only a small proportion of what is produced.)

    Many countries are going to be struggling in coming decades to regain that self-sufficiency without large sectors of their populations starving. Antony Boys has described the problem that Japan will face in his article “How Will Japan Feed itself without Fossil Fuel Energy” in “The Final Energy Crisis” (2nd Edition)(2008) edited by Sheila Newman.

    I think Australia should continue to export food to Japan until Japan can re-establish the food self-sufficiency that it enjoyed in the Edo Period (1603-1867). However, anyone who advocates tht we shoud aim to increase, rather than decrease, the dependency of Japan and other foreign countries on Australian food exports and our own economic dependency on such exports is reckless and dangerous.

    Briefly, whle I am still here, can I commend the aforementioned Sheila Newman’s critique of the recenly released State of Environment Report for Victoria?

  6. Local food production is important. Destruction of local food production inevitably leads to protection until it is restored. If globalisation falls in a heap as it did at the end of WW1 and economies are destroyed as they were in Europe (in that case by war) one of the first steps required to rebuild an economy is protection of food production. If people dont eat they cant work. Even the free market following capitalist masters of the universe know that. As much as possible regions should be self sufficient in food and water supplies. Imagine relying on having water shipped to Australia from another country (because they were more efficient at producing water).

    That is simply ridiculous and taking the notion of free markets to an extreme.

    I thought it absolutely absurd when I heard that the Wagga region was bulldozing established orange groves because 3 month old oranges from South America were cheaper. The M reduces the Y and protection of the Y is a domestic economic policy decision not a global decision. Thats jobs, liveleihoods and income lost. Im not a fanatic globalisation adherent as you can see. Like so many economic directions equilibrium is in the middle and right under our noses not waiting to reveal itself at the end when a utopian long run arrives.


  7. I am not sure if I can bring myself to thank Alanna for having passed on that dispriting news that established orange groves are being bulldozed in the Wagga region.

    It is gross negligience on the part of our Government to have allowed this situation to come about. The only possible reasons that importing oranges from South America can be more economic than growing them in Australia are: slave labour working conditions, underpricing of the petroleum necessary to ship the oranges here or other hidden subsidies.

    I think the site may be of inerest. They show that our problems are largely ther result of having allowed market” forces decide the management of the Murray Darling basin.

    The most disastraous aspect of this was the ‘free market’ idiocy of separating water rights from land tenure and making them commodities which could be bought and sold for speculative gain. This was astonishingly supported at the time by all the mainstream environmental organisations around eight or ten years ago as I seem to recall.

    Fair Water use calls for:

    1. declaring a national state of emergency to deal with the Murray Darling ciris and

    2. establish a Royal Commission to thoroughly examine the issue and to come up with solutions to the problem.

    It argues that water rights foolishly given to environmentally harmful agri-businesses should be taken back in return for compensation that is within the means of this country to provide.

  8. Daggett (5), I think your own proposals are “reckless and dangerous”. Striving for national food self-sufficiency as the norm, regadless of resource endowments, is bound to result in poverty and starvation. And why stop at national boundaries? Mao wanted every province in China to be self-sufficient in grain, with disastrous consequences for people and the environment. Australia produces 25 million tons of wheat, nearly 5% of world production, and exports over 60% of this. Australia’s exports equal the combined imports of Egypt, Indonesia and China. It would be detrimental to global food security to reduce this output, forcing up food prices and adding to the suffering of the poor. As I mentioned, historically, irrigated rice and dairy production in Australia have been characterised by the use of subsidised inputs (water) to produce subsidised outputs, and it is only right that this waste should be rectified, but wheat production is in a different category. It is romantic notions of self-sufficiency that are unsustainable. What century was it you wanted to take Japan back to?

  9. MN the factor that will take away romantic notions is energy costs. Oil which was declining 6% a year in output before the recent demand drop is the mainstay of farming and food distribution. Thanks to trucks, tractors, ships, freezers and fertilisers delivered food requires 10 calories of energy input for every calorie that is eaten. That means countries like Japan with high population and meagre resources will find that food imports become exorbitant as oil volume declines. Energy prices must climb again due to physical shortage despite reduced demand. Pundits are tipping 2013 as the start of the crunch period. Australian food producers may not then be able to pass on rising costs to customers. Thus the Japanese may find themselves in the same league as the Ethiopians, unable to pay for adequate food imports and unable to grow enough locally.

  10. Thanks, Hermit.

    Marginal Notes, a society that has lost its ability to feed its population has gone backwards and not forwards in my view.

    When the Japanese are no longer able to import food for other countries or the petroleum or fossil-fuel derived fertilisers and pesticides necessary to necessary to maintain the current productivity of their agricultural sector, they won’t be able to eat their cell phones or their plasma TV screens.

    An unpalatable fact that all of us will have to face up to is that any agricultural system in which all the nutrients are not recycled is not sustainable in the longer term. Eventually our soil will lose its productivity and will no longer be able to feed the population that it currently supports.

    This effectively rules out, in the longer term, any agricultural system in which the produce is exported long distances, let alone the giant agri-business which are wreaking destruction at a massive rate upon the Murray Darling system.

    If we read in the article “Working the land – or not” Jenny Hume’s description of the effects of wheat cropping on her land, it is clear that, large scale export of wheat cannot be sustained in the longer term.

    Cropping the land locks one into more cropping. So we continued to crop for the first decade or so, but then gradually took the land out of cropping. The cost of getting out of cropping is far more expensive than getting in. So the incentive to keep cropping, even though the season may look uncertain, is strong if one wants to improve the bank balance. It promises a much higher return. But it has its downside.

    Cropping depletes the soils, thus requiring larger and larger expensive fertilizer input over the longer term. For moisture conservation during the fallowing period, more and more herbicides are needed to deal with the increasing resistance of weeds to Roundup, the broad spectrum herbicide most widely used in the cropping belt. But more importantly, it destroys the natural grasses, and once destroyed they take ten years to re-establish. It also wipes out the native insects, reptiles and birdlife. Croppers don’t like trees in the way of the big machines, so where they can get away with it they push them over and burn them. They can do this even under current clearing restrictions. So a monoculture of both flora and fauna is created and we are surrounded by thousands upon thousands of hectares of it.

    The long term unsustainabiliy of modern industrial agriculture, or, indeed any hierarchical system, be it slave plantations in the Antebellum United States or the ancient Roman slave based systems, is discussed in the book Dirtthe erosion of civilisations (2007) by David Montgomery. It is 245 pages long but covers comprehensively human agriculture and its usually destructive effect on this planet’s most precious resource. It is difficult to praise this book too highly.

    One agricultural system which works vastly better than most others in the world is Cuba’s relocalised system largely based on the principles of Permaculture. This was adopted in the 1990’s as a consequence of it suddenly losing roughly half of its oil imports from the former soviet Union.

    Another heavily fossil-fuel-dependent agricultural system which failed after fossil fuel imports were reduced as a result of the collapse of the Soviet bloc is that of North Korea. This is described in the chapter “North Korea: The Limits of Fossil Energy-based Agricultural Systems – What North Korea tells us About Our Future” by Antony Boys in The Final Energy Crisis (2nd edition) edited by Sheila Newman.

  11. MN

    Really suggesting that criticisms of open slather globalisation and free trade represents revisionism and a return to Maoist doctrines is silly. There are reams of facts where globalisation has failed and especially with regards to natural resources like water supply. We all know in other regions it has been hugely successful. China has done exceptionally well since 1995 and millions lifted from poverty but the facts remain that there are a few exporting powerhouses (China, Japan and Germany) that have developed from globalisation to have penomenally big trade surpluses but the vast majority of nations remain in trade deficit and the US has deteriorated and has become the worlds biggest importer and trade deficit. Is it sustainable for the US? Very obviously not but Im damn sure some large US businesses have done well nonetheless – but not Joe Ordinary. I have one main objection to the globalisation mandarins philosophies. Why can I not get other numbers apart from trade dollars and their growth? Why isnt poverty and inequality in countries that have participated in free trade agreements monitored and tracked by organisations like the IMF/ Why does privatisation of public services have to be a requirement of an IMF loan? What is so bad about public provision of services? I dont want eduactional institutions doing deals with private sector companies to get funding for equipment (or TV shopping and ads beamed to schoolkids in classrooms) Why has globalisation been permitted to erode free public services like water, health and education – services which for decades have assisted the poor in many many nations.

    The privatisation ethos of free trade philosophies and policies is causing real economic loss and hardship for millions of people worldwide.

  12. Alanna, you’re reading too much into my comments. I don’t see how supporting Australia’s contribution to world food security is advocating “open slather globalisation” or a “privatisation ethos”. But I can’t agree with daggett’s blanket condemnation of modern agriculture. How family farms in Australia correspond to hierarchical systems such as slave-based cotton plantations is beyond me. Rainfed wheat production is not what’s causing the devastation of the Murray-Darling Basin. Yields have been increased and soil degradation has been reduced due to better varieties, rotations with N-fixing crops and pastures, and improved agronomic practices. For the foreseeable future, Australia should continue exporting wheat and investing in more sustainable practices for the sake of the world’s food supply.

  13. Marginal Notes, of course family farms are not hierarchical farms in the same way that farms in Ancient Rome and the Antebellum US were. However, whilst having a non-hierarchal agricultural system is a necessary condition for sustainability, but it is not sufficient.

    The current trend for family farms to be sold to larger agribusinesses will make a bad situation situation worse.

    The evidence that modern industrial agricultural practices, whether practised by family farms or larger agribusinesses, are unsustainable, is conclusive. If they are not changed, the ability of the soil to yield sufficient prodcue to sustain us will be lost. It has happened many times before and will happen again unless things change.

    Whilst wheat is not as damaging to the Murray Darling system as is, for example, cotton or rice, I have shown above that the way wheat is grown does degrade the soil, so even industrial wheat production can’t be sustained indefinitely. If we want an example of where current Australian agricultural practices will lead us, look at the example of North Korea as I mentioned above.

  14. I know this is off track but I am concerned that the World Bank doesnt seem to publish the poverty headcount ratio in any of their region or country reports of developmental data. It may be that the poverty stats are in the poverty area of world bank but I just find it interesting that this is the only blank development indicator for every region and every country in their standard economic development indicators database per country or per region. Has displaying poverty measures gone out of fashion?

  15. Surely the elephant in the room here is overpopulation? Only one of the speakers touched on it, and then only very briefly. In a closed economy (like planet Earth), demand for water -and indeed every natural resource- is driven by two things: per capita demand, and population. The bigger our population, the more we must constrain our lifestyles in the long term.
    In discussions like these we often treat population levels as a given, but here in Australia we are doing everything we can to increase our population as fast as possible. At the same time, we seem completely unable to talk about the consequences for the environment and our enjoyment of life. Until we face up to this, and start including population as one half of the argument in any discussion about natural resources, we cannot hope to truly deal with the problem.

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