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Food production in Australia

CHAIR —Welcome. I invite you to make an opening statement.

Mr Banks —Thank you, Chair. I have been asked by some of the members of the southern Liverpool Plains community to present some backgrounding information for your committee and to outline how that aligns with what is happening in coal exploration and intended mining in the district. I used to work as a soil and salinity researcher for the Soil Conservation Service and its successor organisations in New South Wales, based out of Gunnedah. For the last five years I have run my own company, continuing in the same vein of work in a private capacity. My experience is fairly wide in Australia. I have worked in soil and landscape work and salinity work, across Australia and internationally. The main thrust of my work in the last 19 years in the district has been developing productive, healthy farming systems and grazing systems which are in balance with issues such as groundwater use and salinity. I have published several books on the district, such as this one—which you need to be a NASA engineer to understand parts of!

CHAIR —Are you offering to table that for the committee?

Mr Banks —I have summarised it in my submission.

CHAIR —Surely you don’t want me to buy it off you! You would not be that crass.

Mr Banks —I have summarised this information in my written submission.

CHAIR —We would be interested to have the book as well as the summary, if you have a spare copy.

Mr Banks —There are four of them, for four different localities, and associated maps. I can leave this here and provide you with the other three. Basically we would like to outline the physical environment of the southern Liverpool Plains—

CHAIR —Before you do that, could I ask: Dr Pauline Roberts and Mr Geoff Brown, are you going to make separate submissions?

Dr Roberts —That is correct. We are going to do five minutes each.

Mr Banks —And I am supposed to be seven, and I have already taken up three. This is in very simple note form, for people who are not familiar with the district and so on. Essentially, the Liverpool Plains area, particularly south of Gunnedah, are areas with black soils which are in deep sandstone valleys filled with some of the highest clay-content soils in the world—hence our tremendous fertility. The soils are more productive than almost any other cereal cropping soils in Australia, and they are almost as good as coal. They represent a permanent income to the community and the provide for permanent food production. I believe that this is the first time in New South Wales that the productivity of the land, in terms of its turnover per hectare, is of the same order of magnitude as that of coal production. I think this is quite important when you start to compare us with the less productive lands of the Hunter Valley, which have been mined.

We also have very high-quality, high-yield groundwater in the southern Liverpool Plains, which gives crop security to those who have irrigation licences. The New South Wales water reform process that has been happening has seen a lot of the groundwater levels in the Liverpool Plains stabilise or rise, and so it has been a successful albeit very painful bloodletting for the people who have the licences and have received cuts.

In terms of the value of the land in the southern Liverpool Plains, between 1990 and 2005 a lot of vegetation, salinity and soil research and surveys have recognised the value of the land from a productivity and biodiversity point of view and that the vegetation that is still left in that landscape is relatively sacrosanct because of the way it is behaving in terms of water balance and provision of biodiversity values which affect adjacent farming land. In fact, some of the vegetation protection laws which were brought in in New South Wales were brought in because of the value of the vegetated lands on ridges for controlling salinity. It was a major push when section 46 came in, and its subsequent legislation.

During my time in this region, the farming systems, in very small part through my work and that of other researchers but mostly through the hard work of the community and the adaptability of this community to take on new ideas and systems, most of the farming systems in question—where the exploration licences are, and particularly on the black soils—have become some of the most efficient farming systems in Australia, especially with crops such as sorghum, which may have yields up to 10 tonnes per hectare or even in excess of that. This is why the sorghum futures index is called Liverpool Plains sorghum, because we are the highest producers of sorghum in the world on a per acre basis.

I am trying to give an overall picture without naming names or focusing on any particular farms, so in terms of risk from mining systems being introduced to the Liverpool Plains, in terms of open cut mining on ridges, we risk a removal of biodiversity which controls a very tight water and salinity balance. The biodiversity also has some controls and benefits for farming systems around it. In terms of the farming systems themselves, there is the obvious question of subsidence of very flat farming lands. The area in the BHP exploration lease, the northern section just south-west of Breeza, is in fact the flattest piece of land in New South Wales. Over about a 10-kilometre area there is no elevation change at all; it is dead flat—and that is before it was developed for irrigation agriculture.

CHAIR —Pretty handy in a wet year.

Mr Banks —Extremely handy in a wet year, as we all know. Another community resource, aside from people who are living on the land and producing food, is groundwater. We were very concerned about the disruption or destruction of high-quality, high-yield groundwater which fuels irrigation agriculture. I might point out that the way irrigation is running at the moment there is a lot of saline water in that area which is perched above the good groundwater. The irrigation systems, if they are managed well, are keeping the pressure off that saline system, so we actually have a lot less salinity here than we did when I arrived in the 1990s.

I would like to refer you to two maps at the back of the handout. They are both of the same image. My wife reckoned it was better if it was coloured in and I reckoned it was not, so you have both! There is a summary of the groups of soil and geology groupings in an area which roughly represents the exploration leases. I have not cut them out exactly. Very interestingly, if you take time to view that when you take this stuff back to Canberra, 56 per cent of the small parcel of land on that map is very high value farming land and has the capacity to produce that 10 tonnes per hectare of sorghum. That is 155,000 hectares of land just on that small slice of a map, which represents approximately $100 million in annual turnover. Twenty seven per cent of that land is very highly productive grazing land and 17 per cent of that land represents recharge and biodiversity values—the ridges are too steep to graze and farm.

When you look at this in context and compare it with other districts, you are looking at something that is far and away different from, for example, the area around Muswellbrook, which is dominated by more of those recharge areas which are clear—

CHAIR —You don’t have to keep rubbing it in! We know it is good country and we have a drought down on our way.

Mr Banks —I am aware of that. I am quite proud to come from this area because it is quite interesting and magic country. I will leave you with that.

CHAIR —Have you actually got the figures that have aged the water?

Mr Banks —The ages of the water?

CHAIR —The ages of the water. Really we need to understand the science of the recharge.

Mr Banks —I have some figures on ages of the water.

CHAIR —Has the science on the recharge been done? That begs the question: is this coalmining going to intercept the recharge?

Mr Banks —That is a subject of hot discussion. There is dating done on the water; it has not been put to that purpose yet, that I am aware of.

Senator NASH —So there is no guarantee that it will not intercept it?

Mr Banks —None at all.

CHAIR —Anyhow, that work needs to be done.

Senator WILLIAMS —Mr Banks, you have been involved in soil nutrition for many years, I would imagine. It is a fact, is it not, that healthy soil is required to grow healthy foods so you have healthy people. It is all linked. The health of human beings has a relationship to the health of the soil—is that correct?

Mr Banks —Yes, that is correct.

Senator WILLIAMS —That is a well-known fact among soil nutrition scientists around the nation?

Mr Banks —Yes.

CHAIR —Who did I hear on the radio yesterday on that? It was very good.

Senator WILLIAMS —Me!

CHAIR —He hears his own voice all the time! Dr Roberts, would you like to make some comments?

Dr Roberts —I am an independent research scientist and naturopath on the Liverpool Plains. My submission is No. 89, which you probably have not had an opportunity to read fully yet, so with your permission I will do a very short summary of it. Thank you very much indeed for coming up here and listening to us today.

It is my belief that the health of any country that grows adequate food for its own population can be directly linked to the health of the land that produces that food. Effectively, a food’s nutritional value in terms of baseline nutrition—its minerals—cannot rise higher than the source and the nutritional value of that source is directly linked to the quality of the soil and the water and to the underlying geology of the region that generated it. You have heard from Robert about soil and the nutrient density that we have here. We do, however, have a veritable Pandora’s box of non-beneficial strata on these plains but, luckily for food production, they are buried deep below. These deep sedimentary mudstones and shales do not make the productive soils we rely upon nor do they offer the nutrients you would want in your Weet-Bix. Instead of health-giving calcium and magnesium in abundance, you get concentrations of antinutrients such as lead, cadmium, arsenic and uranium. Instead of clean water, you get saline saturated with toxic manganese, chromium and nickel salts. The list goes on but I promise to be brief. Thus the parent rocks and resulting soils are as similar as chalk and toxic cheese.

Exhuming such strata to the surface in food-producing areas by long-wall or open-cut coalmining ensures the air, the water, the soil and the people here and the food grown here will be contaminated with heavy radioactive and excessive metals. This contamination is already verified in the Hunter Valley. The national pollution inventory’s figures—this government’s own figures—show that the once-agricultural but now industrial town of Singleton receives 70.3 metric tonnes of heavy and excess metals into its environment—into the air, the water and the land—every single year. This figure is only for metals and does not include the tens of thousands of tonnes of fine-dust particles nor take into account the carcinogenic benzenes or the noxious sulphur, fluorine or nitrous gas emissions produced by coalmining. Quirindi, a wholly agricultural area, produces 0.4 of a kilogram. The contrast is stark and the base products—one, fuel, and one, food—are consequently very different.

If there is one law in geochemistry it is that every element goes somewhere. Once liberated we cannot stop plants picking up antinutrients as they fall onto the soil and into the water. From there they relentlessly enter our food chain into the milk we drink, into the meat we eat and into our crops supplying the bread for our sandwiches—and I trust you did get lunch. Calcium and magnesium have jobs to do in plants, in animals and in humans. Lead, arsenic and uranium do not. Heavy-handed and persistent, they stop proper brain function and nervous system function and weaken bones and organ systems. Our kidneys are especially vulnerable.

Acute poisoning is relatively easy to diagnose. Chronic bit-by-bit poisoning is not. It is insidious, it is latent and it is poisoning which mimics and promotes many other disease states. It is no surprise that the independent Hunter Valley Research Foundation’s 2008-09 report into Newcastle on the Hunter shows increased mortality, lowered life expectancies for babies born now, increased rates of lung, skin and colorectal cancers and increased rates of death from breast, cervical and prostate cancers compared to those of New South Wales in general. The body can only take so much.

Every single element, once liberated from safe storage underground, goes somewhere. Very small amounts are needed to affect the development of children—millionths of a gram, a speck on the tip of a teaspoon. Pregnant women and children are the most affected by antinutrients because of their faster metabolisms, their higher rates of absorption and their demand for nutrient supply. If calcium is not available for growth they pick up lead instead. It is similar in bio-electrical charge but it is wholly dissimilar in action. One helps life; the other hinders life. The women of this area have asked for coal trains to be covered to stop the black dust spreading onto water tanks and playgrounds. ‘They are working on it,’ we are told, ‘studying the options. Just keep on complaining.’ Every 100-tonne coal wagon contains around a kilogram of particulate lead. That is using conservative washed coal figures. Washed coal is a lot cleaner than the stuff they dig out. Our soil is great for growing vegies but not near train tracks these days.

The European Food Safety Authority is now lowering the levels of heavy metal contamination they will accept in food. The Liverpool Plains, as you have heard, is 40 per cent more productive per hectare than anywhere else in Australia. If mining comes here, do we want our export grain prevented from entering these markets because it is contaminated? What about our over $110 million we produce here in beef alone? Why do Meat and Livestock Australia ask farmers in their risk assessment livestock production assurance audit: ‘Do stock have access to leaking electrical transformers, capacitors, hydraulic equipment or coalmine wastes?’

Further, they explain PCB residues—and they are only interested in the PCBs, not the heavy metals; that one is going to come out of Pandora’s box and we are going to need every penny in the health system to fight that—have been found in soil below leaking electrical transformers on former coalmining leases and in materials such as coal washery wastes, which people are encouraged sometimes to put down on stockyards, and it is on the Gunnedah show flooring if you go out to the big Gunnedah Show. What farmer would rear stock on industrial wastelands? Yet we are told that mining and agriculture can coexist.

So that is the choice we need to make on the Liverpool Plains, something that I ask this inquiry into food production to please consider. What will it be: clean food production or toxic rock production? One or the other—we cannot safely have both. Never mind the geochemistry, never mind the biochemistry, God-given common sense says that this time we cannot have our cake and eat it too. Thank you for your attention.

Mr Brown —I am a farmer on the Liverpool Plains and my involvement in this is that I am a biological farmer progressing towards organic status. I am a second-generation farmer on the plains. My farm produces both winter and summer cropping. We have a beef cattle operation and a free range egg operation on the farm as well.

My interest in this is purely in the soils. We have heard about the contaminations and what they can do to our human health. I will just give you a little bit of information about what I do on my farm and why I see these contaminations as destroying what I want to do in farming. I see my position as a farmer to produce food for people to eat and if I cannot produce good food for people to eat—and I understand that food security is what this is all about—I really should not be there. What drives me is producing a good-quality product and that is why I have gone down biological organic line.

I am concerned about the life in the soil as well as the life around us. As a biological farmer I have got to look after the micro-organisms that are in the soil. They make the nutrients available for our crops to survive and, if we get the bacteria and fungi there out of balance, we have problems. We get disease in our crops and insect attacks. All of those things come into play when we get everything in balance. By understanding where we should be with those biological micro-organisms we can produce better cropping and better food for our people.

The biology in our soil needs the same as we need as humans—oxygen, water, food and shelter—and it needs a stress free environment to live in. If we go without any of those factors, we suffer, and so does our soil biology. On my farm I am trying to provide that environment for my soil and to look after my soil in order to produce food. If I have contaminants there, that affects what I do.

We have been doing this on my property for nine years going on 10 years and we have learnt a lot of lessons over that time. We pride ourselves on producing good food for people around us, and that is so important to me. I am not out to become the wealthiest man in the district or anything like that. I consider it a privilege to be able farm on these plains.

One of the things that hinder our progress in producing good food is the infringement of the mining companies on us and the affect they will have on our water and on our soils. To detox that system is just impossible once we get, like Pauline just mentioned, the heavy metals and those sorts of things in our soils. It is so detrimental to what we do and to our future survival as human beings. I read an article a couple of years ago and I put it in my submission. It says:

About 1.2 billion hectares, or 10 per cent of the world’s arable area, is affected by serious degradation. 300 million hectares is unusable for farming. There is a continuing loss of five million to 10 million hectares a year.

This is worldwide. It goes on:

Eighty per cent of the remaining arable land is degraded to some degree.

That is from Julian Cribb, who is a professor, and you have probably all heard of him. I see it as being a real shame if we go down that track and if we lose these lands to mining companies instead of producing the food. We cannot produce any more good land. To keep up and produce quality food we need to preserve these lands. On my land, my ambition is to do that and to leave my land in better condition than I found it.

CHAIR —Thank you very much for that. I am sorry we are going to have to impose some discipline on the room because we are going to run out of time if we do not. Bear in mind, do not be frustrated, this is the beginning and not the end and tonight when you all go to bed and hear the bugle, it is the cavalry coming. Because we are short on time if there are any urgent questions we will take them.

Senator NASH —I think, Chair, the witnesses are doing a very good job of giving us the information that we need.

Senator WILLIAMS —We are totally convinced how important the land is.

Senator NASH —Can I just say that I think Mr Brown has made an extremely good point saying that we cannot produce any more good land and that is the key to this whole debate. If it disappears we cannot get it back.

Senator FISHER —If I may ask one question of Mr Brown. Taking up where Senator Nash has left off, you are trying to do more with less in terms of going organic and you say you have been doing it for nine years. What if you were not an organic producer, would you see the same threats?

Mr Brown —Definitely.

CHAIR —Thank you.

[1.43 pm]