An Australian dream that is a Greenie nightmare
Ever since Hitler, Greenies have been doing their best to frighten us into thinking that we are going to run out of food. Hitler at least had the excuse that there really were food shortages in Germany immediately after WWI but modern-day Greenies live in an era of unprecedented abundance.
Food shortages -- see Paul Ehrlich -- were the no. 1 scare before global warming came along as a tool to make us do the Greenie beck and call -- but they still pop out the old scare at times too -- usually presenting it as a result of global warming. That a warmer world would in fact produce a food bonanza doesn't faze them. Imagine the farming lands in Northern Canada and Siberia that a warmer climate would open up!
But you don't have to imagine anything to realize what Northern Australia does to any food-shortage scare. And it rebuffs such scares in two ways -- both because of its potential and because of its actuality.
Australia is a continent and as you will read below, there is an area the size of India in Northern Australia which is virtually unused agriculturally. And India feeds over a billion people. As in India, the usability of the land is uneven but with modern farming methods it could undoubtedly produce far more food than the primitive methods used by most Indian farmers do. So how is that for a potential food bonanza? Would enough extra food to feed more than a billion people be enough to tone down the scares?
So that is the potential. The actuality is in fact even more instructive. WHY has such vast potential gone unused? We can find out from the one bit of Northern Australia that HAS been developed -- using a lot of taxpayer money. I refer of course to the Ord river scheme. The Ord is a big river that flows through a fertile landscape in North-Western Australia. And for decades governments have been trying to open it up for farming. They even built a big dam to ensure year-round water supply.
So what happened? They succeeded brilliantly at growing all sorts of crops. They could readily have fed a small nation for a lot of the time. But most of the crops concerned have now been abandoned. Just about the only product they export is sandalwood. And you can't eat sandalwood. You burn it for incense.
So WHY was the Ord scheme an abject failure? Because the world is SWIMMING in food. There are all sorts of clever farmers worldwide who produce food at minimal cost. So much so that the big costs is distribution: Getting the food into your local supermarket. The farmer gets only a small fraction of what you pay. And that's not a racket. Distribution is expensive. All those trucks and trains and warehouses and wharves and roads and rail lines, loading docks and silos are expensive -- and so are the wages of the men who work in them. They have to be paid too -- not only the farmer. And the Ord is far away from most potential markets and is connected to none of the existing distribution networks. Getting food from the Ord into your local supermarket would be way too expensive. It's all down to those pesky dollars and cents.
The Ord is in fact not far away from some big potential markets in Indonesia, India and China, but those countries, like most countries, want to be able to feed themselves -- and their governments are fixated on that. The Ord can go hang as far as they are concerned. And it does. The twin whammy of distribution costs and trade barriers doom the Ord. And it would be just the same for the rest of Northern Australia.
Australian politicians have been breast-beating about our empty North for generations and periodically put money into explorations of its potential -- but it never has come to anything and it never will. The world has TOO MUCH food for that to succeed. So only the cheapest food into your supermarket gets grown. Famine is not the danger. Greenies are talking out of
FOOTNOTE: The Ord is a fascinating experiment in agricultural economics so needs a much longer article than these few notes to discuss it properly but perhaps for those interested I can add a couple more notes:
1.) Given its proximity to Asia and Australia's extensive experience with growing rice economically, the obvious market for the Ord would be the growing and export to Asia of rice. Rice is a tropical crop and the Ord is in the tropics. Sadly, however, that is a case of "been there, done that". Many years ago now, in the 1950's the lavishly-funded Humpty Doo experiment in the Northern Territory did prove that an abundant rice crop could be grown in the North. Sadly, however, the vast flocks of beautiful Australian native birds, mostly magpie geese, got to the crops before anybody in Asia did. After the birds had finished, there was nothing much left to harvest. And the flocks were so big that no deterrent efforts worked. And that was in the days before Greenie restrictions on poisons etc. Below is a picture of Magpie Geese at the Ord, where they are abundant. They are supposed to be a living fossil, but nobody seems to have told them that.
2). Given the billions promised for infrastructure provision, might a spur line to the Ord off the Alice/Darwin railway be a good idea? It would cross some very difficult terrain so would certainly soak up billions and in the end it would give access only to the Darwin and Alice-Springs market, both of which are quite small. It would not remotely help to get Ord produce into the nearest big city -- Adelaide -- as Adelaide is quite close the the great array of productive farms in Victoria. So the transport cost of Ord produce would be a lot more than the transport costs from Victoria.
Scientists have been digging up the dirt on northern Australia's potential to become an agricultural powerhouse.
In the biggest undertaking of its kind in Australia, thousands of soil samples were collected from water catchments in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and Queensland.
The samples are now being analysed as part of the Federal Government's multi-billion-dollar plan to develop the Top End and double the nation's agricultural output.
"Northern Australia is a vast and underdeveloped landscape that's three million square kilometres — roughly five times the size of France, or the size of India," said CSIRO Research Director Dr Peter Stone, who oversees the science body's Northern Australia program.
Over the past five years, the CSIRO has identified 70 crops which could grow in the north and 16 million hectares of land that is suitable for irrigated agriculture.
"If you ... grabbed all the water you could, there'd be enough to irrigate about one and a half million hectares of northern Australia," he said.
"So overlaying the sweet spots — where soil is suitable and water is not only available, but reliable — is part of the key."
Drilling in Northern Territory
In the basement of the Ecosciences Precinct in Brisbane, you could be excused for thinking you had walked into a fanciful coffee roastery.
Grinders are lined up on one side of the room, while on the other, Seonaid Philip stacks trays of the most delectable-looking grinds into an oven for drying.
But the pale greys, rich ochres and velvety chocolates are not coffee, of course, but a collection of outback soils.
"For this project we've collected approximately 4,000 samples," said Ms Philip, who co-ordinated the field trips involving two dozen people in the Fitzroy, Mitchell and Darwin water catchments over 120 days.
"The colours tell us quite a bit about the attributes of the soils. These red ones are highly sought after, highly productive, very good for horticultural development... not the best water-holding capacity, but people can manage around that.
"But this one here is a bit sad," she said, picking up a pot of grey dirt.
"It's leeched, a pale colour, and shows that nutrients have been stripped out of it, probably in a high rainfall area."
Upstairs in the laboratory, the samples undergo a wide range of tests to determine their composition, structure and level of nutrients such as nitrogen, essential for plant growth, and carbon, critical for soil and plant health.
The information is helping to build a detailed map of northern Australian soils, which will be overlaid with a similar map being created for above and underground water resources.
Together the projects form the Federal Government's $15 million Northern Australia Water Resources Assessment.
Developing the north is "vitally important", according to Agriculture Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce. "Mining is great, but it's boom and bust ... but agriculture is a constant flow of wealth that comes back," he said.
"If we can, over time, irrigate one and a half million hectares in the north, that would almost double the amount of land we have under irrigation today ... in the whole of Australia, and that would help us to double agriculture over time," Minister for Northern Australia Matt Canavan told the ABC.
"We don't have a lot of major dams in the north and in the south, in the Murray Darling and other places, we've kind of exploited the resources we already have, so our future opportunities in agriculture, our future opportunities to develop our water resources do predominantly lie in the north."
Senator Canavan said the Government's $5 billion Northern Australia Infrastructure Facility would help to ensure that any northern foodbowl could get its produce to market.