Thursday, July 26, 2007

History of agriculture in Australia

Indigenous Australians did not practice agriculture, they were hunter-gatherers. Following European settlement of the continent, the wool industry was the first large scale agricultural enterprise in Australia’s history. Wool was of key importance to the Australian economy, so much so that the phrase ‘Australia rides on the sheep’s back’ is still a part of the Australian vernacular. Wool production is less crucial today; the wool industry shrunk significantly in the 1990s due to low world prices and competition from synthetic fibre.
In the 1860s sugar was successfully grown in plantations in Queensland. A raw sugar mill was established at Ormiston, near Cleveland, Brisbane, by Captain Louis Hope. As the industry expanded throughout coastal Queensland and Northern New South Wales growth eventually became limited in the 1880s by high wages for farm labour. To overcome this problem, cheap “contract” labour was brought in from the South Pacific islands. Between 1863 and 1904, more than 60,000 Kanakas were brought to Queensland to work on sugar plantations, some illegally through a process known as “blackbirding”. This involved Europeans luring islanders onto ships by pretending that they wanted to trade with them, instead they were kidnapped and shipped to Australia where they were forced to work in sugar cane plantations.

A sugar cane train in far north Queensland
Regulations were introduced in the late 1880s to control the import of Kanakas, and by 1908 many Kanakas had retuned home. Bulk handling was introduced to the industry in the 1950s, and 100% of cane was mechanically harvested by 1979. Australia is the worlds largest exporter of sugar, however due to falling world prices growers and restrictive international trade practices in the global sugar market grower incomes are predicted to fall.
The export of beef and mutton to the United Kingdom commenced with the advent of refrigeration. Export markets drove the expansion of meat production, and the 1932 Ottawa agreements granted preferential access for Australia to British markets. When this agreement expired in the 1960s, market focus shifted to the United States, Japan, the USSR and the Middle East.
Large scale broadacre cropping was promoted from 1901 when the Australian states formed the Federation of Australia. Between 1901 and World War I the wheat belt doubled in size. At the onset of World War II that Australian Wheat Board (AWB) was established to stabilise prices and meet war time demand, and the AWB was allowed monopoly control of the domestic market for 40 years. The security of a fixed price, soil improvement, disease-resistant varieties and improved cultivation techniques led to further expansion of the wheat belt. Increased mechanisation resulted in increased productivity, making wheat the dominant cereal crop produced in Australia. Domestic wheat marketing was deregulated in 1989.
Until the late 1950s, agricultural products accounted for more than 80% of the value of Australia's exports. Since then, that proportion has declined markedly as the Australian economy has become increasingly diverse. The quantity and value of production have expanded in the mining, manufacturing and, in recent years, the service industries.

Major agricultural products
Australia produces a large variety of primary products for both export and domestic consumption. The forecasted top ten agricultural products by value for year 2006-07 with production figures from previous years.[1].
Value in millions of Australian Dollars.

Sunflower crop on the Darling Downs, Queensland
Cereals, oilseeds and grain legumes are produced on a large scale in Australia for human consumption and livestock feed. Wheat is the cereal with the greatest production in terms of area and value to the Australian economy. Sugarcane, grown in tropical Australia is also an important crop; however, the unsubsidised industry (while lower-cost than heavily subsidised European and American sugar producers) is struggling to compete with low-cost Brazilian product. Listed below is crop production by kilotonnes (five year average) for the largest crops:
Crop (kilotonnes)
New South Wales
Western Australia
South Australia


Potato farming in rural Victoria.
Australia produces a wide variety of fruit, nuts and vegetables, the largest crops (>300 kilotonnes, in 2001-2001) include oranges, apples, bananas, chestnuts, potatoes, carrots and tomatoes.
Tropical fruits including bananas, mangoes and pineapples fare well in Queensland and the Northern Terrority.
Australia is one of the few countries that produces licit opium for pharmaceuticals. This industry, centred in Tasmania, is subject to strict controls.
The horticulture industry has traditionally provided Australians with all their fresh fruit and vegetables needs, with a smaller export industry. However, loosened border controls and increasing importers have threatened local industries. Consumer research has repeatedly shown that Australians prefer local produce. However, there is no effective country-of-origin labelling and consumers frequently assume all fresh vegetables and fruit must be Australian.
In 2005 McDonalds Australia Ltd announced it would no longer source all its potatoes for fries from Tasmanian producers and announced a new deal with New Zealand suppliers. As a result Vegetable and Potato Growers Australia Ltd launched the 'fair dinkum' campaign to raise awareness and push for country-of-origin information on all food products. This campaign included a tractor convoy moving from Tasmania to the mainland (by barge) and then a road trip throughout country Victoria and New South Wales culminating at Canberra, the national capital.
Some commodity groups (e.g. bananas, apples) also enjoy a freedom from devastating fruit pests, however loosened import restrictions may introduce these diseases.


Grape vines in Mildura, Victoria during December, 2006.
Australia has a large wine industry, and the value of wine exports surpassed AUD$2.3 billion in 2002-2003. Wine regions include the Barossa Valley in South Australia, Sunraysia in Victoria and the Hunter Valley in New South Wales. The key wine varieties grown in Australia (by area in 2001-2002) are Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet sauvignon. Although the Australian wine industry enjoyed a large period of growth during the 1990s, over planting and over supply have lead to a large drop in the value of wine, forcing some wine makers, especially those on contracts to large wine producing companies out of business. The future for some Australian wine producers is now uncertain.
The number of livestock killed for domestic consumption or export, or exported live in 2001-2002 is shown in the following table:
Livestock slaughterings
Thousands ('000)
The Beef Industry
The beef industry is the biggest agricultural enterprise in Australia. The Australian beef industry is dependent on export markets, with over 60% of Australian beef production exported, primarily to the United States and Japan. The industry has benefited from the discovery of BSE (also known as mad cow disease) in Canada, Japan and the United States, as Australia is free of the disease.
The Lamb Meat Industry
Lamb has become an increasingly important product as the sheep industry has moved its focus from wool production to the production of prime lamb. The beef meat industry and the lamb industry are represented by Meat and Livestock Australia. Live export of cattle and sheep from Australia to Asia and the Middle East is a large part of Australian meat export. Live export practises came under scrutiny after the carrier the Cormo Express carrying 52 000 animals was turned away from Saudi Arabia in 2003 due to suspected cases of scrapie. The sheep were eventually given to Eritrea, however media coverage has led to calls from animal rights activists for the live export trade to cease.
The Pork Industry
There are currently an estimated 2,000 pig producers in Australia producing 5 million pigs annually (Productivity Commission). Although relatively small on the world stage (0.4% world production) the industry provides a significant positive impact on local, regional, state, and national economies through income generation and employment. The pork industry contributes approximately $970m to Australia’s GDP and the supply chain contributes $2.6billion to the GDP. The industry generates over $1.2b of household income, directly employing 6,500 full time positions, and the supply chain employees 29,000 people. The Australian pork industry is represented by Australian Pork Limited, a producer-run company created by legislation

Dairy products are Australia's fourth most valuable agricultural export.
Domestic milk markets were heavily regulated until the 1980s, particularly for milk used for domestic fresh milk sales, particularly protecting smaller producers in the northern states who produced exclusively for their local markets. The Kerin plan began the process of deregulation in 1986, with the final price supports being removed in 2000. [1]
Growth in the Australian dairy industry is dependent on expanding export markets. Exports are expected to continue to grow over time, particularly to Asia and the Middle East.

The gross value of production of Australia's fisheries and aquaculture products was $2.3 billion in 2002-03. The Australian aquaculture industry's share of this value has been steadily rising and now represents around 32 per cent. The value of exports of fisheries products in 2002-03 was $1.84 billion. Australia's main seafood export earners include rock lobsters, prawns, tuna and abalone
The Wool Industry
Wool is still quite an important product of Australian agriculture. The Australian wool industry is widely recognised as producing the finest quality merino wool. This is largely attributable to selective breeding and a superior genetic line.
As of 2001 Australian wool production accounted for 9% of world production (Australian Bureau of Statistics Data). However, it dominates the fine quality wool sector, producing 50% of the world’s merino wool.
Although sheep are farmed Australia-wide, 36% of the flock is in New South Wales.
Research and development for the industry is led by Australian Wool Innovation Limited (AWI), a producer owned company. Australian wool is marketed by the Woolmark company. Both companies are held by Australian Wool Services, a company created by legislation.
The industry is export-oriented. Historically, up to 90% of Australian wool was exported. The industry has suffered from a lowering demand for natural fibres, a stockpiling of product, and a crash in wool prices world-wide.
Animal rights organisations including PETA are currently promoting a boycott of Australian, and all merino wool, as a protest against the practice of mulesing.[2] Due to the worldwide attention, AWI has proposed to phase out the practice by 2010.[3]
Australia also produces considerable amounts of cotton. The majority of the cotton produced is genetically modified to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup or to actively kill pests through the production of Bt toxin (Bt-cotton).
Agriculture is both a federal and state responsibility in Australia. The Federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) is involved in agricultural policy as well as running The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS). The states departments perform extension work, and have plant breeding programs to make cultivars with properties suitable for the conditions in each state. The state departments are:
Department of Agriculture Western Australia
Department of Agriculture, Mining, and Rural Affairs, Victoria
Department of Primary Industries, New South Wales
Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment, Tasmania
Department of Primary Industries and Resources, South Australia
Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries, Northern Territory
Queensland Department of Primary Indistries and Fisheries
Since Australian agriculture focuses on agricultural exports, the Australian government has been a strident supporter of international reforms to agricultural trade barriers. In 1986 Australian created the Cairns Group with 16 other agricultural producers to promote trade justice in Agriculture. The Cairns Group has continued to play a key role in setting the agenda for the agriculture negotiations at meetings of the World Trade Organization.
In 1995 Uruguay Round of World Trade Organization talks Australia supported the Agreement on Agriculture which provided for increased market access to international markets through tariff cuts. Australia and the Cairns Group also played a key role in the 2001 Doha Development Round of WTO talks. At the Doha meeting a number of multilateral trade negotiations were agreed on, and the Centre for International Economics estimates that worldwide reductions in agricultural subsidies will could be worth as much as US$1.3 billion annually to the Australian economy by the end of the Doah round in 2010.
As well as government involvement, there is also an established system of industry-level national governance by statutorily-created limited companies. These companies are run by members and funded by levies. Compulsory levies on producers are able to be imposed under commonwealth legislation, to be managed by industry bodies to fund research, development, and marketing. Levies do not apply in all agricultural industries. Levies are collected by the government levies revenue service and distrubited to the statutory bodies under contracts authorised by the legislation. This strong system of funding and representation has helped certain Australian industries take the national and forward-thinking approach required to increase competitiveness in today’s global marketplace.

Future challenges

Main article: Drought in Australia
Drought is a significant challenge for Australian farmers. Australia has periodic drought due to the El Niño-Southern Oscillation. Drought halved wheat production in 2002-2003, and had detrimental effects on the production of other crops and livestock. Competition for limited water use exists between provision of water for irrigation and water supply networks.
Water resource management is key for the productivity and longevity of Australian agriculture. Many scientists expect that global warming will make droughts more frequent in the most productive areas in Australian agriculture in the south, compounding this issue.

Salinity and soil acidity
Main article: Salinity in Australia
Salinity on land and in fresh water is a byproduct of the European farming practices which replaced native vegetation with shallow-rooted crops and pastures in Australia. Rising groundwater levels, caused by these farming practices, are bringing with them dissolved salts which were stored in the soil. Salt is being transported to the root-zones of remnant vegetation, crops, pastures, and directly into wetlands, streams and river systems. The rising water tables are also affecting our rural infrastructure including buildings, roads, pipes and underground cables. Salinity reduces agricultural productivity and biodiversity in non-farm areas, the goals of saline land management are to stabilise and reverse the effects of salinity, improving water quality and supply.
Some crops and farming practices can make soils more acid than normal. This can affect the availability of nutrients in the soil and can lead to nutrient toxicity (eg aluminium toxicity or too much aluminium) or deficiency. Like salinity, soil acidity also limits the uses of agricultural land.
Invasive species
Main article: Invasive species in Australia
Feral animals, weeds, plant and animal disease caused by fungi, bacteria and viruses all have negative effects on Australian Agriculture. Feral Animals may carry and spread disease. This frustrates attempts to eliminate systemic animal diseases in Australia. They can also damage property and stock.
Australia maintains a strict Quarantine regime to prevent the entry of new invasive species.

Land Clearing
While the problem of land clearing isn't a serious environmental issue now in Australia, problems stem from lack of land clearing. The problem is on the New South Wales Grasslands, where for thousands of years Aborigines would burn off shrub and woody weeds to allow grasses to grow to attract animals for hunting. When the Europeans moved in to the grasslands and forced the Aborigines off the land, the shrub and woody weeds grew back because of ignorant farming practices. The shrubs and woody weeds destroy soils, accelerate erosion and reduce biodiversity. The problem is worse today than ever, and successful Green group lobbying has helped accelerate the problem.

Disease and pests
Australia's lower rates of disease and pests increases productivity and allows Australia to position its products as "clean, green, fresh" produce, particularly in export markets. The ability to maintain this market position is reliant on the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) enforcing rules and Biosecurity Australia (BA) developing appropriate Import Risk Assessment (IRA) guidelines.
Biosecurity Australia is an operational unit of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and has no independence from government policy. It is charged with conducting its assessments based on science and according to the precautionary principle. BA IRAs have been controversial, the subject of senate inquiries and court actions. BA has been criticised for trying to placate the concerns of trading partners, rather than considering on the science on the devastating affects of overseas pests and diseases. This concern has been reinforced after the US Free Trade Agreement and particular US congressmen expressing the opinion that Australia should accept their deadly diseases as part and parcel of free trade.
Particularly topical IRAs have regarded pigmeat from PMWS affected countries, apples from New Zealand, and bananas from the Philippines.
Preventing the entry and establishment of disease is a key issue the industry will continue to face in the future.
Animal Welfare
Australian livestock industries advocate a science-based approach to animal welfare. National 'model codes of practice' operate to regulate industries, although compliance and enforceability vary. Animal welfare is a state issue and further information is available from state departments (see external links).
The pork industry has recently been subjected to increased public scrutiny with animal activists pressuring the industry over its use of ‘sow stalls’. Sow stalls confine the animal and prevent it from turning around. The industry argues that pigs are aggressive animals and cannot be farmed in group housing however according to industry data, stalls are not used by 37% of Australian pork farmers. The ‘savebabe campaign’ run by Animals Australia used a website and billboards in all capital cities to promote the cause. It was supported by Babe actor James Cromwell, and other Australian celebrities.

Genetically modified crops
GM crops are a new policy area for Australian agriculture. The only genetically modified plants currently grown in Australia are GM carnations and cotton. GM cotton is grown for the production of lint for textiles and for oils for human consumption and livestock feed. The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) was established by the Australian government in 2001 under the auspices of the Commonwealth Gene Technology Act (2000). The OGTR must approve genetically modified crops for release in Australia. The OGTR approved the cultivation of GM Canola in 2004, but the crop is not currently cultivated since the state governments have banned GM food crops outright or imposed moratoria

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