Consistent Message Needed
During his visit to Australia in early June, Californian professor, Jared Diamond, told a crowd of 850 that included government Ministers, journalists and business bosses, that we should phase out agriculture altogether in Australia.
He said that we are living on the world's most fragile continent and in a period of climate change.
I was part of the audience at Brisbane's Queensland Performing Arts complex, where he has often clapped and cheered during the hour-long address.
I assume the message and mood were similar at the Sydney Writers Festival where Professor Diamond spoke at two closing ceremonies.
Just before Professor Diamond arrived in Australia, NSW Farmers Association organized a 2,000 strong drought rally in Parkes.
The rally generated lots of interest in the metropolitan media and I saw images of the same desperate farmer driving his tractor mindlessly about a dusty paddock on television.
As I watched the image replayed several times on one breakfast television show I thought, "be careful what you wish for".
The farm lobby may have got the television coverage and drought aid it wanted, but I suspect the images mostly just reinforced the perception in metropolitan Australia of farmers as environmental vandals flogging a dry landscape.
I found it most incredible that at the same time NSW Farmers Association President, Mal Peters, was telling metropolitan Australia there was a crisis in the bush, he was floating the idea of a $10 million media campaign to improve the image of rural Australia in the cities in this newspaper (The Land, June 2nd, pg. 7).
Jared Diamond's new book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, says Australia's agricultural sector is so weak that we import most of our food.
The recently published Australian Agriculture and Food Sector Stocktake tells a very different story to that of both Mr Peters and Professor Diamond.
Australian agriculture accounted for around a quarter of Australia's merchandise export in 2003-2004 at $26 billion while food and food products imports were valued at $5.6 billion for the same period.
And I kept remembering that it was only two years ago, in 2003-2004, that we had a record wheat harvest at 25 million tonne, worth more than $4 billion dollars, and accounting for roughly two per cent of Australia's total exports.
Agricultural exports will be down this next year because of the drought, but the long term prognosis must be good.
As I outlined on June 2 (Wine to Save Environment, The Land, pg 14) Australian primary producers are by and large the cleanest, greenest and most efficient in the world - a world that needs to be fed and clothed.
The Metropolitian elite seem as blind to the fact that Australia is a significant provider of clean-green food and fibre, as Australia's agricultural lobby is to the depth of anti-farming sentiment in metropolitian Australia.
Worse, the farm lobby seem oblivious to the fact that a campaign that demands drought aid the year after a record wheat crop is going to do immesurable damage to its credibility, particularly during a visit by Professor Diamond.
There are real issues of economic and environmental sustainability that need to be addressed in rural and regional Australia.
It would be best if these were addressed honestly and quickly. A sector that uses natural resources and is not seen as viable has no chance of maintaining access to water or getting a better deal on vegetation mangement.
A public relations campaign as advocated by Mr Peters won't help, unless the rural sector and the lobbyist that represent them have honestly determined whether or not Australians farming is sustainable, including during our inevitable and frequent periods of drought.
The image of a farmer mindlessly driving his tractor about dusty fields might kept some farmers afloat in difficult times, but the end result may be that it makes it difficult for really viable farmers to make a living even in good times.
Either Australian farmers are resilient and environmentally responsible, or they aren't.