Last week landholders, agricultural policy-makers, scientists and environmentalists met in Brisbane to discuss new farming certification. The discussion focused on the global ecological crisis that is making life increasingly difficult for primary producers.
According to Emeritus Professor Bob Douglas, chairman of Australia 21, the meeting highlighted the fact that: “nothing short of a revolutionary change in the way all Australians view the land will do justice to the problems that are confronting us”.
Nowhere is this change more acutely needed than on the Murray River.
The Brisbane meeting comes at a time when the state of Australia’s most iconic river is at crisis point.
As Professor Douglas recognises, the solutions needed to repair the damage must be far-reaching and imaginative. They need to be on a scale not yet seen in this country.
The $500 million promised by State and Federal Governments under the Living Murray is a positive start but if the Murray has any real hope we need to be going much further. In the long term, the Murray and its irrigation industries need an investment of another $1 billion and 1000 billion litres of water if those industries are to be sustainable.
It is right that governments play a leading role in the Murray and they should not shirk this responsibility. However, the intensity and pace of damage is so large that one approach is not enough.
Not only governments, but business and consumers must all contribute to renewing the Murray if the iconic waterway – and all the industries that rely on it – have any real hope of long-term prosperity.
As Professor Douglas says: “Australian consumers have a right (and perhaps a responsibility) to ask whether their food is being produced in ways that are sensitive to the needs of the environment. Governments have a responsibility to ensure that leaseholders are not destroying the productivity of land for future generations.”
Environment Victoria agrees. This is why we have mooted the idea of a river health levy as a possible way to raise the $1 billion needed to save the Murray.
Supermarkets and exporters, who make profits on agricultural products grown from the Murray, should give back to the river, the core idea being that those who benefit from using land and water resources should contribute to its restoration. Industry should start owning the problem they benefit from.
There’s already an 11 cents per litre levy on drinking milk that is raising $1.6 billion for dairy farmers.
Although 70% of Victoria’s milk is exported, the principal of the dairy levy shows $1.6 billion can be raised without making an industry uncompetitive. Consumers have supported dairy farmers’ adjustment to deregulation through the levy.
General revenue from government will not provide all the investment required to protect the Murray. Industry must do its bit, otherwise it is merely offloading costs onto farmers and taxpayers.
It’s worth remembering that if the river survives, the industries that rely on it also prosper. Any concern that the levy would be passed on to producers is not a criticism of the levy itself, rather it highlights the power of supermarkets to control domestic food production.
Increasingly farmers are getting less and less of every dollar spent on food, with retailers getting more.
As Professor Douglas also acknowledges: “The globalised economy compounds the problem for agricultural communities, asking of them that they produce more and more food and fibre for less and less financial return.”
Supermarkets should not be able to grow and become more powerful without being environmentally or socially responsible.
As mentioned, consumers have a role to play. Until consumers in Melbourne and Sydney care about the Murray and its industries, the Murray will continue to decline. They have to start asking questions about what they’re eating, what the costs of producing food are and they need to ask supermarkets and food exporters what they’re doing to protect the Murray.
Consumers are only part of the equation. Equally, a levy is one possible answer. Another solution could be to see supermarkets making direct contributions to environmental flows programs or supply funds to food suppliers to become more efficient.
These are just some options.
But the issue still remains: the Murray River’s degradation is a national crises that needs a long-term plan of action and investment.
Australia’s top scientists and independent researchers are in no doubt about the severity of the problems facing the iconic river.
An unreleased report paid for the States and Commonwealth shows the number of dead and dying river red gums along a 1000km stretch of Murray floodplain increased from 51% in 2002 to 75% in 2004.
Last month, the Murray Darling Basin Commission reported that the Murray mouth would need to be dredged indefinitely at a cost of $7 million each year to keep the river connected to the sea.
The list goes on.
It is clear that the major players need to unite to agree on real solutions.
If the Murray and its associated industries are to survive, government, industry and consumers must now contribute to saving the Murray over the next decade.