Article – Bruce Davidson and the myth of a northern food bowl

6 February 2014
Bob Gosford

Bruce Davidson, best-known for his 1963 book The Northern Myth, an unforgiving analysis of the follies – and prospects – of Australian tropical agriculture, passed away 20 years ago next month.

Bruce Davidson’s contribution to Australian agricultural economics remains under-appreciated, perhaps because of his uncompromising approach to his work and a reluctance to accept the cant and dubious science trumpeted by the political boosters of proposals for a northern Australian food bowl that would feed the world and ensure Australian prosperity.

Bruce Davidson’s work is valued and valuable today. Many of the challenges that he faced down with characteristic personal vigour and scientific rigour are the subject of contemporary Federal, State and Territory proposals that warrant the same close examination and analysis that Davidson applied to his work.
Davidson’s life and work remain as a model for critical scientific practice and the value of the application of logic and reason to agricultural economics.
This Obituary was published in the Australian Journal of Agricultural Economics in April 1994.
Bruce Robinson Davidson
With the death of Bruce Davidson on the 22nd March 1994 the Australian agricultural economics profession farewelled a treasured colleague.
As an academic, Bruce was out of the ordinary. In an era when agricultural economists were rushing to establish their credentials in econometrics and operations research, Bruce used the techniques of simple economic arithmetic – the table and the partial budget – with telling insight in policy arenas which inevitably drew controversy but which could never be ignored. No-one in our profession could weave so compelling an argument from such a fund of facts.
Bruce was born on the 8th May 1924 and spent his early years on the mixed farm owned by his family at Tambo Crossing in Gippsland. Following service with the AIF and RAAF in World War 11, he gained a Diploma in Agriculture (with first class honours) from Dookie Agricultural College in 1948 and then Bachelor and Masters degrees in Agricultural Science from the University of Melbourne in 1951 and 1953 respectively.
Bruce never failed to acknowledge the profound influence which his mentors at that University’s Faculty of Agriculture, particularly Sir Samuel Wadham, Geoffrey Leeper and Yvonne Aitken, had on the breadth of his interests and his grasp on the issues to be addressed by an agricultural economist.
It was while he was studying for his Masters degree that he met and subsequently married Mary Thomas, who was a young farmer exchange student from Wales. In 1953 they went to the United Kingdom where Bruce continued his studies at Wye College and received a University of London PhD degree in 1957. A book prepared from his PhD research, The Agricultural Significance of the Hills, was published in 1956.
From 1957 to 1960 Bruce lectured at Egerton College in Kenya and undertook research into the economic development of that country. His research in economic development continued as one strand of his work until his retirement. It was also in Kenya that he made his first observations about the dangers of the uncritical use of results from field experiments in farm and agricultural development budgets – an insight that was to prove critical in his subsequent role of Research Officer in the CSIRO’s then Division of Land Research, to which he was appointed in 1960.
There he developed his insights into what culminated as his most famous book, The Northern Myth: a Study of the Physical and Economic Limits to Agricultural and Pastoral Development in Tropical Australia, which was published in 1965 and ran to three editions.
In The Northern Myth Bruce developed a model of what had proven to be a robust and generally prosperous mode of agricultural production in Australia. This was based on what Bruce recognised as the insights of John Macarthur in founding the Australian wool industry, in contrast with what he considered were misplaced colonial settlement policies of Edward Gibbon Wakefield.
Compared with European agriculture, successful Australian agriculture had been characterised by abundant land relative to labour. Whereas Wakefield would set up policies to reverse this fundamental ratio of Australia’s factor endowments, Macarthur would work within that configuration. Our robust agriculture had also been based on products which could withstand the tyranny of distance from markets. Macarthur would find products to take to people rather than require markets to develop where production occurs.
It was out of this model of a robust agriculture for Australia’s environment (augmented by his view that it called for little capital per unit of land but much capital per unit of labour) that Bruce’s doubts developed about the validity of claims being made from within the Division of Land Research, and particularly about the wisdom of proceeding with the Ord River dam which was being actively promoted at that time by the Western Australian Government.
To succeed, either much higher yields would have to be obtained for the crops and pastures grown there than were being grown elsewhere in Australia, or very high subsidies would have to be paid. CSIRO experiments were indeed yielding very high returns, but these experiments were being conducted under Wakefieldian conditions of small plots with large labour and capital inputs at critical times. Bruce believed that it was wrong to base development plans uncritically on those responses, and feared that continuing subsidies of a high order would be required for a long time if development were to proceed.
Bruce resigned from CSIRO when he felt he was being strongly discouraged from publishing the results of his research. From 1963 to 1965 he was Lecturer and Research Fellow in Agricultural Economics at the University of Western Australia where he wrote The Northern Myth.
This period saw the full flowering of the Ord debate and frequent press battles between Bruce and Sir Charles Court, then Minister for the North West (among other portfolios) in the Western Australian Government, and between Bruce and some proponents of northern development within the economics profession. Bruce’s right to freely express his professional opinion was strongly defended by Eric Underwood, the Director of that University’s Institute of Agriculture, and by Henry Schapper who led the agricultural economics group there.
It was also during his time at the University of Western Australia that Bruce developed his work on the relationships between experimental and farm yields. Although this was undertaken in conjunction with other researchers, the fundamental insight was Bruce’s alone. But it was a time of great stress as Mary fought with cancer and died in 1964, leaving Bruce with the care of a young family.
Early in 1965 Bruce was appointed Lecturer in Agricultural Economics at the University of Sydney and promoted to Senior Lecturer in 1966, a position he held until his retirement in 1989. There he continued to develop the ideas he initiated in The Northern Myth, and published Australia Wet or Dry: the Physical and Economic Limits to the Expansion of Irrigation in 1969.
In this book he again stressed the need to account for agricultural development planning not in terms of plentiful resources (hectares and animals) but in terms of the scarce ones (people and dollars). In that framework Bruce viewed Australia not so much as water deficient as land plentiful. Australia was seen to receive more precipitation per person than any other inhabited continent. This, of course, was a red rag to a bull in certain quarters, but again, the controversies which followed were important in publicising the need for an ex-ante and public economic evaluation of agricultural projects.
One of the most notable debates in Australia’s agricultural development followed from the publications of The Northern Myth and Australia: Wet or Dry. With a strong push to develop Australia’s north for strategic purposes, attempts were being made to justify northern development on economic grounds. Irrigation was seen as a means to intensify production both for land settlement objectives and to meet demands from Europe (soon to move into its own agricultural surplus problems). Despite Bruce’s logical arguments to the contrary, the Ord scheme was launched, reinforcing the move for irrigated agriculture.
Today, Bruce’s warnings echo through the Murray-Darling basin as governments come to grips with increasing levels of salinisation and water/land mismanagement.
In the early 1970s, Bruce began research on the economic history of Australian agriculture. His book European Farming in Australia: An Economic History of Australian Farming was published in 1981. Numerous papers on the economic history of Australian farming followed, culminating in the four-part series Rum Corps to IXL which was published in the Review of Marketing and Agricultural Economics in 1990 and 1992 and brought together as an issue in that journal’s Collected Readings series in 1993.
In 1965 Bruce had married Hilary Purchase who was Librarian at the Badham Library in the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Agriculture, and herself a graduate in agricultural science with a PhD in microbiology.
Hilary was a tower of strength to Bruce in caring for the family, and as the children grew up and out she increasingly collaborated with Bruce in his professional writings. Bruce’s final book, Legumes: The Australian Experience, was co-authored with Hilary and published in December 1993.
Bruce gave a large number of invited addresses, mainly concerned with agricultural resource economics, to a wide range of audiences. In these, he kept coming back to Australia’s comparative advantage being in those activities which maximise the ratio of land to labour, though he argued the merits of pasture improvement as an important key to capitalising on that resource mix. He was a stimulating and often controversial speaker who was never afraid to challenge status quo modes of thinking or wrong-headed policies. His talks were influential in changing public understandings of resource issues which ultimately led to changes in public policies.
The controversial nature of his writings and addresses may partly explain the inadequate formal recognition of his academic work.
For Australian students of agriculture spanning three decades, first at the University of Western Australia but principally at the University of Sydney, ‘Dr Davidson’ will remain the ‘character’ who makes university days so memorable. His lectures combined a sweep of history and a breadth of disciplines with a fund of anecdotes and not a little eccentricity.
Two important lessons were learnt from his oscillations across the floor of the lecture theatre: that the simplicity of the argument should never be underestimated; and that what is generally accepted should nevertheless be ceaselessly questioned.

Bruce will be remembered by his colleagues and students not only for the vigour of his professional work but also for his generosity of spirit, his highly developed sense of justice, his dogged persistence in causes in which he believed, his loves of literature and the bush, his sense of humour and endless supply of yarns, and his cheerfulness and optimism in the face of personal tragedies.

Bob Batterham, University of Sydney
Roger Mauidon, Industry Commission, Canberra
Tony Ockwell, Department of Transport, Canberra
Bruce Davidson’s best-known work, The Northern Myth, is out of print but still available from secondhand bookstores and online retailers.

Courtesy of Crikey