Queensland’s Strategic Cropping Land
I have been critical about the farming lobby’s reaction to the Murray-Darling Basin Plan, and I have also been very critical about the value of food security, especially when used as a justification for agricultural subsidies.
My general belief is that farmers should be treated like any other business and face risks from their investment decisions. Because this belief I strongly support Queensland’s new Strategic Cropping Land Policy.
The policy under development gives farmers a chance to opt out of mining and gas production on their land. Currently land owners must allow mineral and gas exploration and development on their land. The mining industry has legislative power behind it to explore for, and mine, the States mineral resources (have a look at your title deed and you will note that even freehold land owners don’t own the minerals under their land).
This means that miners do not need to buy any property rights from existing land owners to conduct activities on privately owned land. They do however need to provide some compensation for disruption to activities (as prescribed under the relevant acts).
In the greatest of ironies, agricultural policies in this country have protected farmers from their own business decisions (eg. subsidising water supplies, making drought and flood payments - I argue these events are part of the natural weather cycle and should be anticipated), yet have not protected farmers from external threats to from mining.
It took a while for the food security lobby to realise that the food production of the country rests in the land, soil and water, not in the individual businesses of farmers. If a farm business fails, the productive capacity remains for the next buyer of the property. But if land, soil and water is irreversibly damaged, then potential food production capacity is destroyed.
With these bizarre policies in place it is possible to have the situation where a farmer is receiving drought relief payments on the one hand to save his business, while the government is supporting the demise of his ability to farm on the other hand by allowing coal seam gas wells to be peppered across his fields.
In the Darling Downs the preservation of the water quality in underground aquifers is especially important. These aquifers are a significant source of water for agriculture and there is a reasonable probability that drilling through this aquifer many thousands of times to reach the deeper coal seam will contaminate the water. And unlike a river system which flushes water readily, underground aquifers may take hundreds of years to recover (or water users will need to treat the now contaminated water before applying to crops).
The irreversibility of mining and coal seam gas impacts is one of the key reasons that farmers should be given some ability to opt out of such activities on (or even near in some cases) their land.
The outcomes from this type of policy should satisfy a broad range of interests.
1. Land use conflicts are more easily resolved by given some powers back to existing land owners.
2. By protecting the land itself those who want food security and local food produce benefit.
3. Those who want ‘agricultural open space’ benefit (people actually like knowing there are farming communities and driving through the country).
4. Farmers who want to be free to run their own business, protected from irreversible land damage benefit.
5. Those who want mining can do so if the impacts on surrounding land owners are sufficiently low.
Of course there will be problems to overcome during implementation, but in principle the policy appears sound. An indeed, the minerals and gas remain in the ground should future circumstances require their extraction.