In the past 200 years, European farming practices have caused more deterioration of the environment than the Aboriginal people did in 40 thousand. Aboriginals had a strong spiritual bond with the land and considered themselves as the custodians of the land and that they belonged to it. The Aborigines relied on excellent knowledge of the area, resulting in sustainable management of the land. They ensured there would be resources for future generations and that the environment would not be degraded, with methods such as nomadic behavior.
The Aborigines constantly moved from one place to another, never over-exhausting one area for resources and food. They took only what they needed and made sure as little harm was made to the environment; for example young animals were not usually killed and sufficient seeds were left to grow. Aborigines also had a very deep understanding of season change, which affects all land use activities such as food collection, mobility and ceremonial practices. Aboriginals practiced “fire stick farming”, a technique involving burning off the native flora to promote grasslands.
Fire stick farming enabled access for hunting and gathering of food and promoted regeneration of plant life. Completely opposite of Aboriginal beliefs, the Europeans believed they owned the land and exploited it for personal gain. Nearly all European farming methods were unsustainable. They were used to maximize production, not maximizing sustainability. Australia has been using European farming practices for over 200 years, bringing wealth to the economy, by introducing animals such as cattle, sheep and rabbits – which were completely alien to Australia’s climate and topography.
By 1870, “the land and vegetation resource was devastated over a large percentage of the area by the combination of rabbit plagues, high stock numbers, severe economic depression and prolonged drought” (Wickman, see bibliography). Overgrazing commonly occurred and the land was cleared to make way for agriculture. The removal of deep rooted native trees and grasses destroyed soil structure, leading to other issues like soil erosion and degradation of soil health/fertility. Soil erosion is the removal of soil by wind or water and about 80% of the cultivated land in Queensland is affected by water erosion.
Erosion affects crop yields and grazing lands by reducing the ability to store ware and nutrients and by exposing subsoil with poor physical properties. Erosion also results in silting of water catchments, affecting aquatic life. Over fertilization with organic or inorganic fertilizers can lead to soil acidification, due to excess nitrogen in the soil. Soil structure is also degraded through compaction of soil by introduced farm machinery and the hard hooves of cattle and sheep. Other problems which arise due to unsustainable practices include water logging, increased salinity, declining water quality and loss of biodiversity.
European farming practices also promote deforestation, rather than the Aboriginal way of fire stick farming. Rather than burning off small amounts of vegetation at a time, a mass is removed and the area is often used as pasture. The removal of trees without sufficient reforestation results in damage to habitat, biodiversity loss and aridity. Deforested regions often degrade into wasteland. Eutrophication also occurs as a result of agricultural run-off depositing plant nutrients in water catchments. The environment is affected by use of pesticides and herbicides.
In modern agriculture, more sustainable practices are used, such as rotating paddocks to allow the soil to recover. This is similar to the Aborigines’ nomadic behavior. In the past, European practices did not take into account the long-term effects on the environment, while Aboriginal practices were sustainable for the future. • Social Aspects Most of Australia’s farms – 95% – are family farms or family businesses. These farms are run by members of one family and the family business is passed down generation to generation. Australia no longer “rides on the sheep’s back” and agriculture’s main contribution is to export earnings nowadays.
The major problem most family farms are facing is that the prices received for farm products have not risen at the same rate as the cost of inputs, meaning the farm is slowly losing profit. In the past 40 years, the cost of farm inputs have risen 1200%, while the cost of farm outputs have only risen 230%. This has led to unnecessary changes in the management of the farm, such as reallocation of resources such as labour. In 1999/2000, agriculture has contributed 3. 3% of Australia’s national economy. In 1998, there were 144 800 establishments which were agricultural, compared to the early 1950s, when there was 205 000.
These figures suggest that farms have become larger, however, farms have a very big range in size, ranging from 5 hectare nurseries to 2000 hectare sheep grazing properties. The decline in the number of farms and the consequent doubling of the average farm size have been caused by change in world and domestic economic conditions and adoption of new technology in farming. Sheep grazing, cattle grazing and grain growing are the main enterprises on Australia’s farms, and sometimes farms have a combination of two or three of these enterprises.
More importantly, a large proportion of small farms have access to off-farm employment income. Off-farm employment allows a family with limited capitol to earn an adequate combined amount of money. Smaller farms usually have a lower rate of capitol return as they produce less, however, if off farm employment income is appropriately considered, small farms are not less efficient than larger farms. In many family farms, family members, especially the next generation, have moved off the farm in seek of other career opportunities or education. However, it is often difficult to find employment elsewhere.
The main reasons are skills, education, finance and lifestyle. People who have been working on farms for their lives may have skills in animal husbandry and crop production, but these skills cannot be transferred into other occupations and industries. Also, only 25% of Australia’s farm workforce leaves school (SC or HSC) with trade or tertiary qualifications, compared to New Zealand’s 50% and Europe’s 90%. Once people leave the rural area, they may not be ready for the sudden change in finance and lifestyle. For example, housing prices are much higher in the city than in the country.
Australia is a significant contributor to world trade, one of the largest exporters of wool, meat and wheat. In Australia, exports generate $39 billion in gross value each year. Of Australia’s national economy, Agriculture contributes 3. 3%, compared to 4. 2% of mining and 12% of manufacturing. In 1997/98, $22. 1 billion in overseas revenue was generated by exports from rural industries, making up 25% of all exports. In the same year, farmers spend $20 billion on inputs to their farms, generating large amount of economic activity. Farming employs around 370 000 people across Australia.
The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) is the embodiment of Australian farmers’ need to speak with one united voice. The NFF is committed to ensuring modern farming is not only viable and sustainable, but continues its vital and growing contribution to the nation. The NFF’s Federal Budget Submission 2009 covers 10 priority areas: ? Drought reform ? Research and development ? Data and information services ? Water ? The environment ? Taxation ? Social security ? Education ? Infrastructure ? Quarantine Agriculture makes us living in the city more socially aware of sustainability and managing our resources.
We have seen the history of poor farming and the dire implications for the environment. We have seen fertilizer poison fish and plants down rivers and know about the health risks to humans. It connects us to our farming history and especially now calls us to help our farmers in any way we can like they have done for the growth and economy of the nation. People are now following water restrictions and using money out of their own pockets to install rainwater tanks and plant natives. The government also has gone a long way to promote sustainable agricultural practices; however more action is required with the drought and protecting
Australian farmers against it. Apart from off farm income, the government should provide more support to struggling farmers. Also, less imports should be brought into our supermarket shelves, improving our economy.