Senate debates

Thursday, 19 March 2015


Western Australian Agriculture

7:29 pm

Photo of Rachel SiewertRachel Siewert (WA, Australian Greens) Share this | | Hansard source

I rise tonight to talk about Western Australia's agriculture sector. Several weeks ago I was invited to participate in the WA Farmers Federation annual conference as part of the pollie panel. There was incredible diversity of Western Australia's agricultural sector at the conference, and it was an enjoyable experience to talk directly to grain growers, pastoralists, those working on a large scale and those working on a small scale—people from across the sector.

It was also a pleasure two weeks ago to attend Wagin Woolorama where I spoke to not only farmers but also locals who rely on the local wool and wheat farms to create work for the whole community. I was able to have some very vigorous discussions with some of the local farming community. I have always enjoyed frank exchanges of ideas with farmers and, while we disagreed on some things, we actually agreed on a range of things.

A sustainable agricultural sector now and into the future is clearly vital for keeping people on the land and to keep our regional communities strong, but also for our economy and our food security—that is particularly important.

This year's WAFF conference focused on three important aspects for the future of agriculture: image, innovation and investment. There has never been a better time to talk about image in the light of current events and how important public perception and consumer confidence is in our agriculture. Unfortunately, as the hepatitis A berries crisis unfolded, it brought into sharp relief the fact that our agricultural image can be so easily damaged, even though it wasn't our agriculture that caused the problem. The issue is now in people's consciousness, however, it is important that they understand how safe our agricultural products are.

It is quite shocking to realise that products people have bought without question can put them at significant risk. The outbreak of hepatitis A in imported berries demonstrates the biosecurity risks that Australians face and how important a strong and secure regulatory system is. Unfortunately, our regulatory system has failed to stop some contaminated food, pests and diseases crossing our borders, and this will continue if we do not improve our systems.

During my address on the Biosecurity Bill 2014 that is currently before this place, I spoke about the importance of biosecurity to our agriculture, our health and our environment. While we strongly support the updating of our biosecurity legislation, as I articulated in this place yesterday, we think that this legislation needs some improvements. It needs to deal with the overall regulatory system as well as ensuring our food safety. This means addressing some of the processes in the food import act and Food Standards Australia New Zealand—or FSANZ—by ensuring that our system is not cumbersome and that it can speedily respond to crises as they arise. We also need to ensure that we have adequate screening processes in place.

Our agricultural image needs to be and can be assured through better labelling. Senator Milne has a bill before this place on country-of-origin labelling, and the government has also made a commitment to address that issue. It is essential that we have good labelling, and that people can be assured that, when they buy Australian produce, it is Australian produce and quality produce.

Let me quickly turn to innovation: this is a very important topic and it was a very hot topic at the WAFF conference. It is incredibly heartening to see the excellent research and development that we do in Australia, but we also need to be careful not to drop the ball in this area. A strong and continuing commitment to research and development is absolutely critical to the future of agriculture in this country.

WA farmers have always been incredibly innovative—and I have spoken about this in this place before: how you can have a farming system on what is in a large part of Western Australia gutless sand. It continues to amaze me even though I have studied agricultural science. Once you have studied it, you understand just how innovative our agricultural scientists have had to be to foster agriculture in this country, particularly in Western Australia. It is so important that we maintain our commitment to research and development and not scrimp and save: that will cost agriculture.

At the conference, people asked: what is the key issue for agriculture? I said: climate change. If we do not address climate change for agriculture, we will not have a sustainable agricultural system into the future. Let me give an example—I have talked at length about the impact of declining rainfall—the changing climate means that we need to invest a lot more in frost in Western Australia. Frost has become a much bigger issue for Western Australian farmers as a result of the changing climate.

Who knew that when you talk about climate change that you would need to talk about frost? I bet people listening think that sounds a bit strange. In fact that is what is happening. We need to be innovative. We need to be investing in research. We need to understand the impacts of climate change while making sure that we have an agricultural system that continues to adapt to this changing climate. It is not just about being able to cope with drought—although of course that is absolutely essential. Climate change is having a range of impacts on our agriculture, and we need to make sure we deal with that. It was really disappointing that the Agriculture Competitiveness Green Paper did not address climate change—it mentioned it twice but not substantially.

Then we get to investment. Of course the things I have just talked about are related to investment—another of the 'I' themes of the WAFF conference which talked about the need for investment. Again, it is disappointing that the government's green paper has not fully shown and articulated enough where the Australian government intends to invest in the future of agriculture. This is one of the important things that we absolutely need for the long-term future of agriculture in this country. We need to be looking long term. It is not just about the next budget; we actually need a long-term commitment to investment in agriculture. While the government seems very keen to invest in and support mining and coal seam gas—and, in Western Australia, the Western Australian government is investing in shale gas—it is a shame it is not investing to the same extent in the future of our agriculture.

We are seeing big chunks of our productive farmland in the eastern states lost to coal seam gas. We do not want to see the same thing in Western Australia. We do not want to see our productive farmlands and agricultural lands lost to, in our case, tight gas or shale gas. We are extremely supportive of measures that protect our farmland and water against this pressure. We will continue to oppose the rollout of this destructive mining across our agricultural landscape and continue to look at what measures can be taken to ensure that that farmland is protected.

One of the things that is very dear to my heart is investment in natural resource management. It distresses me greatly that there will be no more funding for Landcare and NRM grants until at least 2018. The money that has now been allocated to the regional groups and then allocated through that process is it. There is no more funding there. Again, Western Australia has held its head up high and been a leader in NRM and Landcare. I think it is going to strike to the heart of the Landcare movement that that funding has been curtailed. I will continue to lobby and urge the government to continue to invest in NRM and Landcare, to ensure that we keep those innovative practices coming, because the future of our agriculture is dependent on that funding investment.