National Environmental Standards – Part 3 – Farming

Any reform that focusses on the possibility of ecosystem and biodiversity improvement in regional Australia has to accept that the primary agents of environmental degradation, in rural areas, may be the farmers themselves. And complicating that matter is that the discussion is already concerned with a heavily degraded environment in which many species are already threatened or in low numbers. For example, one of the Review’s experts helped write a report in 2018 that said, in part:

More specifically, farmers prefer to deal with locally based (State/industry) advisers but they also are generally not aware of farmer’s obligations under the EPBC Act (and their interactions with State based obligations). The information available on obligations for agricultural development under the EPBC Act is difficult to find and follow. Environmental impact assessment processes and listing processes for MNES are widely viewed by farmers as unpredictable, unclear, complicated, costly, time consuming and impractical for example, determining if an activity is a continuing use or may have a significant impact, determining if a threatened species or community is present, implementing a detailed survey process for relatively obscure species, implementing a spot spraying program for invasive weeds over large areas or dealing with a planted non native crop invaded by a mobile species which is a MNES.


Translated, it means that farmers are largely not interested or just don’t have the time or inclination to worry about all this ‘environmental stuff’. Not only that, it’s also critical of the fact that farmers can’t get the idea from reading the EPBC Act. Apparently, it is difficult to ‘find and follow’. For most people, the idea is drummed into them that ignorance of the law is not really something you can use as an excuse.

It’s in relation to native species and the land itself that the indigenous people have always had a head start on the Europeans. They avoided the massive energy and often irreversible change associated with modern destructive agriculture. To achieve this requires working with the environment, and utilising natural energy, and natural regrowth. It means respecting and understanding life.

Indigenous knowledge and western science should be considered on an equal footing in the provision of formal advice to the Environment Minister. The proposed Science and Information Committee should be responsible for ensuring advice incorporates the culturally appropriate use of Indigenous knowledge.

None of these statements really highlight the difficulty of inclusivity until you place them in context. In what way does indigenous knowledge interact with farming properties and communities? Is it compatible and if so how? Why don’t we already know this? If we still claim, in any case, to be prioritising the activity of farming, then the power dynamic is already tilted in favour of history.

Consultation is the cure-all ‘solution’, but it often illustrates how most ideas are only at the starting point of being discussed person to person. The starting point seems to be to answer the question of how to motivate people to do anything except maximise economic outcomes, at the expense of the environment. From the outset, the ‘power’ in the discussion is the landholding owners, and environmental protection is, historically, a belated concern. The notion that the altering the topsoil, natural restoration of carbon-based life, and the passage of water will have long-term and not merely short-term consequences (or none at all) seems to have taken a long time to catch on.

We can predict where this call for consultation will occur by knowing that the Review’s Panel Members have already led other reviews on similar issues. Wendy Craik, for example, has dealt with the particular problems associated with farming and agriculture. The 2018 report concluded, in general, that farmers don’t really understand the EPBC Act, find its processes complicated, and need the Department of Environment to act more quickly. The clear impression gained from the Recommendations is that farmers really aren’t terribly self-motivated to do this on their own and need help. However, it’s also important to note the purpose of the Review actually pre-empted some of these concerns:

The Review focused on options for reducing the burden of the regulatory obligations created by the EPBC Act on farmers without reducing environmental standards.

It was also clearly contemplated that this review would flow on into the subsequent 2019 EPBC Act review:

While the Terms of Reference for the Review restrict its scope to consideration of the interaction between the EPBC Act and the agriculture sector, a number of the Review’s recommendations will, once implemented, deliver benefits for other sectors. Some recommendations tailored to the agriculture sector might be adapted to apply to other sectors. These could be considered in the statutory review of the EPBC Act to be conducted in 2019.

We shouldn’t forget that the current paradigm for ‘ecologically sustainable development’ is perceived and framed as trying to enhance environmental status whilst also pursing, as the main goal, ‘sustainable [industrial or agricultural] development’. This is not the only interpretation of ESD, but it does seem to accord with the specific action points raised and implemented. Whilst some of the environmental principles that are espoused as goals seem broadly sound, it is always possible to reverse the priority of environmental concerns in the details – by moving from compulsion and the ‘stick’, to ultimately, the ‘carrot’. But there seems to be, even in the twenty-first century, a complete lack of confidence that this is even possible (let alone probable). As Craik’s 2018 letter to the Environment Minister at the start of the report said:

To provide a “carrot” to balance the “stick” approach, there appear to be no strategic approaches with appropriate incentives to enable the agriculture sector to grow and develop (as often encouraged by government policy) while maintaining national environmental standards.

Significantly, and a feature of many ‘review’ processes, there is a call for ‘innovation’, as if an appeal to some kind of magical creativity is needed to actually achieve the goals. When the underlying goal is to increase ‘economic growth’, then it seems like a real struggle to find compatible behaviour modification that might produce environmental benefits. Although many try and find psychological motivation (often through simple financial or market-based behavioural factors), cultural change seems slow, and uninspired. Solutions and calls for consultation are often set in such a way that the solutions are in the hands of those who currently have a dominant position over the state of the environment:

Recommendation 2

It is recommended that collaboration between agriculture sector experts and environment and biodiversity experts be encouraged, to identify innovative practices and activities and areas of prospective agricultural growth over the next ten years.

And so the open-ended failure to design a better solution continues.

These reviews recommend that people try and figure it out together. Is this always an inevitable consequence of this type of activity? Will solutions have to be developed on the ground, by self-motivated people? And if they are, will legislators ever take notice, or have the wisdom to know how to encode those as templates for desirable behaviours?

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