In the new gold rush, farmers are asked to decide between food, carbon and renewable energy – but we need them all | Gabrielle Chan

Australia needs firm policy guidelines to prevent breathless campaigns against renewables, but the conflicts over land use are real

This week we are expecting representatives of a solar energy company to come to our farm in southern New South Wales. They want to build next door.

We are not in a renewable energy zone but we are close to existing transmission lines.

It is a traditional mixed agricultural area, with relatively safe rainfall by southern Australian standards. We are also classed as inner regional, close to population centres. In theory, we could grow food, energy or carbon.

One of the biggest issues that comes across my desk as a rural editor is the debate over changing land use. As with most rural issues, eventually it comes home.

We are not alone. Across the country, communities are debating how best to plan for old and new land uses without much guidance or support from governments or the companies pursuing the new gold.

Competing land claims range from food to mining precious metals to solar energy to wind turbines to carbon farming. Our stories about these issues – such as a windfarm in Nundle or a coal seam gas mine on the Liverpool Plains or the Darling Downs – are some of the most closely read and contested.

The issue is not space. Australia is big. Farmers themselves need power so will be expanding their own power production. The issue is that everyone wants land close to existing infrastructure and populations to deliver food or energy at scale.

While smart policy would accept that combined land use is the future, a key factor for farmers will be the potential returns per hectare. As Australian farmers have become some of the least trade protected in the world, the mighty dollar is the key determinant of survival in a dry climate.

Will one hectare of food give a greater economic return than one hectare of solar panels or one hectare of carbon farming or one hectare of native habitat or biodiversity in the predicted “green Wall Street” markets? And how will this new use affect environmental assets such as ground and surface water, or infrastructure such as roads?

These are the decisions farmers will be weighing up. The reality is, state and federal governments and Australians living in metropolitan areas are increasingly looking to regional landscapes to deliver affordable energy and greater emission reductions after more than a wasted decade of climate idiocy.

At the same time, global corporations are hunting for carbon credits to offset business behaviours and production they don’t want to change or have not changed fast enough.

All of this must be done while increasing the volume and health benefits of the food already grown. Consumers are increasingly demanding cheap food produced with lower emissions, higher animal welfare standards and greater transparency.

Australian food producers have been going like “stabbed rats” for the past three years to take advantage of higher commodity prices and three consecutive La Niñas to grow more food. It was all very welcome, unless you were flooded out.

Elsewhere, big trends continue to collide. There was a searing heatwave in Europe. Food inflation has been running rampant, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine, higher input costs, higher labour costs, supply chain issues and in some cases increased supermarket profits.

Nations are rethinking their food systems and keeping more in the larder. India, responsible for 40% of world’s rice exports, recently banned exports of non-basmati white rice. It is just one example of a post-Covid world where countries and individuals want to become a little more self-sufficient. Equally, no nation wants to be living in energy poverty and Australia has the capacity to be a renewable superpower.

Yet last week the Bureau of Meteorology forecast warmer and drier conditions for the coming months, saying “higher than usual maximum temperatures are very likely”.

Previously optimistic farmers in our neck of the woods are countenancing a “bobtail spring”, cut short by higher temperatures and less rain.

Firm policy guidelines are needed about how these climate and market forces hit the ground. A decade of denial from the Morrison government has led to a stampede to catch up to provide energy and carbon sequestration.

There is a new gold rush, and it needs land.

Consistent sensible land management policy that lasts more than one political term will be vital. Without it, rural communities will be susceptible to breathless campaigns like Tuesday’s Rally Against Reckless Renewables, attended by the likes of Matt Canavan, who is suddenly worried about “pristine rainforest and wildlife habitat”.

If you don’t believe me, consider the valedictory speech of Andrew Campbell, who led the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, last month. At the National Rural Press Club in Canberra he was brutally honest about the challenge ahead for governments.

“Patchy, brilliant innovation has been accompanied by institutional amnesia, ad hockery and inability to stay the course,” he said.

“Too often a change of government, a change of minister or razor gang in a tight budget has led to worthy initiatives being discontinued, useful organisations being abolished, or unproductive … No wonder episodes of Utopia are triggering for so many people in this town.”

There are critical independent decisions to be made with the national interest in mind. As to our own little land use decision, we will hear this energy company out and weigh up the benefits and the costs.

How do you want us to make these decisions? Would you like us to produce healthy food or energy for electrification or sequester carbon or save and build habitat or all of the above? Because, frankly Australia, I am confused.


Gabrielle Chan

The GuardianTramp

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