Article by Jenne Brammer courtesy of the Weekend West.

Dry climate, China’s health, activists, red tape cloud future

WA agriculture pumps almost $9 billion into the economy each year and is the State’s biggest industry after minerals and energy. But challenges ranging from a drying climate to activists and red tape are limiting its potential.

Contributing most are the 3500 WA grain farmers who produce about $5 billion-$6 billion worth of wheat, barley, oats and other grains each year, entrenching WA as the nation’s biggest grain-producing region.

WA is also a major producer of Australia’s meat and livestock, dairy, wool, horticulture and honey products.

The State’s primary industries (encompassing agriculture, fisheries and aquaculture) form the lifeblood of rural communities, and according to Australian Bureau of Statistics figures, employ about 33,500 people.

In addition, the food and beverage manufacturing in WA employs a further 16,000 people, up from 13,600 people in 2011, as the prospects for value-adding come to the fore.

Of WA production, about 80 per cent is exported, in particular wheat, barley and canola, but wool, lobster and beef and sheep meat also feature prominently.

WAFarmers chief executive Trevor Whittington said local farmers were highly successful, innovative and progressive, punching well above their weight on the national stage.

But he said most forms of agriculture, including grain production – which accounts for about 80 per cent of the value of WA’s agriculture – had not reached full potential.

“We had a record 18 milliontonne crop in the 2018-19 harvest, that could easily grow to 20 million tonnes, if we get the rain and farmers use all the productivity tools available to them,” Mr Whittington said.

There are challenges, not least the drying climate. April to October rainfall has decreased in the South West, with May to July rainfall showing the biggest declines – about 20 per cent since 1970.

Agriculture Minister Alannah MacTiernan said despite the drying climate, WA farmers had quadrupled their annual harvest over the past 30 years, which was a testament to a hardworking, innovative industry, and research and development efforts by the agriculture agency.

She said an immediate focus for the industry should be on increasing resilience in the system, for example investigating alternative ways to access water, such as desalination plants, diversifying production, and maintaining the emphasis on research and development.

Mr Whittington said farmers also faced restrictions and threats to access key technologies such as agricultural chemicals, genetically modified crops and ground water which were essential to increasing the State’s ability to grow more food.

And Pastoralists and Graziers Association president Tony Seabrook said WA agriculture was increasingly coming under attack by activists.

“The beef industry is under attack for methane emissions, the pastoral industry for damaging the rangelands, and vegan activists are targeting a wide range of production systems,” Mr Seabrook said.

There is also pressure to end the $250 million-a-year live export trade.

Mr Seabrook said red tape and regulation were stifling agricultural growth, particularly in the pastoral regions where there was huge appetite and potential for sustainable development, but this lacked support from the State Government.

He cites the example of cattle magnate Gina Rinehart’s $285 million proposal, involving the use of surface water from the Fitzroy to irrigate some 21,000ha for cattle fodder, enabling production to ramp up on Hancock Pastoral’s Kimberley pastoral stations, creating hundreds of jobs in the process.

“Despite this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvigorate the local area using water that runs into the sea, the State Government is more focused on the totally absurd concept of developing another national park in the Fitzroy Valley, and banning all forms of water retention from the river,” Mr Seabrook said.

He said high wages and stamp duty and payroll taxes in Australia also stifled productivity, particularly in value-adding.

Challenges with an overreliance on China, by far WA’s biggest customer, which bought agricultural products worth $2.35 billion from the State in 2018-19, had come to the fore in recent weeks.

“As we are experiencing with the impact of the coronavirus, when an economy of China’s size on which we are so dependent across many sectors (tourism, education, minerals, agriculture) experiences such an external shock, the flow-on effects for WA are magnified,” Grain Industry Association of WA chief executive Larissa Taylor said.

“Meanwhile, the impact of the Eastern States drought which had pushed up domestic grain prices, pressuring WA’s competitive position in its traditional grain markets, such as the Indonesian food wheat market which has previously been worth over $1 billion.” AusVeg spokesman Tyson Cattle said there was huge potential for growth in the horticulture industry, but lack of access to a competent and reliable labour source meant few producers had the confidence to invest.

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