"How much support should be provided to agriculture?", is generally the wrong question asked at the wrong time - usually in the midst of highly emotive crisis linked to drought, flood or fire.
A much better question is "why should a government provide support to agriculture?".
From this question a real debate can flow, none of which is more important than that around "what do you want agriculture to do?". Only then should we start to quantify how much support might be appropriate.
For context it is important to note that the national agricultural enterprise encompasses a complex and extensive supply chain.
Conversations about agriculture should not be misconstrued as conversations just about farmers.
So, why should the government provide support to agriculture?
The answer is actually pretty simple.
A sustainable agricultural sector is essential to underpin the long term health and prosperity of every person in a society.
Therefore, government is obliged to act to ensure the sector is viable - for the sake of all in society.
What does society want agriculture to do?
In my view the role of agriculture in Australian society has shifted substantially from its traditional roots and as a result there is a growing conflict between conservative attitudes about the sector and the need for substantial reform of both the structures and support around the sector.
Australian agriculture was traditionally driven and supported by successive government policies and interventions, based largely on the notion that the value of the sector lies in what it can produce in the short term.
Modern knowledge and understanding informs a new paradigm about what society expects from the agriculture enterprise.
It seems to me that our role is to optimise production while preserving the natural capital that underpins that production.
The value of the sector increasingly lies in the long term productivity and sustainability of the sector.
These ideas about value and purpose of agriculture are quite different and they are creating an inevitable conflict around how society perceives agriculture and agricultural practices generally.
It is clear that this stewardship aspiration for agriculture is not being realised and few, if any, of the incumbent political or industry leaders have any clear vision for this new agricultural sustainability paradigm.
How much support should the government provide to agriculture?
In Australia we provide the lowest levels of support to our agricultural sector when compared to other countries in the OECD. These levels have failed to deliver the required sustainability (see figure 1).
Australian agricultural productivity has been languishing behind our competitors for decades amidst ongoing declines in terms of trade, negative impacts of climate change and inevitable declines in natural, human and financial capital (see figure 2).
Even a cursory evaluation of the current status and trajectory of Australian agriculture points to an inherently unsustainable and increasingly volatile sector.
This is more profoundly reflected in declines in the health and prosperity of rural and regional communities over and above farmers per se.
A business as usual model for agriculture is doomed to fail the national interest and it is clear that the current levels of support to the sector are inadequate.
This has significant and long term social and economic implications for the entire economy.
It is now a national strategic imperative to stabilise the agricultural enterprise and ensure policy settings will deliver long term and fundamental sustainability.
It is difficult to quantify costs and benefits around sustainability in the short cycles, but much easier as you extend the assessment timeframes.
Sustainable systems are the lowest cost systems in the longer (generational) term.
The evidence in front of us suggests that underfunding agricultural research and development and relying on global trade to guide domestic agricultural practices is likely to be very expensive for the nation indeed when we consider the loss in productivity over time.
There is now a compelling argument for significantly increasing the levels of public sector investment and support to agriculture to arrest declines in the traditional productivity context and even more so in the context of emerging paradigms around natural capital and sustainability.
- Peter Mailler is a grain and cattle farmer on the NSW/Queensland border.
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