Agriculture vs. Environment: another false dichotomy


Recently, protecting the environment has been portrayed as a hindrance to economic growth, a fluffy sideshow, or a bureaucratic obstacle to hardworking families. Ironically, the absolute opposite is true. It’s just another false dichotomy.

I grew up around Agriculture. Being a farmer was one of the first career choices I can remember as a primary school kid. I’ve hand-fed calves, shown prize dairy cattle at local shows, helped friends pick fruit, and worked as a governess on a remote beef cattle station. I did university twice, and ended up where I am today, because I learned first-hand from so many farmers that a healthy environment is essential to agricultural production.

So, very personally, I’m a bit upset that the Agriculture vs. Environment dichotomy has blown out of proportion.

The recently-published Craik review looked at how to improve the implementation of the EPBC Act for agriculture, while maintaining environmental standards. This is a useful review. Bureaucratic processes in this country are at an all-time high, and some people wrongly assume that ‘doing the right thing’ costs them more time and money than ‘doing the wrong thing and getting away with it’. If you think long-term, this simply isn’t true.

But unsurprisingly, the review found that some farmers are disincentivised from requesting permission for proposed actions (such as land clearing) because the bureaucratic processes are so lengthy and costly.

The response on news and social media was disheartening, to say the least. Some people jumped uncritically onto the ‘greenies/lefties’ vs. Us myth, an embarrassingly outdated fairytale.

Nature is unfairly blamed for our own failures to embed environmental protection into our social and economic fabric. As a society, we don’t educate well enough about the importance of ecological processes in sustaining human lives. We consistently separate science and environment in popular media, perpetuating the myth that ‘environmentalists’ aren’t ‘scientists’. We sell ‘nature’ as a health kick or hobby, not the foundation of human knowledge and survival. We design and implement policies and regulations that promote short-term economic growth over long-term future wellbeing. And we all lose at the end of the day.

Environmental regulation has increased globally in recent years, and this is a good thing. Regulation is essential to protect the environment. We need to create obstacles for blatant exploitation of natural resources that ultimately leads to negative impacts on our health and wellbeing.

But regulation should not mean unregulated admin for those that are regulated. Paperwork has become a new nightmare for so many people that aren’t traditionally expected (or trained) to deal with it. The Craik review highlights this and most of its recommendations focus on the reduction of administrative burdens on farmers (e.g. see Recommendation 1).

But Recommendation 10 has raised some debate:

“It is recommended that the Minister receive advice, concurrently with the listing brief on the relevant species or ecological community, as to the likely location and extent of impacts on the agriculture sector associated with the listing, and, where these might be viewed as material, options available to mitigate any likely significant social and economic impacts of a listing decision.”

This doesn’t mean that farmers will have the power to delist or deny listing to a threatened species. They shouldn’t. It means that, during listing assessments, advice from farming communities should be taken into consideration about how the listing might affect them. This advice is a valuable part of community/stakeholder engagement. It should inform subsequent management to support the listing, but it should never stop the listing going ahead. To maintain integrity, listings of threatened species/ecological communities must be based on scientific advice, independent from vested interests.

“We need to think about the whole system, every single part of it, not just the label we put on our plate.” Nature, food and people: there’s no magic bean for sustainable agriculture

“One label isn’t inherently more sustainable than the other. Whatever you call it, agriculture that harnesses ecological interactions to produce food and fibre, while also protecting nature and human well-being, is what we need.” What is sustainable agriculture anyway?

My main take-home from the review: I’m surprised there is no recommendation to engage Agriculture with environmental protection. It’s a two-way street. I know lots of farmers who are going out of their way to protect the environment because they recognise the social and economic benefits from nature. But some aren’t. How to engage them? Intrinsic values are not the only way to appreciate the importance of nature.

Let’s make it normal for industries to protect biodiversity and ecosystems. We need to embed the importance of nature and ecosystem services in our education, engagement, and political systems.

© Manu Saunders 2019

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