Member presentation

John Pettigrew presented at FACETS 2012 (24 August 2012); his topic being:

Farmers protecting the environment

FACETS stands for Food, Agriculture, Climate, Energy, Topsoil and Sustainability. It was establised in 2011 following a successful TEDx event in Dubbo. John presented at the Satellite meeting in Horsham. Working notes for his presentation follow.

Premise
Farmers can protect the environment, be more productive and gain the wider communities respect and support.

However to achieve all this we should no longer rely solely on improved farm management but, more than ever, advocate on behalf of our rural environment.

Intention
I intend to expand on this by
describing the EFN, its origins and the way our group operates. comparing the EFN to traditional farmer organizations and highlight differing policies
using the current Murray Darling Basin Plan consultative process as a case study to highlight the challenges the environment and a group like ours face.
Then as an example I will

EFN role
The EFN represents farmers in Southeast Australia interested in sustainable farming: socially, environmentally and economically. We represent mostly commercial farmers very concerned about the impact of climate change on farms, people and landscapes, the loss of farm biodiversity, and the impact of peri-urban development on farming.
The Environmental Farmers Network was formed and launched in 2005 following a gathering of farming families and now gives voice to a growing number of farmers who are dedicated to the overall health of rural regions whose views are not currently represented by the policies of traditional farmer organizations.

We believe many policies of traditional farming organizations have put off-side our major urban populations resulting in an adverse perception of farmers and farming practices and thus impact on a long history of urban support.  
We have members in Victoria, NSW and SA.

We meet as an organization annually, with an executive committee utilizing modern communication technologies to correspond with members and manage activities.

Our policies are developed with input from all members under the guidance of our Policy Manager. Policies are put forward to all members for approval and then listed on our website for easy reference.
We rely entirely on volunteers to develop submissions, attend to media releases and meet with politicians and departmental officers.

We have well documented policies, which often contrast to State and National Farmer organizations and many commodity groups.
To date we have been most active the areas of native vegetation retention, cattle grazing in National Parks, the formation of the River Red Gum National Parks in Victoria and of course the Murray Darling Basin Plan.

Recent activity
The most recent example has been the Murray Darling Basin Plan, but the 2011 Victorian Government decision to return of cattle to the Victorian Alpine National Park concerned us greatly.
The given reason for the action was “scientific research” with stock supplied by not by cattlemen but “contractors providing fuel reduction services”.  This action was and continues to be supported by the Victorian Farmers Federation.
This issue is an excellent example that clearly defines contrasting policy as we continue our opposition to the return of cattle into sensitive alpine environments and water catchments.  

The 2010 declaration of River Red Gum National Parks in Victoria occurred following widespread consultation.
This occurred despite the opposition of most farmer organizations, opposition which is ongoing in an attempt to now return cattle grazing and logging to these forests.
These forests are also internationally recognized and protected wetlands, rich in bio-diversity and important to water quality of the Goulburn and Murray Rivers.

The ongoing protection of these National Parks is strongly supported by our group, as is a strong Basin Plan that protects the environment and healthy working rivers.

MDBA Plan.
The 2007 Water Act was Howard Govt. legislation and had bi-partisan support; it was again updated by the Rudd government, again with bi-partisan support.
It was accepted that river flows had been over- allocated for irrigation and
the past drought further highlighted environmental issues arising from this and the over-regulation particularly in the lower Murray and lakes regions.
We must not forget the intent of the Water Act was not only to improve the environmental condition of the Basin but also maintain the eco-systems services that underpin the productivity of the Basins industries and communities.
Despite this “The Murray Darling Basin Plan” and its critical Sustainable Diversion Limit has divided communities and politics across the Basin.
The release of the Guide to the Draft Basin Plan and the use of a ‘town hall’ communication strategy provided fertile ground for those opposed to the return of water to the environment. 
Irrigators and rural communities, concerned at the loss of entitlements, reacted angrily, fuelled by politics, half-truths and a lack of understanding of water procurement processes.
Irrigators in particular, believing a loss of up 30% of entitlements reacted strongly, culminating with the burning of the Guide at a public meeting in Griffith.

This was a very difficult consultative process for a group like ours to be involved in and service.
And when an opportunity arose the EFN joined with environmental Non Government Organizations from across the Murray Darling Basin.
The Voices for the Murray-Darling Alliance brought together many organizations and individuals with diverse interests such as farming, irrigation and fishing industries, conservation, human health and grassroots advocacy from across Australia.

This was a big step for us, as in the past we had purposely retained our independence in the belief of maximizing our influence in advocacy by filling the ‘middle ground” between traditional environmental and farmer organizations.
For EFN with very limited resources and many others in the Alliance this was essential to compete with well financed and organized campaigns by irrigators, commodity groups, Local Government, States Governments and a varied array of political interests.

For many in the Alliance the exposure to a group like us and a couple of similar farming groups could have been a challenge with some of our views not always being aligned, but the agreed structure of this group catered well for group strength  while  maintaining member individuality.
 Member groups at all times maintain their right of unilateral action if desired.
The Alliance has been able pool resources, put forward a consensus position and play a far more significant role than would have been possible by dispersed and divided groups.

The alliance has been able to demonstrate that very different groups are united in their call for a strong Basin Plan and it has added power and urgency to our position - having farmer groups in the alliance has added strength in presenting an environmental view.
It has also enabled many meetings with the MDBA, the Minister, and departmental officers responsible for the development of the Basin Plan.
We have also made contact with most politicians from across the Basin.

Debate on Plan
Whilst the current proposed Basin Plan with a volume of 2750GL for the environment will improve the environmental condition of the Murray Darling Basin, it is clearly not supported by the best current scientific knowledge; it meets only 55% of the watering targets set by the Murray Darling Basin Authority to achieve a healthy working Basin, is unlikely to comply with the Water Act 2007 and brings into question the responsible expenditure of taxpayer funds.

We have questioned the quality of socio-economic inputs into the Plans development, inputs that in our view have been used to exaggerate the impacts on irrigators and communities and reduce the volume of water returned to our rivers and streams.

Factors such as changed irrigation management post drought, the benefits of publicly funded infrastructure upgrades both on-farm and water delivery systems and many water reforms that have contributed to increased flexibility and productivity in the hands of us irrigators appear to have been ignored by the Authority and opponents to the Plan.

One simple example of water use efficiency and increased productivity was during the recent drought with the lowest inflows on record across the Basin in 2006.  Water used for irrigation in 2007-8 and 2008-9 seasons was about one third that of pre-drought levels.
During this period the gross value of irrigated agricultural production was only down approximately 20 per cent, however the gross value of production per unit of water more than doubled.
This increased productivity achieved during the drought will continue into the future.

There certainly are risks involved in farming but the Basin Plan is not high on our farmers risk register. The margins of irrigated farming are much more sensitive to market availability, prices, exchange rates and climatic conditions, any one of which is capable of extreme financial pressures.

Irrigation productivity will continue to increase with improved technology, the ongoing benefits of water reform policies, and infrastructure upgrades leading to growing economic growth across the Basin.

We know from history and current practices we can produce much more with much less water.

Reflections
During this consultative period I have represented the EFN and the following are some of my observations as a new kid on the block involved in a national environment campaign.

  • Environmental groups are at a huge disadvantage competing with well financed and connected vested interests.   
  • There is no doubt the Basin Plan debate has not taken place on a level playing field with environmental advocates restricted by financial support. 
  • It is important to the nation that environmental issues receive full consideration if we are to achieve quality long term decision making. 
  • I am not advocating that groups like the EFN receive public funding but there are environmental groups that provide critical resources to this type of consultative process that should receive public assistance. 
    These would include peak National and State organizations and groups        like the Environment Defenders Office who supply specialized legal advice, all of whom have been forced to carry the financial burden of this long consultative process.
    The provision of Public Interest Funds is accepted practice in many countries around the world.

    I believe our environment deserves this support to achieve the most basic of consideration and lasting benefit, just as legal aid ensures those unable to afford representation achieve justice.
  • Unfortunately in many Australian States the meager assistance environmental and other such organizations have received in the past is now being eroded.

Summary

  • Farmer organizations must recognize: changing community values; the perception of urban communities that farmers are putting at risk our natural environment; and, review policies that impact on our environment.
  • The EFN, in a relatively short period have set about addressing this challenge, and I believe we have made a difference in relation to rural environmental policies. We encourage other farmer organizations to meet this challenge. 

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