Sustainable Australian agriculture under corporate attack from mining, banks and agribusinesses

January 22, 2016
A new wave of land grabbing is turning farmland into industrial monocultures.

In the past few years, private investors backed by corporate interests such as global banks, financial firms, hedge funds and food giants have bought a huge amount of farmland across the global South.

Oxfam's 2012 Our Land, Our Lives report on land grabbing said foreign investors had bought enough land in the past decade to feed 1 billion people. Oxfam singled out the World Bank, which has boosted its finance of intensive, large-scale agriculture in the global South from $2.5 billion a year in 2008 to $9.5 billion in November 2012.

The World Bank refused Oxfam's call to put a freeze on its loans to land grabbers, saying its investments were not adding to the food crisis, but providing “major new investment in agriculture to improve the productivity of large and small farmers while protecting the environment”.

However these investments are being used by corporations to buy up prime food-producing land, just as free trade treaties come into play that will allow them to sue governments that affect their profits by attempting to regulate their use of that land.

As at least two-thirds of the land grabbers intend to “export everything they produce”, Oxfam said these business plans “will come into direct conflict with the need for more land to feed a growing global population”. Most firms that take the World Bank's money use the land to produce biofuels to feed cars, or commodities to sell on overseas markets.

Researchers Shepard Daniel and Anuradha Mittall said in a 2009 study: “Not only does land grabbing mean that farmers will lose their land, but these lands will be transformed from smallholdings or communal lands into large industrial estates connected to far-off markets.”

The new wave of land grabbing is also turning the farmland into industrial monocultures, which rely heavily on chemical inputs and produce huge greenhouse gas emissions.

Australian family farms sold

In Australia this process of expropriating family farmers for corporate agribusiness takeovers is being carried out as a multi-pronged corporate attack by banks, corporate raiders, mining companies and by the supermarket duopoly of Coles/Woolworths, which keeps prices cheap for consumers by contracting producers to prices too low to make a profit or even barely cover costs.

The $1/litre milk war is a classic example. This was the death blow to a dairy industry that has had no producer price rise for 40 years, since the abolition of the Milk Marketing Board by Whitlam. It has caused a wave of family farmers to exit the industry and brought the dairy industries in WA and regional Queensland to their knees, to the advantage of Gina Reinhart and other corporate raiders who have bought dairy farms at bargain prices.

Reinhart is now switching to intensively farming dairy cows and has the funds to build processing plants that can process and export the dairy products to the expanding middle classes of Asia and take advantage of a demand for a clean product that has seen prices rise to up to $6/litre.

Australian fruit and vegetable crop growers have also been squeezed out as cheap imports drive down prices. Companies such as MasterFoods, Golden Circle and SPC have been bought by US corporations Heinz and CocaCola-Amatil. The Australian food processing plants that provided farmers with an alternative market to Coles/Woolworths-controlled fresh fruit and vegetable sales have been closed down and relocated overseas to lower wages and conditions.

SPC is now the only major processor left. Its owners CocaCola-Amatil has severely cut suppliers and quantities, forcing the mass bulldozing of orchards as farmers cannot afford the maintenance costs to keep them pest-free. Many jobs in rural and regional areas have been destroyed and food-miles greatly increased as cheap, poor-quality imports replace previously Australian-grown and processed product.

As family farmers are pushed out, large-scale industrial farming is stepped up. Crop rotation and farming for long-term sustainability and to support local communities is abandoned for short-term contractual obligations for an annual crop for export, minimal costs and maximum repatriated profits.

Australian farming has an international reputation as clean and green, but the Big Agriculture corporations from the US and China have a track record of toxic large-scale industrial farming that poisons the soil, air and water, the local communities and the food produced, which is why their middle classes are prepared to pay high prices for clean Australian products.


Farmers have been targeted as convenient scapegoats for the environmental devastation wreaked by mining and coastal property development.

A recently released Queensland government report found the rate of land clearing had doubled in two years. As well as increasing carbon emissions, the report says clearing trees and vegetation in such quantities risks causing land degradation, sedimentation of waterways and damage to the Great Barrier Reef.

Agricultural clearing must be applied for and monitored, but clearing for coal seam gas (CSG) extraction and other mining is either totally unregulated or never refused. Pipelines have been cleared through creeks and waterways and other erosion-prone areas. Mining companies are allowed to put in quarries, dams, roads and other support infrastructure anywhere they choose.

Goondicum Resources, a multinational mining company, faces legal action after illegally bulldozing a swathe of bushland regarded as habitat of state significance in central Queensland in November 2014. It was building an access road to reduce the distance from its Monto ilmenite mine to Gladstone Port by about 100 kilometres.

The Queensland Department of Environment found that about 800 metres of road, estimated to be at least 50 metres wide in places, had been built outside the allowed area. Goondicum admitted it did not have the required state approval but said it hoped to gain approval retrospectively.

Rob and Nadia Campbell, owners of the illegally-cleared property, raise high quality EU-accredited cattle for export. They said that under the law they had no power to refuse the mining lease, only to negotiate for compensation.

Three days after the Environment Department wrote to the Campbells confirming their allegations that the road had been illegally cleared, they received another letter — from the mining company's lawyers. The letter warned the Campbells: "Unless you immediately desist from your conduct in harassing our client's employees and contractors, it will without further notice commence proceedings against you for a restraining order.”

A WWF Briefing on Queensland land clearing released on September 16 showed that about 125,000 hectares of remnant vegetation including about 12,000 hectares of endangered ecosystems has been remapped as exempt on regulatory maps since 2012.


For at least 40,000 years Australia was actively managed by Aboriginal people, using cool burns in the appropriate seasons to create grasslands and open woodlands for grazing animals that were hunted and to manage food-producing plants. Now these marginal lands are managed by graziers in a similar fashion to produce organic free-range cattle.

In contrast to US farming, which is dominated by industrial farming run by corporate agribusiness, most Australian farmers are graziers and environmental stewards, with farmers and agricultural businesses owning, managing and caring for 52% of Australia's land mass.

Recently emphasis has been given to the methane produced by cattle with the release of the film Cowspiracy. These methane emissions have been blamed for all agricultural emissions. The film ignores the nitrates released by petroleum-sourced nitrogen fertiliser used on large-scale monocultural cropping and the huge waste concentrations of factory-farmed poultry and pigs, which runoff into waterways and cause huge dead spots in lakes and estuarine waters.

Cowspiracy does not examine Australian production systems, which are quite different from those in the US. Australian farmers do not buy grain from the Amazon and have no connection to Amazon deforestation.

While historically deforestation was a major part of the industry's emission contributions, since 2006 there has been a dramatic reduction in emissions from deforestation. Emissions related to deforestation have fallen from 140MT CO2 to 40MT CO2 between 1990 and 2014.

In Australia, most cattle graze on grass. Even "grain fed" cattle spend most of their lives grazing grass. At any one time, only about 2% of Australia's cattle population is in feedlots, and Australian cattle are not consuming grains that humans can eat.

Cowspiracy bases its arguments on the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report Livestock's Long Shadow, which claimed the sector contributes more greenhouse gas than the entire transport sector. This statement has been retracted by the paper's authors, who have since accepted that the paper used two different methodologies to calculate greenhouse gas emissions, resulting in an unfair comparison for the beef industry

In Australia, energy generation represents 37% of Australia's emissions, compared to 10% for livestock. Most of this is methane produced by the natural digestion process of cattle and sheep.

Considerable work has been done in Australia on reducing methane emissions from livestock rumens by diet variations. A recent three-year study by the National Livestock Methane Program, found methane reductions of up to 90% can be achieved in cattle and sheep by methods such as breeding; adjustments to rumen microbes; and supplementing pasture with native grasses and shrubs, leucaena, grape marc (a wine-making by-product), and red macro-algae that grows off the Australian coast.

These methane reductions can also increase productivity, as less energy from food intake is wasted as methane. Australian production efficiencies have delivered a 5.3% reduction in emissions per tonne of beef produced since 1990. Life cycle assessment on Australian beef and lamb production systems showed that Australia has one of the lowest carbon emission profiles of any major meat-producing country.


Agribusiness companies, such as Monsanto have campaigned in the UN to phase out peasant subsistence and indigenous farming in Third World countries and replace it with factory farming. By manipulating the statistics and limiting the factors considered, these corporate agribusinesses have claimed that traditional farming methods produce more carbon emissions than factory-farmed livestock. What is not factored in is the huge toxic burden on air, soil and water of factory farming and its by-products, and from the herbicides and pesticides used to replace farm labourers.

And this Big Ag lobbying in the UN has paid off. Big Ag's manipulated statistics have become the basis for the "accepted wisdom" among animal liberation activists, vegans and a growing body of environmentalists, that rangeland livestock grazing and factory farming are the same, both in the toxic wastes they produce as by-products and in the toxins and carcinogens in the food they produce. This could not be further from the truth, and plays right into the hands of corporate agribusiness companies.

Cowspiracy applies to grain-fed livestock in American factory and industrial farming. The Big Ag farming methods of these multinational corporations raise huge health and environmental concerns, including the spread of infectious diseases, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria, to nearby communities; groundwater and surface water pollution and associated ecological impacts; and air pollution, odours, and associated health and social impacts. This is a major problem in both the US and China, and a major reason, in China in particular, that the middle classes are prepared to pay very high prices for clean Australian food imports, particularly for dairy products.

In contrast, environmental pressure from agricultural nutrients and pesticides are very low in Australia, and we have earned a clean, green reputation for our food, and particularly our beef.

Of the approximately 134,000 farm businesses in Australia, 99% are family owned and operated, and in 2010–11 they employed 307,000 people to manage 417.3 million hectares of land. The most recent research by Bond University sustainability professor Tor Hundloe showed Australia had the most organically farmed land in the world: more than five times that of second-placed Argentina.

Emissions from bushfires

Almost half of Australia is marginal land unsuitable for cropping. Much is seasonal grasslands with native grasses on poor soil with little water. Left unmanaged the vegetation grows vigorously when it rains, then dies and feeds huge bushfires, particularly as increasing heatwaves dry out the soil and vegetation. Rangeland rotational and holistic grazing is the best way to manage this marginal country and produce food from it with minimal water use and minimal use of fire.

A great deal of emphasis has been placed on contribution of cows and sheep to Australia's methane emissions. Yet the role that grazing livestock plays in reducing bushfires is never factored into these emissions, and the huge fugitive methane emissions of the mining industry are unmentioned and unmeasured.

Barry Cohen commented in the New Spectator in 2011: "Among the millions of words spoken and written about carbon emissions, the fact that a third of Australia's emissions come from bushfires is never mentioned. ... Professor Mark Adams of the Bushfire Co-operative Research Centre estimates that the 2003 and 2006-7 bushfires could have put 20 to 30 million tonnes of carbon (70 to 105 million tonnes of carbon dioxide) into the atmosphere; that the 2009 bushfires (Black Saturday) created 165 million tonnes of CO2 emissions, and that Australia's total annual emissions are approximately 330 million tonnes, of which 110 million are from bushfires."

Carbon emissions from bushfires are not factored into the Kyoto protocols as they have been labelled as an "act of god", like volcanoes, although emissions from prescribed burning are included. Kyoto argues that carbon released by grass and woodland fires would have been released by natural decay and is replaced by regrowth within one or two growing seasons, which is how cool winter burns work.

However Kyoto accounting fails to take into account the large, long-term — sometimes permanent — loss associated with high-intensity summer bushfires, which are hot enough to burn logs and kill large trees undamaged by cool winter burns.

The total amount of fuel consumed by a bushfire depends on the amount of moisture in the fuel. Dry fuels burn more intensely. With global warming producing increased summer temperatures and heatwaves leading to drier soil conditions, interspersed with more intense rainfall events that produce rapid vegetation growth that then dries out into highly flammable fuel, bushfires can get so hot they sterilise the ground, and kill otherwise fire-tolerant seeds and mature trees.

Under Australian conditions, such devastating wildfires can be prevented by low-intensity cool burns in mild weather and appropriate soil moisture conditions. The amount of fuel available to burn can also be managed with livestock.

In Bushfires, Prescribed Burning and Global Warming, Australian scientists Roger Underwood, David Packham and Phil Cheney said: "Scientific research and long experience in Australian eucalypt forests has demonstrated that forest management incorporating prescribed burning under mild conditions always reduces wildfire size and intensity. Where prescribed burning is regularly carried out, the risk of a high-intensity bushfire at a later date is greatly reduced.

"The distinction between intense wildfires and mild prescribed burns is almost never made in the climate literature. Fires of vastly different size and intensity are lumped together simply as 'fire', and it is assumed that the impacts and consequences are equal. They are not ....

"Fire intensity is far more significantly affected by fuel quantity, fuel dryness and wind strength, than it is by temperature. Some climate change computer models also suggest a significant reduction in rainfall, leading to increased fuel drying and increased fuel availability at lower temperatures. This is the same effect as that of drought, a phenomenon which is common in Australia.

"The factor which 'doomsday' commentators ignore is the opportunity for land managers to get in first, and reduce fuels before a potential megafire starts."

Carefully-managed rotational grazing is a crucial tool in reducing the fuel available for wildfires, but this is not factored into calculations of greenhouse emissions from free range cattle and sheep.

Water use

Much has been written about unsustainable water use by Australian agriculture, but ABS statistics show that of the 399 million hectares of agricultural land in Australia in 2008-09, less than 1% was irrigated.

Farmers are increasingly tightly regulated in their water use. The Murray Darling Plan allocates strict volumes of water to irrigators. However it does not regulate or even calculate water usage by mining companies, particularly not the water-intensive CSG industry. The legal rights given to mining companies by Queensland governments are in stark contrast to the water regulations enforced on farmers and everybody else, not only in how much they are allowed to use, but in how much they are allowed to pollute it. What makes this even more alarming is that the ways artesian basins operate and interconnect is not yet understood, which makes any damage almost impossible to repair.

In Queensland, petroleum and gas companies have been given a statutory right to use whatever water they need. They must do a baseline assessment and report on underground water impacts, and have “make-good” obligations, but these are not specified.

Hard rock mining, such as the coal industry, must have a water licence in two-thirds of Queensland, but in practice these are never withheld. There are no requirements for reports on their impact on groundwater and no statutory “make-good” provisions. The Queensland Labor government is considering backing down on election promises to change these statutory water entitlements.

The greatest risk to Australia's emission reductions, as well as to our ability to produce food for domestic use and export, is the mining industry who are pumping our artesian basins and water catchments full of poisons, and releasing huge and unmonitored fugitive methane emissions from every stage of unconventional gas mining and coal mining.

Clean water is our greatest natural resource, and artesian water is our only reliable supply. Mining is both wasting and poisoning it. The CSG industry pumps huge volumes of water into the coal seam to release the gas. But it also releases massive quantities of salt and carcinogens such as benzene and toluene.

The Ensham minewall holding back wastewater full of these poisons, supposedly the "best designed levy bank", gave way recently upstream of the Fitzroy river — the water supply for Rockhampton and many other communities. Fortunately the toxic water was caught in small dams downstream and did not infect Rockhampton's water supply. However, the abandoned mine at Mt Morgan continues to release toxic waste into the Fitzroy River and its rehabilitation is estimated to cost $200 million.

Mt Morgan is only one of 50,000 abandoned mines nationally which are poisoning our drinking and farming water. Since the January 2011 floods, the mining industry has been quietly permitted by the Queensland government to pump out toxic water from flooded operational mines into our rivers and drinking water catchments.

Coal-fired power stations are another heavy water user that contaminates groundwater. None of this pollution receives media coverage except by the ABC. But the ABC has suffered massive funding cuts. Its rural coverage has been particularly targeted, with the cutting of the Monday to Friday Bush Telegraph rural issues current affairs program. Now regional ABC stations and news are under attack and the communication of rural issues to the 89% of Australians who live in urban areas will be even more restricted.

At the same time as ABC rural media coverage is slashed, confidentiality agreements have become major weapons of the mining industry and the banks in their attacks on family farmers. Confidentiality agreements are standard in the CSG industry, so farmers cannot find out what price per well others receive and cannot speak out about the bullying and serious side effects they are afflicted with as part of the CSG extraction process.

The family farm is under attack from all sides. Short-term profit from mining is destroying long-term food production in many areas of Australia and the banks are colluding with big agribusinesses to buy land as farmers can no longer sell their produce.

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