Australia is a continent of extreme conditions. Dorothea Mackeller knew it in 1908 when she wrote “My Country”, and the situation has only worsened in more recent times due to climate change. Aussie farmers inevitably do it tough in times of drought, and as the son of a farmer, I sympathise with their plight.
However, I’m also a small business owner. I see Australian politicians throwing cash at drought-affected farmers, as they do each time, and I wonder why no other industry in Australia receives the same sympathy or handouts as the agricultural sector. It was just last year Australia’s automobile industry ceased to exist because the government ceased support, resulting in 50,000 lost jobs. And almost a decade earlier, politicians chose not to support our country’s textile industry. Why then do we continue to support farmers who grow the wrong crops in the wrong parts of this sunburnt country?
September 2018 was Australia’s driest on record, and this year the periods of low rainfall have increased in both their extent and severity. Unusually high daytime temperatures add to the impact of reduced rainfall, sucking moisture from the soil and rendering it to dust. Both New South Wales and the Murray-Darling Basin have experienced their warmest Jan-Sep on record.
In many of these areas, farmers grow thirsty crops such as rice and cotton. Beef cattle is produced at its highest rates in Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria. To me this is illogical. Why would we produce our most water-intensive crops in our driest regions? It simply doesn’t make sense.
To give credit where it’s due, Australian farmers are water efficient when compared to many other regions in the world. A quick review of the UNESCO-IHE water footprint report for nations shows Australia can produce rice, cotton and beef with sometimes half the amount of water as other countries (take a look at page 41 for a comparison chart). But is efficiency enough when farming on the world’s driest continent?
While cash handouts drought after drought seems a generous and patriotic act, to me it is nothing more than a band-aid solution for a bigger problem. I question whether our farmers even want handouts. Instead, I believe the government should be encouraging and supporting farmers to move towards more sustainable farming options, and guarantee farmers receive a fair price for their products.
Just like the fashion industry, customers have become conditioned to paying less. Supermarkets exploit the Australian farmer and then attempt to show support by offering superficial initiatives such as the ‘drought levy milk’ available in major supermarkets. If farmers were paid a fair price for their products in the first place, they would be better equipped to support themselves through the tough times.
Instead of offering drought relief, the government should be creating the framework for a shift in agriculture. They should be demanding supermarkets pay our farmers properly, and they should be shaking down the agricultural sector to support sustainable changes. Australia needs to sever its ties with European farming techniques and embrace all that is native to our land.
Without meaning offence to our vegan supporters, let’s momentarily compare beef and kangaroo as an example of how native species are beneficial. Kangaroo is much lower in fat, they are less destructive to the land, and are naturally adapted to hold water in their bodies for longer. They breed efficiently and recover physically from drought conditions in a matter of weeks. They’re a sustainable food source for meat-loving Aussies.
When it comes to making flour, Aboriginal Australians have been grinding the stuff for more than 30,000 years. They utilised seeds from highly-drought tolerant grasses like kangaroo grass, a crop with 20% higher protein content than wheat which can be made into bread. Kangaroo grass can also be harvested for animal feed, lessening the water footprint of the animal.
If every dollar we spend can be considered a vote in support of our beliefs and ethics, let’s start consuming more native products, and supporting the brands which pay our farmers a fair price. Let’s increase demand and help create a need for farmers to fulfil, so when this drought ends farmers have more options. We also need to show our politicians we want a long-term plan to help our farmers, not just assistance in the bad times. Let’s make it clear that Australians want a sustainable farming future.
Author: Niko - Founder of Etiko