(I’d finished writing this article before a friend pointed out to me the issue of large Corporates buying up Australian water aquifer land overlays. Too late to weave that into the following discourse. But that issue, combined with what I talk about below, plus combined with the watering-down of environment-protecting legislation, all contributes to the perfect storm that is about to blow across our agricultural and primary production landscapes. You may have a clearer view of all that than me … you may see other issues that contribute to the coming change … if so, feel free to let rip.)
Politicians of all stripes love to spruik from the high heavens that they have a plan, but here in Australia do you see much evidence from our political parties of any sort of future-proofing plan in the agricultural sector? Do you see any evidence that they are looking beyond their own re-election requirements? I don’t. And there is an item coming up that will require a bit of foresight and planning in my opinion.
So here we go …
Corporate entities are taking over a lot of our farmland. Gosh, even Mining Magnates are getting into beef and dairy. As much as a single operator in an air-conditioned office 1,500 kilometres away from a mine site can control automated diggers, and trucks, and trains, which ensures that while one person will get a job the vast majority of mining work-hopefuls who believed the promise of politicians will not (mmm … shades of the coming Adani experience), then what makes us think that agriculture and pastoralism will not go down the same path.
Automation and AI are already making substantial inroads into how our agriculture is practised, and large suppliers like Woolworths and Coles will continue to squeeze family owned farms out of existence, thus greasing the way (now that smells like a plan in progress) for large Corporates to jump in and establish massive economies of scale.
The day is coming when the bulk of our agricultural product will be sowed, nurtured, and reaped, by machinery that is controlled from a distance. Human bums on that automated machinery will not be required. Machinery needs maintenance of course, so initially diesel-mechanics etc will have a bit of a future, but solar panel and battery experts will have an even brighter one.
So the question is … what happens to our regional and outback towns?
If we don’t need as many agricultural farm workers as we once did, and if all the tractors and harvesters are automated and controlled from a comfortable office somewhere on our urban coast land, and if machinery maintenance workers are fly-droned in on an as-needs basis (FIFOs in other words), and if Corporate supply chains visit a guaranteed redundancy on outback small town hardware and agricultural supply shops … then who’ll be around to utilise outback hairdressers, cafes, grocery stores, car retailers, sports ovals, community centres etc?
The prime lifeblood of small regional communities, human beings, will no longer be there in a work-sense. They won’t be required to work on the large corporate farms, they won’t be called on to supply goods and services to those large automated farms, and there’ll be nobody around to sell a coffee or a car to.
Sounds a bit draconian doesn’t it?
Well, a couple of weeks ago I visited my old library workplace at the University of Qld. I left there in the early 1990s, that’s not so long ago. There were floors of librarians and library assistants back then, there were human workers all over the place, a veritable throng of happy workers … but all of that is now gone. How many human workers did I see where I had once worked as a library-assistant? None.
Computerisation, automation, nobody around to take a coffee break, or more to the point, nobody around anymore to buy that coffee to take that break. That sort of thing is coming to the world of agriculture, and coming to our small outback regional towns.
Farmers are practical people, they have to be, they deal with the vagaries of nature on a daily basis. Many farmers who produce the steaks that end up on our plates are also being very practical when they raise the looming issue of lab-grown meat production. They know it is coming. They know that it is a threat to their very future existence as cattle producers.
As much as some farmers are moving into aqua-culture of barramundi etc, I can see a time when cattle producers start to solidly jump in on the ground floor of the coming lab-grown meat revolution. If they don’t, others will. Others already are.
And let’s face it, farmers know how to produce a good tasting steak, so they, as opposed to the entrepreneurial petri-dish crowd, are at least currently knowledge-wise better placed to supply a better tasting product.
But if lab-grown meat production spells the death-knell for traditional ways of producing meat, which I believe it eventually will, and if untold squillions of hectares of grazing land are no longer required to produce that meat, and if the bulk of the workers in the current cattle industry who fly and drove over those hectares are no longer required, and if all the workers in the ancillary services that hang off the cattle industry are no longer required, if the sales yards are no longer required, and if the small settlements they live and buy their coffees and beers in are no longer required … then we are presented with yet another reason why our iconic rural outback towns will be under one heck of a future negative pump.
There will no longer be a reason for their existence.
So what do our politicians think about all of this? What plans are they working on to ensure that there is a future viability for the Bush as a place for people to live and work in? Since I can’t see that they even have the capability to think more than three years into the future, beyond the immediacy of their own re-electability, I think it is a fair bet to say that there is no plan, and there is no future-planning on the issue of retaining a viable future outback lifestyle.
The hard fact is that the vast majority of Australians do not choose to live in the outback, or on the vast inland broad plains, and those who do choose to, and who love to live out there are reliant on a job in, or on the ability to supply services to, a system of agriculture/farming/pastoralism that is eventually going to go the way of the Dodo.
If people want to continue living outback, what are they going to do in the future? Can ramped-up tourism partially fill the void? What else could happen out there that would attract, and retain, people?
Automation, robotics, remote-controlled machinery, control of water resources, a FIFO small-scale maintenance workforce, and factory-grown meat … when all combined together they illustrate a growing perfect storm of convergence that will re-write agricultural and pastoral practices in this country. It won’t all happen today, but it will all happen within a foreseeable tomorrow. Some of the elements that will contribute to that perfect storm of disruptive change are happening under our feet already.
I’m wracking my brains and I can’t come up with a clear answer as to how to ensure the viability of our outback towns and settlements that are reliant on our current methods of growing and breeding things that we eat and need.
But what do you think? What are your thoughts on what sorts of policies and plans could be embarked on, now, to ensure the future viability of the great Australian Bush?
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