America has corn and Asia has rice. It’s time Australia had a native staple food



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Angela Pattison, University of Sydney; Rebecca Cross, University of Sydney, and Tina Bell, University of Sydney

Most countries have a staple food: native, fast-growing and easy-to-store plants high in carbohydrates.

In Africa, it’s sorghum. In Asia, rice. In the Americas, corn and potato. Around the Mediterranean Sea, the Middle East and Europe, it’s wheat and barley.

Australia is an exception – we do not have a staple food. But native grasslands provide ample opportunity to produce grains. In fact, Aboriginal people once used native grasses to make bread, and there is evidence they were the world’s first bakers.

We argue it’s time to resurrect Australia’s ancient breadmaking tradition. Let’s take a closer look at the reasons why.

Loaf of brown bread.
Bread with 10% button grass.
Author provided

Australia’s ancient grain

In an area known as the Panara, located in a ring around central Australia, Aboriginal people used sophisticated fire-based techniques to manage grasslands and harvest grain. They collected the grain in bulk several times a year, then stored it in the off-season.

The grains harvested were from native grasses – species well suited to growing in local conditions. They were ground, mixed with water then baked in hot coals, to produce a bread resembling damper.

So why doesn’t this collection and preparation of native grains still happen today? There’s no clear answer, however preparing seed for food was very time- and labour-intensive. Also, as Aboriginal groups were massacred or forcibly removed from Country, such practices, and associated knowledges, largely disappeared.

An indigenous person grinding native grain.
Indigenous grain grinding was common before European settlement.
Wikimedia

The benefits of staple food

A native, staple Australian crop would allow us to grow food suited to our environment.

The benefits of producing food from native grasslands are well known. Grasslands need limited, if any, fertiliser, no pesticides, and can tap into groundwater so they don’t need irrigation or land cultivation.

While native grasslands yield less seed than conventional cropping systems (more on this later), fewer resources are needed to produce it. What’s more, grasslands simultaneously provide essential environmental “services” including supporting plant and animal diversity, covering bare ground, and enabling water infiltration, recycling of nutrients and carbon sequestration.




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Australia’s total agricultural production is currently worth about A$60.8 billion a year, and we export about 65% of what we produce. A staple Australian food might not contribute directly to the value of our agricultural exports, at least in the short term. But it may reduce the cost of pest control by increasing habitat for beneficial predators. It also represents a low-risk venture that provides returns to growers who want to increase the native vegetation on their properties.

We are not advocating the wholesale adoption of native grasses as a staple food crop in Australia. But it would be prudent to investigate how native grasses grow and produce seed, to better understand how current farming practices might be improved.

Collection of labelled jars containing grasses.
Native grasses.
Author provided

Connection to Country

Returning to native grasslands would provide a way to understand Indigenous perspectives on looking after Country.

Indigenous land managers used burning techniques to grow and maintain local grass crops. Grasslands are culturally and spiritually significant to Indigenous Australians. Their protection and regeneration could create new business opportunities for Aboriginal people and promote reconciliation.

A number of grasses were used by Aboriginal people, all of which might be a good staple food for Australia. The best approach would be to grow a range of species matched with local customs, soil types, rainfall and season.

Bread re-imagined

Growing, processing, and making bread from native grass will involve new technologies and challenge current methods.

For example, native Mitchell grass, found across northern Australia, produces between a half and one tonne of grain per hectare – less than a quarter the yield of wheat.

This productivity can be increased by identifying and cultivating the plants producing more seed than their neighbours. These individuals have the best chance of producing the next generation of high-yield plants.




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The world’s best fire management system is in northern Australia, and it’s led by Indigenous land managers


Processing of native grains presents another challenge. The current grain-processing system receives bulk deliveries of wheat with known milling requirements at a set time of year. The timing, size and milling requirements of native grain deliveries would be far less predictable.

To be efficient, modern machine-processing of grain requires that the seed is clean, uniform in size and is not mixed with other types of seeds.

Bread on supermarket shelves
Modern bread making processes differ from that used to make bread from native grain.
Paul Miller/AAP

While the commercial process of making flour is relatively inflexible, in contrast, an experienced baker can work with many types of flour and adjust the dough as they go. This is how Aboriginal people baked loaves from native seed for thousands of years. Creating unique products from native grain will require flexible baking methods, including making them by hand.

In recent years, “ancient grains” such as quinoa, chia and spelt have grown in popularity among food consumers. These crops grow on their own and have been genetically improved for quality, so are relatively consistent when sold as seed, flour or in a baked product.

But Australia’s native grain products may contain multiple species that are grown and harvested together. So at the point of sale, consumers would have to accept that every loaf or biscuit or cake may have a different taste, and contain several types of grain.

Who earns the dough?

When developing native grain as an Australian staple food, we must also be careful not to exploit the knowledge of native grain production at the expense of the traditional caretakers of the knowledge and species. This would be repeating the mistakes of the past.

Native grain production offers potential economic gains. These should go first to the traditional custodians, countering current trends where only 1% of Australia’s native food industry is generated by Indigenous people.




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The Conversation


Angela Pattison, Research scientist at Plant Breeding Institute, University of Sydney, University of Sydney; Rebecca Cross, Lecturer in Human Geography, University of Sydney, and Tina Bell, Associate Professor, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why China believed it had a case to hit Australian barley with tariffs



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Weihuan Zhou, UNSW

China’s landmark investigations into Australian barley led to the imposition of “anti-dumping” and “anti-subsidy” tariffs of 80.5% in May, threatening an Australian export market worth $A600 million a year.

China says it made its own calculations on the extent to which Australia subsidised barley after Australian authorities failed to give it all the information it needed in the form it requested.

It set out its findings on subsidies in a report at present only available in Chinese.

One was that Australian officials “did not comply” with its requirements in relation to the Sustainable Rural Water Use and Infrastructure Program.


‘The Australian government reported the overall situation in the answer sheet, but did not comply with the requirements of the investigating authority’

Australia disputes that conclusion.

At first glance the possibility that Sustainable Rural Water Use and Infrastructure Program could have had anything to do with subsidising barely exports seems baseless.

The Murray Darling Basin Plan, of which the Sustainable Rural Water Use and Infrastructure Program is a part, is a long-running program aiming to remedy a century of over-exploitation of water.

It includes no discussion of production targets, export volumes or anything else that might be expected to set off trade alarm bells.

Plan more than environmental

But the plan and its A$13 billion budget is about more than the environment.

It originally prioritised the environment, but in 2010 its goal was explicitly changed to address a triple bottom line of economic, social and environmental concerns.

From there, its management became a major economic and political issue.




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Scandals surround huge payments for dubious water rights, infrastructure spending that doesn’t actually save water, and massive subsidisation of irrigation expansion into areas that were not previously irrigated.

Stories abound of favoured companies or regions reaping large windfalls at the expense of taxpayers, other farmers, the environment, or all three.

Administered with ‘habitual’ secrecy

Australia’s Department of Agriculture says the government fully engaged with China’s investigation, “including providing extensive information on production and commercial information on the Australian barley industry”.

But the department hasn’t always been forthcoming about its operations.

A South Australian Royal Commission concluded that its claim to be committed to engaging in public debate and open dialogue should be regarded with “deep suspicion”.

The separate Murray Darling Basin Authority operated with “an unfathomable predilection for secrecy”.

The behaviour was “habitual”, in the assessment of the Royal Commission.

We might have given China a case

Even if Australian officials did participate in the Chinese investigation in good faith, the potential for confusion is considerable given the jargon that engulfs both water management and trade law.

Few water managers speak trade law and equally few trade lawyers understand the jargon of the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

From a trade law perspective, although the Sustainable Rural Water Use and Infrastructure Program and the Basin Plan do not explicitly subsidise exports, the fact that much of the Basin’s produce is exported means it could be argued that they distort trade.




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It is open to a country such as China to take action if the program has conferred benefits to an Australian industry and the subsidised exports have caused a material injury to a competing domestic industry.

China alleges this is the case for barley, but a stronger case could perhaps be argued for the Basin’s bigger export crops: cotton, almonds and walnuts.

Part of the reason is that the program involves government spending, but it is possible to argue that the implementation of the Basin Plan has also subsidised exporters in another way, by environmental mismanagement.




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The Barwon-Darling has been described by environmental regulators as “an ecosystem in crisis”. Contributing to the crisis has been a system that allocates scarce water to irrigators and diverts huge volumes of floodwater into private dams.

This arguably illegal practice of “floodplain harvesting” provides huge benefits to cotton exporters.

It is uncertain whether China’s barley decision will bring about changes to Australian water management that downstream communities, irrigators, Indigenous nations and environment groups have long called for.

It would help if water regulators explained what they were doing in terms that can be understood by ordinary Australians and Chinese trade experts alike.


Contributing to this article were Maryanne Slattery, a former director at the Murray Darling Basin Authority and a director of water consultancy Slattery Johnson, Rod Campbell, Research Director at the Australia Institute and Allan Behm, director of the Australia Institute’s International and Security Affairs program.The Conversation

Weihuan Zhou, Senior Lecturer and member of Herbert Smith Freehills CIBEL Centre, Faculty of Law, UNSW Sydney, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Vital Signs: Australian barley growers are the victims of weaponised trade rules


Richard Holden, UNSW

Trade tensions between Australia and China have escalated to the point where China has placed an 80.5% tariff on Australian barley imports, beginning this week.

China has been a huge market for Australian barley. It accounted for more than 70% of Australia’s exports between 2015 and 2018 and in 2016–17 it bought almost 6 million tonnes.



CC BY

While China’s imports fell to 2.5 million tonnes last financial year, this was still more than half of Australia’s total barley exports, worth about A$600 million to Australian farmers.

The tariff on Australian barley won’t hurt China much. It can simply buy from other countries such as France, Russia, Argentina and Canada.

In terms of Australia’s total volume of exports (more than A$450 billion annually) the likely losses are not huge. But it is meaningful and painful to Australia’s barley industry.

It is important this matter be resolved.

But the broader issue is how to avoid ongoing conflict with our biggest trading partner. Doing that means understanding what the barley dispute is really about. Because it’s unlikely to really be about barley.

What is China upset about?

It would be reasonable to deduce China’s recent actions stem from Australia’s advocacy for an investigation into the source of the COVID-19 pandemic – something first raised by foreign minister Marise Payne and championed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, along with the United States and other countries.

But there is a longer history of simmering tensions between the two nations.

There is, for example, Australia’s exclusion of Chinese company Huawei from building our 5G telecommunications network. This is a matter China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, called a “sore point and thorny issue” as recently as February.

Another view is that it is about trade issues – that China is accusing Australia of dumping in retaliation for Australia’s use of global anti-dumping provisions against China.

As pointed out by my colleague Weihuan Zhou:

Dumping is essentially price discrimination, in which a producer sells a product to an export market at a lower price than it sells it at home. As such, it is often condemned as ‘unfair trade practice’ which accords exporters a competitive advantage over producers of similar goods in the market of importation.

Australia has been a keen user of the World Trade Organisation’s rules against dumping. Many Chinese industries have been targeted under anti-dumping cases brought by Australia (and other countries), including steel, aluminium products, solar panels, and even copy paper.

So perhaps this is a case of “what goes around comes around”.




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China used anti-dumping rules against us because what goes around comes around


In any event, it is shaping up to be a thorny issue for Australia.

Australia’s trade minister, Simon Birmingham, has rightly disagreed with China’s characterisation of Australia as dumping barley, saying: “We reject the basis of this decision and will be assessing the details of the findings while we consider the next steps”.

Australia will take this case to the WTO and argue it has not subsidised barley being exported. But these cases are tricky to prove, can take substantial time (likely more than a year and possibly much longer). In the meantime, China can impose duties, with dire consequences for imports of Australian barley.

Always in breach?

Precisely because it is difficult to determine the underlying economics of whether dumping is taking place, there is almost always an argument to be made that a country is dumping some product some of the time.

That leaves countries like China with a trigger to pull more or less any time they want.




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This is a similar trick to that used by authoritarian regimes to control their populations. If citizens have essentially always broken some obscure law on the books, they are free from prosecution only by the good grace of the regime in power.

One reading of events is that China is using a version of this tactic in international trade against Australia.

The importance of the WTO

All of this points to the importance of dispute resolution through international bodies.

Sure, anti-dumping cases may be tricky, but resolving such cases quicker would help prevent the threat of such cases being used as bargaining chips.

So, too, would a more precise set of economically based rules about what constitutes dumping in practice, and how to measure it robustly and transparently.

These are matters not only to be determined in free-trade deals between countries but also for international bodies like the WTO.




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It is sometimes suggested there is little to do in this sphere, because trade barriers are now so low.

But making the rules more precise and the dispute resolution procedures more timely is certainly one area for improvement.The Conversation

Richard Holden, Professor of Economics, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

China might well refuse to take our barley, and there would be little we could do



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Weihuan Zhou, UNSW

Australia’s surprising call for an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus in China has provoked escalating threats of retaliation by China.

China started with a warning that Australia’s position might spark a Chinese consumer boycott.

It’s now threatening tariffs on Australian barley that would include a “dumping margin” of up to 73.6% and a “subsidy margin” of up to 6.9%.

The subsidy claims are thought to refer to drought support measures and Australia’s diesel fuel tax rebate.




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Barley is not a random choice – here’s the real reason China is taking on Australia over dumping


Together with the dumping tariff (a penalty for allegedly selling barley too cheaply) they would amount to a tariff of 80.5%, effectively putting an end to Australian barley sales to China.

Australia’s exporters and the government have been given ten days to respond.

There’s more to it than barley

A series of decisions and reactions to events that were perceived as anti-China has pushed relations between Australia and China to the verge of a historic low.

Each time, China has urged Australia to reconsider its position and on some occasions has threatened to retaliate.

Recent examples include Australia’s exclusion of Huawei from its 5G network for fear of the influence of the Chinese government on its activities, and the COVID-19 travel ban which singled out China when introduced on February 1 even though by then the virus had spread to other countries.

China targeted barley for good reasons.

Why barley?

China is Australia’s largest market for barley exports.

Between 2015 and 2018, China imported, on average, 4.6 million tonnes or A$1.3 billion of Australian barley accounting for over 70% of Australia’s barley exports.

A tariff increase would have significant impacts on Australia’s barley producers who are scattered over several Australian states, putting considerable political pressure on the Australian government.

China meanwhile has other suppliers from which to choose. It can restrict imports of Australian barley while continuing to buy barley from elsewhere.

And contrary to the claims by Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, the Chinese tariffs are not legally unjustifiable.

The tariffs would be the result of an ongoing anti-dumping investigation into barley exported from Australia that China’s Ministry of Commerce initiated on November 19, 2018.




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It’s time to drop Australia’s protectionist anti-dumping rules


Anti-dumping measures, which seek to prevent lower-priced imports from causing injury to domestic industries, are permitted under the rules of the World Trade Organisation and the China-Australia Free Trade Agreement.

Australia itself has been one of the most frequent users of anti-dumping measures, particularly against China.

The 2015 China-Australia Free Trade Agreement cut Chinese tariffs on Australian barley exports to zero. But it included an exemption: anti-dumping provisions that could increase the tariffs to any rate.

At the start of the 2018 investigation, China’s barley industry requested an anti-dumping tariff of 56.14%. The proposed rate was increased to 73.6% after investigations by Chinese authorities.

That is the investigation that authorities will finalise by May 19, the one started eighteen months ago, on November 19, 2018.




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It began long before COVID-19, motivated among other things by Australia’s enthusiastic use of anti-dumping measures on products such as Chinese steel.

But its timing has made it a useful way to push Australia to change its anti-China position on an inquiry and on other matters in the future.

Since China’s investigation began, Chinese customers have become “very cautious about buying Australian barley” in the assessment of the Canadian barley industry which has benefited by selling Chinese customers barley they once would have sourced from Australia.

The actual imposition of the tariff will hurt more.




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The only legal avenue for Australia to challenge it would be the World Trade Organisation’s dispute settlement mechanism which had been brought to a near halt by the United States refusing to appoint appellant judges and would in any case take years to process without a guaranteed win.

Even if Australia is successful, China may simply begin a reinvestigation which may maintain the original decision.

What’s the best way out?

Australia needs to take actions to ease the tensions and strengthen economic relationship with China.

Abundant evidence has shown that China will remain an irreplaceable Australian customer meaning it would be neither possible nor wise for Australia to decouple from China.

Diplomatic actions, such as the appointment of a special Australian China envoy, will be desirable but not sufficient. Australia has to ensure its future policy decisions are not biased against China.




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To help, Australia could consider a gradual reduction of travel restrictions on China based on China’s success in fighting the virus and renewed more realistic assessment of the potential health risks posed by Chinese travellers.

Australia needs to be cautious in foreign investment decisions which have already been regarded as discriminatory against China before the pandemic.

The pandemic brought forth temporary changes of Australia’s foreign investment rules, making all proposals the subject of Foreign Investment Review Board scrutiny regardless of size.




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While the changes applied to foreign investors from all countries, Australia’s decision to reject two from China has raised concerns about whether the decisions have been compromised by anti-China politics.

Instead of direct rejection, Australia might have been better off offering to approve them under conditions sufficient to address national interest concerns.

Australia should reassess its position on the 5G network to ensure it focuses on risks associated with 5G equipment rather than the nationality of 5G suppliers, as have Britain and the European Union.

These actions would signal a strong political will to repair the relationship that would build the foundation for the two economies to broaden and deepen economic engagement for mutual benefits.The Conversation

Weihuan Zhou, Senior Lecturer and member of Herbert Smith Freehills CIBEL Centre, Faculty of Law, UNSW Sydney, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

While towns run dry, cotton extracts 5 Sydney Harbours’ worth of Murray Darling water a year. It’s time to reset the balance



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Quentin Grafton, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

The rains have finally arrived in the Northern Murray Darling Basin. Hopefully, this drought-easing water will flow all the way down to the parched communities and degraded habitats of the lower Darling.

How much water goes downstream, however, does not just depend on how much it has rained.

It also greatly depends on how much is extracted and consumed upstream, and the rules and enforcement around these water extractions.

Simplistic or knee-jerk responses to water insecurity, such as banning irrigation for “thirsty crops” such as cotton, will not fix the water woes of the basin.

The harder and longer path is to deliver real water reform as was agreed to by all governments in the 2004 National Water Initiative and that includes transparent water planning enshrined in law.




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Basin cotton irrigators extract about five Sydney Harbours’ worth a year

Irrigation accounts for about 70% of all surface water extracted in the basin.

Australia’s water accounts tell us that in 2017-18, basin cotton irrigators extracted some 2,500 billion litres (about five Sydney Harbours’ worth) or equivalent to about 35% of all the water extracted for irrigation.

Most of this water was extracted in the Northern Basin (covering southern Queensland and northern New South Wales). But increasingly cotton is becoming a preferred crop in the Southern Basin (southern NSW to South Australia).

Overall, the area of land in cotton and the water extracted for cotton increased by 4% in 2017-18 relative to 2016-17.

Cotton is a thirsty crop. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics cotton uses, on average, more than 7 million litres (or about three Olympic-sized swimming pools) per hectare.

At a global scale, the volume of water extracted by cotton irrigators to produce one kilogram of cotton fabric averages more than 3,000 litres.

Cotton is a thirsty crop.
Shutterstock

Increased water efficiency: good news for some, bad news for others

Concerns over how much water cotton uses, and the high price of water in the basin, has incentivised cotton farmers to increase their cotton yield (in tonnes) per million litres of water extracted.

This has been achieved with improved genetics, management and more high-tech irrigation methods. According to Cotton Australia, much less water (only 19%) is flowing back into streams and groundwater from water applied to cotton fields than two decades ago, when the return flows were 43% of the water applied.

Increased irrigation efficiency is good news for cotton irrigators, especially those that received some of the A$4 billion in public money already spent to increase irrigation efficiency in the basin. But it is bad news for downstream irrigators, communities and the environment.

This is because a much greater proportion of the water extracted by cotton farmers now gets consumed as evapo-transpiration, and thus is unavailable for anyone or anything else.

We need to change the rules of the game

Given these cotton facts, would banning the growing of cotton in Australia increase the water available? No – because the problem is not cotton irrigation per se, but rather the “rules of the game” of the who, how, and when water is extracted. These water sharing rules are determined at a state level in what are called Water Sharing Plans.

Proper water planning is the only way to ensure a fair deal, deliver on the intent of the 2012 Basin Plan and keep levels of water extraction at sustainable levels.

Water sharing plans are supposed to be consistent with the 2012 Basin Plan. But NSW has, so far, failed to provide its plans for auditing by the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, missing the key July 1, 2019 deadline.

Following an expose of alleged water theft in July 2017, the NSW government created a specialised agency, the Natural Resources Access Regulator, that has greatly helped water monitoring and compliance in NSW. Despite its best efforts, there is still inadequate metering in the Northern Basin. And across the basin as a whole, most groundwater extractions are not properly monitored.

The actual rules about how much water can be extracted are substantially influenced by some irrigators in the consultation process before plans are implemented.

Such influence has resulted in some water sharing plans favouring upstream irrigators at the expense of downstream communities, such as Walgett and Wilcannia. These towns have been left high and dry despite the fact NSW law gives priority to town water supplies over other water uses.

According to the NSW Natural Resources Commission, the current Barwon-Darling Water Sharing Plan “effectively prioritises upstream water users” and also does not provide protection for environmental water from extraction.

The Natural Resources Commission also observed that extraction permitted under the plan:

has affected those communities and landholders reliant on the river for domestic and stock water supplies, town water supply, community and social needs.

A consultant’s report from 2019, written for the NSW government, also found no evidence in the Barwon-Darling water planning processes of reporting on performance indicators such as changes in stream flow regimes, ecological values of key water sources or water utility (for town supply) access requirements.

Sadly, the problem of poor water planning is not exclusive to the Barwon-Darling, but exists in other basin catchments in NSW, and beyond.

Holding governments responsible

Any effective solution to the water emergency in the basin must, therefore, hold governments responsible for their water plans and decisions. This requires that a “who, what, how and when” of water be made transparent through an independent water auditing, monitoring and compliance process.

Simplistic responses to water insecurity, such as banning irrigation for cotton, will not fix the water woes of the basin. The harder and longer path is to deliver real water reform as was agreed to by all governments in the 2004 National Water Initiative and that included transparent water planning enshrined in law.




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Three things that would make a difference

As a nation we must hold decisionmakers accountable so the rules of the game do not favour the big end of town at the expense, and even the existence, of towns.

We also need to:

  1. stop wasting billions on irrigation subsidies that reduce flows to streams and rivers
  2. monitor, measure and audit what is happening to the water extracted and in streams
  3. actually deliver on the key objects of the federal Water Act and state water acts.

Enforcing the law of the land would ensure those who have the legal right to get the water first (such as town water supplies) are prioritised in the implementation of water sharing plans. It would mean state water plans are audited and actually deliver environmentally sustainable levels of water extraction.The Conversation

Quentin Grafton, Director of the Centre for Water Economics, Environment and Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why closing our borders to foreign workers could see fruit and vegetable prices spike



Dave Hunt/AAP

Michael Rose, Australian National University

One aspect of the COVID-19 crisis that has so far escaped widespread public attention in Australia is its potential impact on our food security.

We haven’t seen supermarket shortages of fruit and vegetables like toilet paper and pasta because, being perishable, they are not easily stockpiled and therefore less prone to demand-side spikes.




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But being perishable also makes them more susceptible to supply-side shocks, such as we’re seeing with higher prices now for the likes of broccoli due to the impact of drought and bushfires.

The major variable in whether the coronavirus crisis will hurt fruit, vegetable and nut supplies (and prices) depends on how they are picked while the nation’s border remains closed to the foreign seasonal workers on which Australian farmers depend.

Foreign muscles, Australian fruit

Rural Australia’s dependence on the muscles of tens of thousands of backpackers and workers on temporary working visas is sometime minimised by official statistics.

More than one-third of peak seasonal jobs on horticultural farms are filled by overseas workers, according to the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences.

But anyone in direct contact with the industry knows most direct harvest labour in Australia is done by foreigners.

Official statistics about agricultural workers are rubbery. The Australian Bureau of Statistics, for example, can only estimate the total number of workers at between 240,000 and 408,000.

The vagueness is due to three reason. First, the data is based on a single month (in this case August 2016) and picking work is seasonal, with less workers employed in winter. Second, workers move around, so double-counting can occur. Third, overseas workers and contract workers provided by labour hire companies are not included in labour force surveys.

What immigration data tells us, however, is that in 2017-18 about 31,000 backpackers did at least 88 days of farm work to be eligible to extend their visas for a year. (There are no numbers for the number of backpackers working on farms for other reasons.)

A further 8,500 workers from Pacific Island nations and Timor-Leste worked on farms for up to six months on visas issued under Australia’s Seasonal Worker Programme. This increased to about 12,000 in 2018-19.

Domestic restrictions

The indefinite closure of Australia’s borders to non-resident foreign nationals jeopardises this supply of farm workers.

The question is whether the spike in domestic unemployment will see Australian workers (and other foreign workers) displaced from other sectors flocking to rural areas to take up those jobs.

Possible complications are travel restrictions, with states closing borders and city dwellers being told to stay away from Australia’s country towns, and the Australian government’s income assistance measures.

As migration researcher Henry Sherrell notes of the job seeker allowance being doubled to A$550 a week, “that’s a pretty decent week if you’re on picking piece rates”.




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“In theory, Australians laid off in the many sectors now facing recession could head for the countryside and start picking fruit,” he argues in an article co-authored with Stephen Howes, an economics professor at the ANU Crawford School of Public Policy.

In practice, it is just not going to happen. The work is difficult, and farms often geographically isolated. It would take years not months to change the reality that farm work is just not in the choice set of most Australians – who, after all, live in one of the most urbanised and richest countries in the world.

An exemption for seasonal workers

Allowing backpackers and seasonal workers in Australia to extend their visas is an obvious first step. On top of any measures to encourage foreign workers to stay, the longer term may require making an exception to the ban on their entering the country.

The entry of seasonal workers from the Pacific and Timor-Leste already requires medical checks before they travel. Exempting those with seasonal work visas from our closed border policy would not be unreasonable. Canada, which runs a similar guest worker program, has already done so.



With Australian help, workers could be tested for COVID-19 before they fly. On arrival here they would be quarantined for 14 days like everyone else.

The government would need to step in and pay for suitable accommodation, catering and medical services. It would also need to ensure arrangements so workers can get home. But there are there a number of benefits to justify the cost.




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It contributes not only to Australia’s food security but also its national interest, maintaining and deepening its bonds with its island neighbours.

If there is a silver lining to the current grim situation, it may be that it could serve to make real the rhetoric that our relationship with the Pacific (and Timor-Leste) is one defined by partnership, in which we help ourselves through helping each other.The Conversation

Michael Rose, Research fellow, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The milk, the whole milk and nothing but the milk: the story behind our dairy woes



A dairy cow grazes on the lawns in front of Parliament House in Canberra in 2015, as part of an industry event.
Dean Lewins/AAP

Andrew Fisher, University of Melbourne

The plight of Australia’s dairy farmers is on the political agenda this week, after One Nation leader Pauline Hanson narrowly failed in her Senate bid for a minimum milk price. But getting fair payment for their goods is far from the only challenge dairy farmers face.

Pressure has been mounting on the industry for the past decade. Existing milk alternatives are growing their market share, helped by a rise in veganism and public concern around animal welfare. The agriculture sector is under pressure to reduce its contribution to climate change, and technology advances mean milk may one day be produced without cows at all.

All this has been compounded by devastating and prolonged drought. So here’s the full story of the hurdles farmers face, now and in the future, to get milk into your fridge.

Dairy cattle at milking time at a farm in Rochester, Victoria.
AAP/Tracey Nearmy

Fluctuating farm gate price

The rate at which processors pay farmers for milk is known as the farm gate price. The prices are not regulated and are set by market forces.

In 2016 the milk price crashed when Australia’s two largest dairy processors, Murray Goulburn and Fonterra, lowered the price they would pay from about 48 cents a litre to as low as 40 cents.




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This dramatically cut the incomes of milk suppliers. The number of dairy farmers in Australia fell by 600, or 9% over four years. This exit has been exacerbated by drought.

Since then, the farm gate milk price has increased and in 2019–20 is expected to be 51 cents per litre, due to a weaker Australian dollar and demand from export markets. But forecast global prices for butter, cheese and whole milk powder this financial year remain below that of previous years.

Methane, and milk alternatives

Methane and other livestock emissions comprise about 10% of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made clear in its land use report in August, changes must be made across the food production chain if the world is to keep global warming below the critical 1.5℃ threshold. For beef and dairy livestock, this means changes such as land and manure management, higher-quality feed and genetic improvements. Meeting this challenge cost-effectively, while improving productivity, is no small task.




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Technology may help in curbing greenhouse gas emissions from cows, but it also threatens to replace the dairy industry altogether. Advances in biotech may enable liquid analogous to milk to be produced through bioculture systems, without a cow in sight.

Elsewhere, the rise of plant-based alternatives derived from soybeans, almonds, oats and other sources threatens traditional milk products. This can partly be attributed to increasing numbers of people adopting a vegan diet.

Farmers must overcome a host of challenges to deliver milk to consumers.
Paul Miller/AAP

Taking calves away from cows

For a mammal to produce milk, it must usually become pregnant and produce offspring. Female calves generally go into a farm’s pool of replacement animals, while male dairy calves are sold.

Pure-breed male dairy calves do not naturally lay down a lot of muscle and so do not generally make good beef livestock. Many are sent to the abattoir for slaughter, typically between 5 and 30 days of age. This practice has prompted welfare concerns and means the industry must carefully manage the handling and transport of vulnerable young calves.

Potential solutions include artificial insemination of cows using only semen that will produce female calves. The use of this technology is limited because it reduces conception rates.

There is also growing public concern about the separation of cows and calves not sent to the abbatoir. The calves are typically taken within the first 12-24 hours and reared together in a shed, where they are fed milk or milk replacer. This is thought to maximise the amount of saleable milk and minimise disease transfer from cow to calf, particularly Johne’s Disease. However, recent research has found little evidence to support these practices.

Research has shown that calf-cow separation in the first day of life causes lower distress than abrupt separation at a few weeks of age or older, when the bond is stronger. This is not to say that early separation is not a concern. Rather, in the face of consumer demands for certain ethical standards, simple fixes may be hard to implement.

Topless animal welfare activists protest in Melbourne in February 2019 to raise awareness of what they claim is cruelty within the dairy industry.
Ellen Smith/AAP

The message for consumers

Challenges to the dairy industry will take time and effort to address. Some, such as drought, are out of farmers’ control. Dry conditions and high cost of water, fodder and electricity have forced farmers to cull less productive dairy cows, leading to a decline in production.




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The pressures, and associated debt, create intense stress for farmers, increase family tensions, and have negative flow-on effects throughout rural communities.

Putting aside the political push for a regulated milk price, the key message for dairy consumers is clear. If we want our milk produced in a certain way, we must pay a fair market-based price to cover the costs to farmers of fulfilling our wants.The Conversation

Andrew Fisher, Professor of Cattle & Sheep Production Medicine, University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.