An ecologist with extensive experience in natural resource management has presented a detailed case for landholders to be reimbursed with public funding for regenerating and maintaining landscapes.
In a new paper ecologist Dr Geoff Edwards advocates funding be developed from sources such as general taxation or through applying a sustainability levy on consumption on products such as petrol to pay farmers for their ‘ecosystem services’.
Dr Edwards is an adjunct research fellow at Griffith University’s Centre for Governance and Public Policy and is the current president of the Royal Society of Queensland.
In a new paper published by the RSQ, Dr Edwards recommends an ‘extra market payment scheme’ be developed and administered in Queensland by regional catchment bodies, underpinned by a voluntary accreditation scheme that specifies standards for landholders to reach and calculates payments to them.
Dr Edwards’ paper is focused specifically on Queensland but the policy discussion is relevant to all Australian states.
Dr Edwards said State Government policy needed to take into account the vital role farms play in maintaining the health of Australia’s land, a role which provides both private and public benefits.
Without adequate discretionary income farmers could not be expected to tend for those elements of their production system that did not return a profit.
“If the price system doesn’t return adequate discretionary income, then a system of direct payments is required,” Dr Edwards writes in his paper ‘From red to green to black’.
“Otherwise the soils and rivers and pastures of our state will continue to suffer, along with the well-being of the people who manage them on our behalf.”
Dr Edwards said currently policy had not learned from a “staggering volume of thoughtful and well-informed science-based reports” that had gathered dust for the past three decades or more.
In 2002 the Wentworth Group of Scientists recommended a stewardship incentive scheme,
saying at the time: “Pay farmers for environmental services (Clean water, fresh air, healthy soils).
“Where we expect farmers to maintain land in a certain way that is above their duty of care, we should pay them to provide those services on behalf of the rest of Australia.”
In 2008 the South West NRM group based in Charleville, of which Dr Edwards was CEO at the time, ran a successful pilot stewardship program. Participating landholders in the mulga lands were required to surrender their right to graze stock for a defined period after rain during a critical period when native pastures needed time to regenerate, in return for regular monthly payments.
Dr Edwards said scientific evidence showed that the land condition in Queensland’s pastoral estate is suboptimal and deteriorating. Grazing pressure from stock and kangaroos was not being relieved sufficiently in the periods between droughts to maintain the resilience of these landscapes.
At the same time the financial health of Queensland’s pastoral industry was also suboptimal and deteriorating, with a high proportion of rural properties carrying debt that could not be serviced through income earned by producing commodities of food and fibre.
The prices farmers received for many commodities were capped by international prices set in US dollars. However, their costs were set in Australian currency and rose according to the cost of living, so they had no ceiling.
In pursuing competition policy since 1995, Dr Edwards believes Governments have deliberately preferenced the interests of consumers in cheap food products over the interests of producers in receiving a fair return for their labour and investment. Producers were instead “lectured to reduce costs to remain competitive”.
This meant investing less in the regeneration of the natural capital assets on which their enterprises are based, because these expenditures could be deferred.
Graziers in Queensland’s pastoral zone typically could not look to market forces to reimburse them adequately for the cost of producing commodities sustainably, let alone for the cost of regenerating landscapes that needed rest and restoration.
Farmers were managing not just a food factory but a complex natural system of land, water, atmosphere, vegetation and animals. It cost money, time and effort to keep these systems in good condition, by preventing erosion, controlling weeds and vermin, repairing previous degradation, maintaining ground cover.
“If farmers were paid to produce these ecosystem services, they could derive a reliable source of income at times when they cannot produce commodities because of drought, fire and flood,” Dr Edwards wrote.
“Such payments would not be handouts or subsidies, they would be payments for tangible products that landholders generate, now usually without recompense.”
It was unfair to expect graziers to manage land to a standard of environmental sustainability that could not practicably be achieved through “environment-blind market forces” alone.
“This gives theoretical support for some extra-market payment in return for a contracted commitment to upgrade the standard of land management,” Dr Edwards said.
He suggested any payment for ecosystem services should be contributed by the beneficiaries, which included all Queenslanders (for example through payment procured via general taxation) or consumers of food and fibre (with payment procured by a levy on consumption, such as a “sustainability levy” of a few cents added to the price of a litre of petrol, or adding half a percent to the top tier of income tax).
Dr Edwards suggested a scheme would require a bipartisan commitment to continue for at least 20 years with a secure source of recurrent funding.
He said the paper was not recommending subsidies for production, compulsory property management planning, welfare payments or encumbrances on landholders’ titles.
“Society elects representatives and pays taxes to enable governments to solve collective problems on its behalf,” he said.
“Despite overwhelming scientific consensus developed over more than 30 years, this twin problem (of poor land condition and economic unviability) has not been solved and it is the duty of governments to solve it.”
He said a stewardship scheme would give landholders a reliable source of income that did not depend upon grazing stock.
They could then choose to destock or reduce the stocking rate, according to the resultant of costs and benefits to the family.
“This would be an appropriate application of market forces, leaving the choice to the individual.
“A reliable cash flow dedicated to land restoration would offer opportunities to underutilised youth labour in the form of an environmental workforce that has standing and dignity.”
To read Dr Edwards full paper and recommendations on the RSQ website, click here