Farms versus nature: how do we decide what to protect?

Our thinly spread efforts to prop up the environment are failing and it is time for tough decisions about what we can realistically preserve. Flickr/rexboggs5

Australian farmers take pride in their efficient and productive farming systems, competing in the global economy and without many of the large subsidies given to their counterparts in Europe and North America. There are many agricultural success stories in Australia - such as reducing soil erosion through conservation tillage - but major environmental problems have also emerged.

These include increased salinity, soil acidification and, increasingly, loss of sediment and nutrients which cause eutrophication of waterways (a harmful excess of certain nutrients, commonly nitrogen and phosphorous) and algal blooms. The ongoing extermination of coral on the Great Barrier Reef - down from covering 50% of the reef in the 1960s to 16% now - is largely caused by such factors.

Billions of dollars have been spent to protect the environment. This funding supports programs such as Landcare, the Natural Heritage Trust, the National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality and its successor, the Caring for Our Country Program. Unfortunately, evaluation has shown that whilst many programs have been successful at raising landholder awareness, there is almost no evidence that they have prevented, reversed, or even stabilised the decline of our environment.

In bloom: algae thrives on our inability to contain the fertilisers used in farming. Flickr/suavehouse113

There are many reasons for this failure, but among the most important is that funding is poorly targeted and spread very thinly (the “Vegemite” approach) across vast areas of the landscape.

Governments and agricultural industries alike are understandably attracted to “soft” approaches, such as providing information and giving small, temporary incentives. Most Australian agri-environmental programs have been based on the following assumptions:

  • Participation of landholders somehow equates to improving the environment.

  • Voluntary adoption of “best-management practices” is highly effective.

  • Voluntary participation of landholders in programs will be sufficient. In many circumstances this is unlikely to be the case.

The failure of such programs and the smallness of environmental funding pose a large dilemma for governments and the broader community. The reality is that not everything can be protected; choosing to fund protection of one area means abandoning another. And is government prioritising the right areas?

In short, choosing a much smaller number of environmental projects and funding them enough to actually succeed would deliver much greater environmental value for public money. It would also reduce constant criticism that government programs aren’t doing enough.

Facing unpleasant realities initially sparks denial, anger, and despair. However, it is important to understand and face ugly truths, so that we can change and start actually restoring the environment. A team working with the Future Farm Industries Co-operative Research Centre have designed a system called Investment Framework for Environmental Resources (INFFER). It embeds economics into environmental decision-making, making it possible to integrate available science (biophysical, ecological and social) with local information to help make more informed decisions about environmental investment.

A resident of Raymond Island in the Gippsland Lakes. An estimated 80% of Australia’s koala habitat has been cleared since European settlement. Flickr/platypusbloke

INFFER has been applied to the Gippsland Lakes, which are threatened by excessive nutrient losses and algal blooms. The Gippsland Lakes Taskforce set an environmental target of 40% phosphorus reduction. INFFER’s Gippsland Lakes analysis shows that achieving this target requires close to $1 billion funding over 25 years. The allocated funding (approximately $35 million to date) falls drastically short.

This realistic level of funding is very off-putting. But compounding it, the scale of land management changes, including retiring land from agricultural use, is likely to be highly unpopular. The political difficulties, high cost and scale of change mean achieving the 40% phosphorus reduction target is also not cost-effective.

A lower environmental target of 20% would not achieve the same degree of environmental improvement (although it would still be expected to reduce the frequency of algal blooms) but would be much more cost-effective. The funding required to achieve a 20% phosphorus reduction target is about $80 million.

Faced with the reality that not all environmental assets can be protected, difficult decisions need to be made based on the value of the environmental asset, the threats faced, the environmental goal required, the feasibility of protection and the risks involved.

Although INFFER highlights some politically difficult challenges, it also provides a huge opportunity for more informed environmental decision-making and investment. Sciences and economics are vital to provide evidence-based decision-making. Tools such as INFFER provide a way to integrate the factors needed to make informed decisions.

“Win-win” outcomes for agriculture and the environment are not always possible: discussion about the trade-offs is required. Conflicts between maintaining agricultural production and protecting the environment occur in all parts of Australia, and indeed globally.

If we are to protect important national assets such as the Great Barrier Reef and the Coorong/Lower Lakes on the Murray River, we need to have much more informed policy discussion and analysis. Assessment of the costs and feasibility of achieving sufficiently large and measurable environmental outcomes should be mandatory requirements for the large sums of public money being spent. And we also need informed discussion and policy analysis about where we should maintain agricultural production and trade off environmental values - a situation currently happening by default in many areas.

These views are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Victorian government.

Comments welcome below.