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Connections - Farm, Food and Resource Issues


Have the scientists got it right this time?٭

Tony Gleeson1

Synapse Research and Consultancy 

In early November a group of environmental scientists, the Wentworth Group, released a  ‘Blueprint for a Living Continent’. The blueprint received extensive media coverage and consideration at the highest levels of government. What weight should be given to the Blueprint? Have the scientists got it right? Where is the debate?

Sensibly, the Wentworth Group is building on the back of the drought-induced public awareness of the state of our environment. However, the Blueprint needs to be critically reviewed. It should be the beginning of a public debate, not the end of it.

Scientific reductionism is alive and well

The Wentworth scientists, like moths to a light, promote a fatal reductionism. They advocate a water policy isolated from considerations of the economic, social, spiritual and biophysical realities of our ecosystems. The lessons of history – even our recent history- are forgotten, not learnt. We struggle with the narrowly conceived national program on salinity. We forget the lack of impact of the equally narrowly conceived tree programs of the 1980’s. Most astoundingly, we forget that we are now wrestling with the aftermath of the father of all reductionist programs, the Snowy scheme. 

Surely the lesson is that there are grave risks in dealing in isolation with one part of the ecosystem. There is no recovery from such a reductionist position. The total ecological jigsaw is greater than the sum of the bits. Once the elements become packaged separately-into their own administrative and policy boxes as is proposed-wild horses will not pull them back together.

Property rights

The Wentworth Group puts its considerable weight behind the runaway train that is the alleged need to better define property rights. Although the Group sensibly defines the water right in terms of it being ‘a right to use a proportion of available water for a finite time’ just how this removes the uncertainty allegedly limiting investment, development and environmental flows is far from clear. And in any event, has the certainty of land rights prevented land degradation? Quite the contrary one might attest.

The reality is that water rights are vested in the State.  What we are looking at here is a claim on public resources reminiscent of the squatter claims on land. We need to examine the basis for these claims and what might be the national benefit from meeting those claims. As the Group says there is only one cake and for every allocated litre there is one not available for an alternative allocation.

In a novel yet bizarre twist the Group suggests that uncertainty about water property rights flows through to uncertainty about the obligations associated with water use. One might have thought that the water user plagued by any such uncertainty might take surety from a clearly regulated need not to pollute.

Market mechanisms

For over two centuries Australian agriculture has operated within institutional arrangements that have defined land rights and enabled market- based transfer of those rights. Over the same period we have extensively degraded our land resource. However, this has not deterred the Wentworth Group and others from the notion that applying similar arrangements to water will markedly improve the environmental impact of how we use water.

The Group acknowledges the self-interest of large water businesses (“the history of water development in Australia is a history of articulate interest groups seeking to have water used for their advantage”) yet it promotes the establishment of a market mechanism to give expression to those interests.

Curiously, the Group advocates that ‘from 2006, water trading could be limited to those with water’.

The point to be made here is that although the market can be a useful tool to give expression to the values of a community, the market does not establish those values.

Furthermore, there are values that lie beyond commodification, beyond the ability of markets to sensibly price resources for exchange. Environmental flows fall into this category, as do many landscape attributes.

Best practice

The Wentworth Group, like many technically deterministic groups and individuals before it, is apparently sufficiently confident in our understanding of the biophysical features of our landscapes to enable it to assert that there are best practices that should be applied universally within and across catchments. Land managers applying these best practices would be exempt from economic costs. Such approaches do not account for the heterogeneity that exists in our landscapes, they constrain creativity and cycles of continuous learning and they stifle innovation.

The Group proposes that farmers ( and others?) ought to be paid for eco-services and the example they list is the provision of clean water. Does that mean that farmers should be paid for not polluting water? Nice work if you can get it!

Tax policy

The quicksand foundation for the Wentworth blueprint is perhaps most evident (and unsurprisingly so) when they enter the field of tax policy. These leading environmental scientists are ‘not advocating another new tax’ but rather merely that ‘a major investment of public capital is needed’, that ’we can’t expect farmers to pay the full cost of repairing past mistakes’, that we ‘might add a one cent levy onto income tax’, that ‘ taxpayers should not be expected to support bad land management policies (sic)’, ‘we need to ensure that our tax systems support sustainability’. Elsewhere they suggest that the needed capital investment might come from:

  • consolidated revenue (tax!);
  • the full sale of Telstra (direct transfer of public assets to private interests);
  • an environmental levy (new tax); and
  • incorporating environmental costs into the cost of producing food and fibre (so the higher the pollution cost the greater the price!).

The efficiency and equity implications of these various proposals are not detailed. Perhaps it might be better on both counts if we took stock of what responsibilities farmers should have. If individuals can’t meet these responsibilities then they should be encouraged and helped into another occupation.

National Commission

The Group proposes the establishment of a National Commission to set priorities and national targets, accredit institutions and plans and to recommend the funding of investment priorities—a Commission to be managed by an independent board of experts in salinity, biodiversity and community capacity building.

We need to look closely at this proposition for it is the forerunners of these experts who have given us the agricultural practices we have today.

A way forward

The first step is to accept that water rights don’t equate to environmental policy and water rights don’t equate to an ecologically sustainable development policy.

The second step is to recognise that market based mechanisms are only as effective as the regulation that governs the operation of the market—and this regulation needs to be based on sound ecological and equity foundations.

We need in fact a broadly based consideration of what Australians want from their rural landscapes. We need to be informed by independent analyses on the role of agriculture in the Australian economy. How is it that the non-corporate agricultural farm sector pays no net income tax? How is it that there is no economic growth in the agricultural sector notwithstanding enormous increases in the volume of production (achieved at what environmental and social costs)? How is it that we do not have a public debate in Australia on the multiple functions of agricultureand of farming more broadly?

The answers are simple. It is not in the interests of captured agricultural support agencies and politicians to lead such a debate. And farm organisations mistakenly believe it is not in their interests to lead such a debate.

The problem is that we have outdated institutional arrangements. They lock us into our past, and they deny opportunities for change. We need more diverse, contestable and open innovation systems. We need policies that build on the responsibility of consumers and managers – including land managers – not to pollute. 

٭ This article was first published in ‘Online Opinion’ – thanks to ‘Online Opinion’.

1 Tony Gleeson is a contract researcher and farmer with extensive experience in rural policy and research.