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The National Farmers’ Federation’s drought strategy is like shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic

Australian agriculture needs something like a NFF, but the one we have is failing farming communities

Cattle on a drought stricken farm in northern NSW

‘The message is clear, if we do not start to develop and implement climate adaptation solutions, the agricultural sector in Australia will be unbankable.’
Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

I look out the window to yet another day of smoke haze, dry wind and raised dust across the floodplain I call home. My mood oscillates between profound sadness and rage at the perpetual political obfuscation around the climate science that explains our obviously changing weather.

My wife and I crop about 6,000 acres of grain and run a small cattle operation south-west of Goondiwindi. I have just finished harvesting a modest, but profitable winter crop and I am able to agist some of my stubble to a mate desperate for cattle feed.

Against the odds, we have managed to harvest grain, hay and straw and feed our small Droughtmaster stud herd for the year on about a quarter of our average annual rainfall. I am acutely aware that luck played as big a role in our fortune this year as our management.

There are many better farmers than me who will not achieve the results we managed and some of them will not survive the year, financially or otherwise.

I do not believe anyone owes me, or any individual farmer, a living. However, a prosperous agricultural sector is essential to underpin stable society. It is then a social imperative to ensure the agricultural sector is viable.

The current drought discussion in Australia is important because it highlights the fundamental lack of economic and emotional resilience in the sector. This exposes the sector profoundly to disruptions in production by weather and disruptions in markets. This is a fundamental structural problem that will continue to weigh down the sector, stifling innovation and investment.

If you listen to the rhetoric emanating from the Canberra bubble, it is apparent that the relevant ministers would prefer to glibly talk up the industry potential and hope it will magically fix itself when it finally rains. They consistently ignore the reasons why structural reform is essential and worse still undermine and discredit the evidence that demands it.

This delusion is enthusiastically enabled by the National Farmers’ Federation desperately selling their “$100bn by 2030” plan, which is little more than a pipe dream without the aforementioned structural reform.

I get it really, change is hard and denial is easy.

The reality at the coalface of Australian agriculture is that the NFF plan and the political posturing is out of touch with reality and a dangerous distraction. The NFF and government’s drought strategy is akin to shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Australian agriculture is now defined by indicators of rising farm debt, flatlining productivity, declining terms of trade and dwindling farmer numbers, suggesting it is not as rosy as the politicians and their sycophantic mates suggest, particularly if it is debt-funded.

Overlay this scenario with what we know about the likely impacts of climate change, which is clearly exacerbating the impacts of the current drought, and the picture looks bleak indeed.

While our politicians and industry leaders ignore the elephant in the room, it is encouraging and simultaneously worrying that our financiers are taking the issue seriously. The image below is taken from the 2019 Commonwealth Bank annual report.

A simulation of the impact of the climate crisis on farm profitability in Australia by 2060, according to the Commonwealth Bank annual report 2019

A simulation of the impact of the climate crisis on farm profitability in Australia by 2060, according to the Commonwealth Bank annual report 2019. Photograph: Commonwealth Bank

When leftwing nut jobs like the major banks start factoring in the impacts of failing to apply climate mitigation, then it is getting pretty serious. The message is clear for all who care to take note, if we do not start to develop and implement climate adaptation solutions that are backed by research and development, the agricultural sector in Australia will be unbankable.

There are strategies and scenarios where Australian agriculture can prosper and provide leadership, opportunity and hope in the face of a changing climate. The travesty is that the institutions that should be pushing hardest for the necessary structural reform are too busy playing in the shallow end of the pool.

On the current trajectory, the future for Australian agriculture will make the problems of this current drought look mild. Without courageous and honest leadership we will not achieve the outcomes that are needed.

The NFF is promulgating policies that are fundamentally flawed because they are grounded in ideology before evidence, particularly in relation to climate. The proof of this is borne out when the NFF sees climate protesters as a greater threat to agriculture than climate change.

Australian agriculture needs something like a National Farmers’ Federation, but the one we have is failing farming communities profoundly. There are some great people working in agricultural advocacy in this country, but conservative institutions are constraining the opportunity for a better future.

While we wait for meaningful structural reform, we are forced to erode social, natural and financial capital and further undermine resilience in rural landscapes in the face of unmanageable weather events.

Pete Mailler is a grain and cattle farmer from northern New South Wales. He holds a bachelor’s degree in agricultural science and is a fellow of the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation. He is the former chairman of Grain Producers Australia Ltd


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