SOILS for Life Chairman Major-General Michael Jeffery would have started with a different premise if he was writing the federal government’s Agricultural Competitiveness White Paper.
He told Fairfax Media the $4 billion White Paper - released by the Abbott government in early July - was a good document which contained key strategic improvements in areas like agricultural research, development and extension (RD&E).
But he said the document lacked a more cohesive strategic approach to tackling the critical link between soil health and farmer profitability.
“If I was writing the White Paper - and I wasn’t - I would have started with the premise that good agricultural policy, in terms of profit and sustainability, must always have, as its fundamental base, the health of the soil and managing our soil, water and plant life assets properly,” the former Governor General said.
“That’s the basis of sustainable agriculture because if you get any one of those three wrong we will not have a sustainable base; it’s as simple as that.”
Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce’s constantly repeated mantra has been increasing farmgate returns which was also a central theme of his White Paper.
However, Shadow Agriculture Minister Joel Fitzgibbon has attacked Minister Joyce’s lack of environmental focus and failure to adequately address climate change impacts on farm profitability links in the strategic White Paper.
Major-General Jeffery said the White Paper could have also outlined how various government departments could link together and work more cohesively to achieve sustainable long-term soil health and therefore improve agricultural viability.
“I’m talking about restoring and managing the health of the Australian landscape so that it’s fit for purpose of which agriculture is a very important component,” he said.
“The problem is we’ve had stovepipe departments who look after a little bit of the task each.
“But those departments are not working cohesively with other departments who should be having input into solutions like health, education, regional development, indigenous, trade and national security.
“We need to clearly enunciate our key aim and mission which I list as restoring and maintaining the Australian landscape, fit for purpose, and to declare soil water and plants as key strategic assets.
“We also need to ensure that our farmers, who are managing most of those assets, also have the right support and outline a strategic plan for how do we do that.”
Major-General Jeffery said policy-makers and industry leaders also had to recognise that Australia would never be the food bowl of Asia but healthier soils also equated to more nutritious food for exports and domestic consumption.
“If we double our food production we may be able to feed 80 million people,” he said.
“But if we exported knowledge, it may help to feed a billion people, so the export of knowledge, if you sell it or give it away, is a common global good.
“Australia must keep its clean green leadership at all costs and that all gets back to healthy soils and healthy processes.”
Major-General Jeffery said increasing community education about the link between soil, water and plant health and the nation’s well-being, was also critical for helping the nation’s urban population understand the work farmers do and overcome the growing rural-urban divide.
He said he had 20 case studies on leading land management examples on his Soils for Life website which he wanted to expand to 100 so farmers and others can be led by example and interact and exchange information on best-practice techniques.
“The best way to bring about change is to show farmers how to improve their own capacity and capability by following in the footsteps of someone who’s already done it,” he said.
Major-General Jeffery said he had also spoken to the USDA and United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization about developing a global online portal so farmers all around the world could exchange data on leading land management case studies.
“If every country had 100 case studies we’d be cooking on gas,” he said.