Time to align regional and ag policies

23 Apr, 2013 02:00 AM
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UWA head of School of Earth and Environment Professor Matthew Tonts.
UWA head of School of Earth and Environment Professor Matthew Tonts.

DECLINING populations, ageing demographics and dwindling opportunities are not new problems for rural and remote communities in Australia.

But if society is going to be able to feed the population in the future, the trend needs to be reversed.

This is according to University of WA (UWA) head of School of Earth and Environment, Professor Matthew Tonts.

Mr Tonts said it was a disturbing picture for rural communities but hoped many of the changes expected in the food production industry might drive new forms of rural development.

"We are already seeing glimmers of hope," he said.

"We are just beginning to see new enterprises, new industries and new opportunities as industry adjusts to the major issues it faces, such as climate change, where business can enter that new space in food production."

Mr Tonts drew comparisons with the US, where the most significant area of job growth since 2007 was in rural areas which were dominated by agriculture.

And according to Mr Tonts, rural communities in WA were already taking charge of their own destinies.

"The activities of grower groups are an example of the sorts of things that can happen when groups of farmers work together and invest in their own competitive advantage," he said.

"They are examples of communities filling the gaps that governments have left behind."

As changes to the agricultural industry continued into the future, Mr Tonts expected the emergence of an entirely new rural landscape.

"We still don't know what that will look like, drive-in, drive-out could be one of the many options," he said.

"But what I hope is that we see new forms of food production and intensifications."

Mr Tonts said competitive social advantages were needed in order to make rural communities places in which people chose to live.

Currently the gulf between social welfare and wellbeing in rural and urban areas continued to widen and rural areas were slipping behind.

"We also see this gap widening on education indicators, health indicators and access to services," he said.

"This balance needs to be regressed if rural communities are to have a chance."

The gradual erosion of populations in country areas in WA has been occurring over a number of decades according to Mr Tonts.

He said in the 1960s there were about 201,000 farmers in Australia.

Today that figure is at 95,000.

Mr Tonts said farm amalgamation, substitution of labour and rationalisation all contributed to the problem but government policy had also played a major part.

"Regional development policy and agriculture policy have, for a long time, been seen as separate things," he said.

"And as long as they are separate we will never be able to come up with a cohesive plan for rural Australia."

At the turn of the 20th century, 30 per cent of the population lived in Perth but according to Mr Tonts, it was now 78pc.

"We can continue to see a higher concentration of population in the metropolitan area, or we can think seriously about population re-distribution," he said.

"We need to figure out how the adjustments in the food industry and food production might leverage positive economic and social changes for our rural areas."

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