Bush Telegraph with Cameron Wilson: 9 October 2014
When Christine Milne took over as leader of the Greens she had a fairly clear pitch to Australia's farmers. Basically, telling rural Australia that this was a party that was keen to represent them. This was back in mid-2012 and Christine Milne kicked off life as the new Greens leader with a nationwide tour of rural and regional Australia. Now the Senator is about to front up at the National Farmers Federation conference later this month, ahead of that she has agreed to come in and share her vision for agriculture in Australia today.
I was looking at your drought policy paper from earlier this year and there is a statement in there, a line there, which suggests that the climate models, the weather predictions, climate predictions for the future should be superimposed over the farming areas and see how it matches up. Are you suggesting a broad rethink of what's grown where in Australia?
I think that is going to have to happen because my concern is that the drought relief funding and we are totally supportive of that, but it is going to essentially be wasted if people just continue to do exactly what they have done before without taking into account what the climate scenarios are saying. So, what that means is we need a whole lot of research and development that superimposes those maps and then a farmer might say to themselves, okay, can I maintain the stocking rates I have currently got given that this is a likely scenario, or, if I am growing a particular orchard that requires a certain amount of chilling hours am I going to have to change varieties because in reality I am not going to have those chilling hours into the future, or, am I going to be vulnerable to new pests and diseases, more fungal diseases, is this area going to be suitable for wine grapes into the future? They're the kinds of questions, that's why the Greens have said let us make this a really serious engagement with Australia because our core focus is food security into the future, we've got to provide.
How far do you take it? Do you look at Australia in traditional farming and grazing pastoral areas and think there are parts of this continent now that are no longer or will no longer be suitable for agriculture and perhaps families that have been there for generations should walk off the land?
No I want to actually keep people on the land. That is why we want to do this, because actually not taking into account the climate scenarios will see people driven off the land. Because if they keep doing what they have always done in the same places under different circumstances there will be the next drought and the next one. And you've also all the mental health issues, you just have to look at the suicide rates and the incredible pressure on rural communities to see that this is not sustainable. It is more about saying, this is where you live, this is your property, what are your options into the future and have you considered, for example, looking at going into something different or have you considered bringing some renewable energy, for example, onto your property to diversify? There are a range of things you might consider.
... When you look at say the beef areas of Queensland or the Territory what is your vision for those people who are struggling in drought, they've suffered from live export bans, they're in a world of pain financially, what do you see as their future?
That is where you have to come back and look at what are their debt structures, what are their succession plans, what is sustainable for them into the future given the changing climate? How are we going to develop markets for them? Are we going to end up with the large abattoir in Darwin that we have been hearing about for so long, how are we going to get it to happen? It is more about finding solutions rather than pretending how things are is going to suit those places into the future. That is where it really is. It is about looking at what is realistic and in a world where land and water are the new gold, in this century, there is no doubt about that in my mind. That food is the oil of this century and therefore we have to protect agricultural land and water and keep it sustainable, and in doing so, protect farmers from the risks associated with a changing climate.
Given this is a part of Australia that is heavily reliant on the live export trade and there are people up there who will never forgive the Labor Party for suspending that trade. What is your position on live exports?
We do not support live exports and I have said that endlessly. We want to see those animals slaughtered in Australia and the meat exported and that has always been our position. We think there are many more jobs to be had and much more guarantee in terms of animal rights and welfare issues associated with the oversight of the slaughter in Australia.
So that is all live exports full stop? Whether it is sheep to the Middle East, cattle to Indonesia or cows on planes to go to China?
That is right. We've said that where the beasts are being exported for slaughter for meat consumption that we should be doing the killing in Australia and exporting the meat henceforth.
Under the Greens position we'd have no trade with Indonesia, no live export trade with Indonesia, those growing markets in the Phillipines and Vietnam, that would all be shut down?
Yes, on live export yes. But we would not want to shut down a meat export capacity of course.
Don't you have to accept then that the while that is your position you will never represent as a party large portions of rural Australia, particularly Queensland, northern WA and the Territory?
Clearly, across rural and regional Australia there are different concerns but when you come to the big picture, who is standing up for people staying on the land? Looking after their land in the face of expanded coalmining, in the face of coal seam gas, of water extraction? Who are the people standing up for really strong biosecurity so you are not confronted with the kinds of pests and diseases which have caused so much havoc in the past? Who are the people who are going to stand up against selling off agricultural land and water licences to wholly owned subsidiaries of foreign governments? Who are the people who are going to stand up on competition policy, for mental health, for all of those things, and that is the Greens. So, of course we're going to have differences of opinions, and live exports is certainly one of them, but overwhelmingly we need to look much more carefully at how we are going to sustain our own food production into the future and engage in global shortages that are coming with climate change.
A clear position for the Greens is to oppose live exports, but you also mentioned you are opposed to foreign investment in Australian land and water. This is also considered by many people in agriculture extremely important to developing parts of Australia and Australia's north, in particular, where does the money come from to build a future farming sector in Australia without foreign investment?
The issue is whether you sell that land and water to wholly owned subsidiaries of foreign governments. The whole equation changed in 2007 and eight and I do not think Australian politics let alone the conversation in rural and regional Australia has caught up with that. That is, a whole lot of countries are now going out and buying land and water around the world in what is effectively a major land grab. They are doing that in order to provide their own people with food in a world which is actually going to be under real pressure. That is why the Greens are saying we need to hold on to those assets in Australia. That does not mean to say there can't be investment in manufacturing, for example, or processing. The fact that we've already lost a third of Western Australia's water leases, they are now foreign-owned is actually a major concern to me. No country in its right mind ought to hand over control of its water resources, especially in an age of global warning.
What about the land instance. Can you point me to examples of where Australian land has been sold to foreign governments?
Yes the Qatari government, for example, Hassad has brought up a large amount of land in Australia. I got them before a Senate inquiry and they were very explicit about it, they said that they come from a country with no agricultural - well it's all sand essentially - and they want to have a major, they want to be a major player in the global economy this century in food. That is why they are buying up land. The Saudis are buying up huge amounts of land as are the Chinese, in fact all the Gulf countries are buying up large amounts of land. It is going to cause major problems as we see conflicts arise, especially in developing countries, as those, like the Saudi estates if you like, start exporting food and people in Ethiopia and all around them are starving.
I remember when Cubby Station was being sold to a consortium which granted was part Japanese, part Chines and Australian, part local interest as well, and the political argument was around some of the points you raise now - whether or not Australians wanted foreign interests to own their land. Yet when we spoke to people locally the sense was, this a security, this is money coming in that props up a business, local people are employed, and it is a good thing for the district. The political argument seemed out of touch with what we were hearing on the ground. Do you really think what you are saying is accurately reflecting how people think on the ground in rural and regional Australia?
I think it depends where they are and the circumstances they are in. For example, in north-west Tasmania I am very aware that there have been a number of dairy farmers who want to get off the land. They do not have kids who can take on the property any more, they want to sell they have not been able to sell the property and they would have been open, for example, to the Chinese to buy those properties. But when you look at it then you end up with a whole district being owned by a foreign entity and in the case of China it is the government. Then they try to buy the milk processing plant and then you get total vertical integration and you end up with local people being employed as employees in effectively their own district. In the long term this is a very bad idea. I think what we are seeing, it is happening with climate policy everywhere, that you need to be looking at what is going to happen not in the next two years but in the next 20 to 50 years let alone 100. And that is where you have to start putting in place policies now. That is why we are saying we should massively expand the disaster and resilience relief program and start anticipating where we need to spend money in order to have the infrastructure that can support us both in agricultural terms but also in day-to-day living terms.
... I want to talk about the roles for genetically modified crops, GMOs, in this country. There seems to be a certain school of thought gathering momentum that GMOs are critical to Australia adapting, the work that CSIRO is doing, we hear a lot from the Coalition on this and leaders in agriculture. What role do you think GMOs will play in the future of rural agriculture?
Let me give you the Tasmanian example where we have a moratorium on GMOs, and it has been one of the real strengths of the Tasmanian agricultural brand. We've also got a farmer in Western Australia, for example, who is fighting at the moment because of contamination on his property because of GMO crops having come on to his property from next door, or in the district. The Greens do not support genetically modified food crops, that is clear, exactly the same position we have taken on live exports, for example, I'm not going to pretend that is different. Because it is about safety into the future, it is about saying to people that the onus of proof needs to be on GMO companies, not on those farmers who want to farm organically or who want to farm in a certain way, and that their land then becomes contaminated.
What do you think are the real risks associated with growing genetically modified crops? What are your real areas of concern?
I am concerned about the contamination of food and the health impacts of food ...
Human health impacts? Based on what evidence is that concern stem from?
There has been a lot of work done around the world, and there is a lot of overblown claims of genetically modified food crops in terms of productivity levels and what they achieved. Because when you look at the full cycle of that food crop and you look at what the pesticide use is, or the herbicide use is associated with it, you find that a lot of the claims about costs and productivity are not borne out either...
Your concern about human health, I can think of one study out of France that got a lot of attention but was also highly criticised that raised human health questions, I can't think of too many others, in fact we had the senior researcher with the CSIRO on just recently to say there is no credible evidence at this point to suggest there is human health concerns with GM crops.
We are going to have to agree to disagree on GMOs, it is a long-standing position of the Greens and will continue to be, but I also want to reiterate that the Greens are the people who have been arguing most strongly for an increase in R and D funding for agriculture. One of the things I am most distressed about is the cutbacks in R&D funding and also the funding to Landcare which has just come out of the recent budgets. We do not support that and we do not see the Green Army as being anything like the substitute that the government claims to be for those programs particularly with Landcare.
I should point out it is certainly not my opinion on GM crops, it is just the evidence or arguments we have heard recently on GM crops. There is a divide in your state about whether the moratorium on GM in your state is a good thing or bad thing, I know there's the beef sector that is highly supportive of the moratorium because of marketing reasons, but you have the dairy sector which is quite interested in future opportunities for GM grass as they could boost productivity.
I think the overwhelming opinion in Tasmania is that the GMO- free status is so important to the brand Tasmania, to Clean, Green and Clever, that there is no way they will see that compromised and just on a related but different story. When I was in the Tasmanian Parliament I strongly opposed growth promotants and hormones being used in beef production. Robin Gray was forced to back down at the time we kept Tasmania growth promotent and hormone free and it has been a fantastic thing for the industry. People need to think about it in brand terms, holistic terms as well, rest assured I will also be taking a strong position on this competition policy reform because that is where I do agree with Barnaby Joyce and others, we have to get farm gate prices.
We haven't even touched on labelling but we'll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for coming in today, appreciate it. Senator Christine Milne who is of course the Leader of the Australian Greens.