A burning issue

roadside verges 0118 Greg Gibson

Summers in Australia are made of many memories: holiday food comas, cricket on the radio, long days by the beach or the pool, pink zinc, late afternoon thunderstorms.

They’re also punctuated by all sorts of warnings: road safety, slip slop slap, snake bite treatments, shark bite risks, how to recognise a rip, keeping safe during fireworks – the list seems endless.

Bushfires have been top of the list of summer risks for generations – but we’re now seeing fires occurring earlier and earlier each year. Dry seasons exacerbate the dangers of fires, and the past year has been one of the driest on record for many parts of our wide, brown land. Even though officially it is still only spring, we can’t be complacent, as over recent weeks bushfires have been reported across the country. Overseas,  TV news has been filled with coverage of catastrophic fires burning in California.

As we move into the summer months, we should all be remembering the summer of 2013 when a wild and windy 40C scorcher fanned fires that burned through 120,000 hectares and 170 buildings around Dunalley and on the Tasman Peninsula, with many other fires burning across the state.

Experts have confirmed that 2017 was globally one the three hottest years on record. In Australia, we experienced the hottest summer and winter seasons since 1910 when national records began. And the statistics for 2018 look likely to show a continuation of those trends.

Bushfires are a fact of life in Australia. Climate change, drier soils, and an abundance of vegetation dictate fire seasons are going to start earlier and continue longer each year. And no-one is exempt. Fires can reach into the middle of cities as well as devastate rural communities. So we all have a responsibility to be prepared.

At the start of every summer, we should all be looking at the potential hazards in and around our properties, minimising the risks wherever possible, and preparing a plan of action in case a fire blows our way.

Frustratingly, though, complacency is all too common – and, as a community, we remain frighteningly unprepared for these all-too-predictable risks.

The situation is actually worse in Tasmania than in most other states.  Well over half of the state is now owned by local and state governments – whether that be national parks, public reserves, or road verges. And these governments therefore need to understand and commit to their roles as responsible land owners – just like the rest of us.

Governments must undertake the same sort of activities as any other land-owner would to ensure fires don’t start on their property and, if they do, that there are control measures in place to minimise impacts on adjoining neighbours.

I’m not just talking now about the risks that come from unmanaged bush and forest. Although these are severe, the risk is often to farms and rural communities, and can to some extent be disregarded as ’out of sight, out of mind’. We’ve gone beyond that and lack of good management practices by governments can – and most likely will – impact on us all.

Anyone who has been for a drive lately will have seen what I mean. All across the state, road verges are overgrown, with dried vegetation just waiting for a spark to start a conflagration. Even where there has been some maintenance, it is often limited to mowing just a few metres on the edge of the road.

We all have a duty to support measures that protect our community from the ravages of bushfires and the inevitable heartache it brings. We all have a duty to minimise the risk we present to ourselves and to our neighbours.

Both state and local governments must also be held to account to meet basic land owner responsibilities – just as would be the case for any other land owner in any other situation.  This has to include management of vegetation on roadside and boundary environments, and commitment to meeting shared fencing and other rehabilitation costs.

Coming together in the face of disaster is an underpinning strength of our community. This requires recognition of shared obligations and a shared trust that everyone will do their bit. Sadly, we’ve got a long way to go before we reach that point.

And that is simply not good enough.

Photo courtesy of Greg Gibson – taken on the Bass Highway.

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Foods of the future

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We’ve all heard the prediction that by 2050 there will be 9.6 billion humans living on Earth and they will all need to be fed. Experts say that, to meet this demand, consumption of animal products will increase by up to 70 per cent – and we’ll have to produce these foods using the same limited resources that we have today.

Many experts have been considering exactly how we’re going to meet these expectations, with all sorts of imaginative solutions coming off the drawing board. A report from CSIRO this week has also taken a look at the top food trends we can expect to see as we move into the next decade.

Protein is an important part of healthy eating. It’s made up of amino acids and plays a vital role in repairing and building bones and muscles in our bodies. In the ASEAN region in particular, non-meat protein sources like tofu and eggs are becoming ever more popular. But even when we consider alternatives to animal protein, we have finite land space for growing crops.

The thought of eating insects like maggots, beetles, caterpillars and ants may give you the creeps, but experts say they may be the food of the future. Insects are high in protein, found everywhere and reproduce quickly. Importantly, they have high growth and feed conversion rates and a low environmental footprint.

Pea protein milk is being produced as a dairy substitute, vegan cheese and chicken-less egg whites are also in various stages of development.

Protein substitutes from algae are also becoming more prominent.  Algae such as spirulina and chlorella are commonly found in the obscure corners of health food shops, but in the future are expected to move into the mainstream. Edible jellyfish are already popular in other parts of the world, including China.

‘Meat-free meat’ such as plant-based burgers and lab-grown meat are already on the market. However, getting costs down to a level competitive with the real deal is a major challenge. Plant-based seafood will not be far behind.

GM foods have been around for decades, but so far there has been no reason for consumers to be keen on them. Virtually every GM crop currently on the market is designed to help the farmer who grows it, rather than the person who eats it.  Now that’s starting to change.

From health benefits to increased flavour and longer shelf-life, the new generation of GM foods are being designed with the consumer in mind. CSIRO refers to this trend as ‘health by stealth’.

Some of these products are already available and appearing on our plates, and others will soon show up on our shopping lists.

We’re still learning about all the effects our gut microbiome has on our health but we know it is important to keep it in check. So foods that promote a healthy gut is all the rage.  Kombucha, kimchi and tempeh are pretty commonplace now, but we’ll no doubt see more fermented food, food with added probiotics, and food high in resistant starch popping up on the supermarket shelves.

Other healthy eating options on the menu of the future include things like coeliac-friendly wheat which contains only “good” gluten, potatoes that don’t produce acrylamides when fried, rapeseed oil rich in beneficial omega-3, apples that never go brown, higher fibre white bread, and much more.

CSIRO is ahead of these trends, with a high-fibre wholegrain that can be made into brekky cereal, wraps and bread. It is designed to deliver gut health benefits that can help combat cardiovascular disease, Type 2 diabetes and colorectal cancer.

Up to three per cent of children in western countries are allergic to peanuts. Scientists are also focussed on finding ways to turn off the genes that code for the main peanut allergens.

CSIRO also pointed out that the increased technology in our lives makes monitoring what we eat and our exercise regimes via our smart phones and watches easier than ever. This means we can access more personalised health information tailored to us and our lifestyles.

Imagine if this data could be generated from your individual DNA? Enter precision nutrition, where nutritional advice moves from being tailored but largely static, to real-time and personalised with the aim of preventing and managing chronic disease.

There’s no doubt that the future of food will be very different– and that means we’re going to have to get used to seeing all sorts of weird and wonderful things on our plates.

From the paddock, not the supermarket

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I am told the golden rule in journalism is to never make assumptions. In particular, when writing about a topical subject, one should never assume that people know the background to the subject. In other words, SPELL IT OUT.

It is an adage that we might well apply to farming.

I was reminded of this when sorting through a pile of reports in my office. One was a survey undertaken for the Primary Industries Education Foundation a few years ago.

This study confirmed that Australian students don’t know where their food comes from – which was no surprise to those of us who work in the agriculture sector.

In this world, milk doesn’t come from cows; it comes from the supermarket. Less than half the students knew that everyday lunchbox items such as bread, cheese and bananas originate from farmed products; three quarters of Year 6 students thought cotton socks were an animal product; and more than one quarter thought yoghurt came from plants.

These figures were reinforced by a survey released recently by News Corp Australia.

This showed that a quarter of youngsters think fruit and vegetables come from the supermarket, and 6 per cent think they come from “the fridge”. Only 1 in 10 children knew that they are grown from seeds.

Only 22 per cent of children aged 6-8 years could identify 5-6 vegetables in their raw state; and 12 per cent could only identify 1-2 raw vegetables.

All this when the OECD says Australia is the fifth fattest country in the world, and one in every four kids is classed as overweight or obese.

Nation-wide polling commissioned by the National Farmers’ Federation last year could well explain why this is so.

This study found that Australians have grown disconnected from where their food and fibre comes from.  More than 80 per cent of those surveyed described their connection with farming as ‘distant’ or ‘non-existent’.

It also found that most people are totally unaware of the economic contribution farming makes. Presented with a list of six industries, only 4 per cent of respondents correctly identified agriculture as the fastest growing sector.

This result highlights a real urban myth – that agriculture is a thing of the past, a sunset industry. In reality, it is a cornerstone of Australia’s economic future. In fact, nationally the industry is on track to be Australia’s next $100 billion industry, having reached a record $60 billion farm gate return last year. The industry also supports 1.6 million jobs across the supply chain.

And the story is no different in Tasmania.

Agriculture is the fastest growing sector in our state, and it is growing much faster than on the mainland. Our farmers generated more than $2.5 billion at farm gate last year, and a further $4.1 billion came from processed food.  The industry is aiming to increase the annual value of the agricultural sector to $10 billion by 2050.

According to Fiona Simson, President of the NFF, the problem is that people simply don’t know they have skin in the game.

Most people assume that the industry only benefits people in the bush. In reality, the bulk of jobs supported by the farm sector are in the city, in fields like retail, food service, logistics, finance and more.

“Farmers don’t just grow your calories, they grow your salaries,” Ms Simson said.

While food and fibre production is largely ‘out of sight, out of mind’, farming produces all the essential ingredients in every meal on our plates, every natural fibre on our backs, and many other important facets of our lives.

This growing disconnect between town and country is serious – and it really can’t be ignored any longer.

We live in one of the most urbanised countries in the world. Food is relatively cheap. Everyone takes it for granted and we’re quite complacent about our well-being.

The end result of being so separated from our food is that we really don’t place enough value our farmers. People should understand how far their food travelled, how it was produced, and the value of farmers and farmland in our communities.

Australian farmers are efficient producers of food and fibre; and in many areas we export more than we use domestically. However, there’s no guarantee that will always be the case.

There used to be a bumper sticker around some time back that said that ‘if you’ve had a meal today, thank a farmer’. And we should.

 

 

 

Bringing in the harvest

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The debacle arising from the federal government’s on-again-off-again changes to backpacker tax rates and visa classes over the last couple of years has resulted in serious labour shortages for seasonal and short-term work such as fruit picking and packing. Many areas reported a rapid decline in backpacker numbers last season – in some areas, it is estimated by as much as 40%.

Without a reliable workforce, growers end up leaving crops unpicked. And that’s not an outcome anyone wants to see.

Amid this serious labour shortage, agriculture groups have been calling for a special agricultural visa to lift the flow of foreign workers, including from Asia.

And, initially, the response from the federal government was positive. However, the usual gaggle of armchair experts rapidly came out of the woodwork, arguing that farmers should be replacing foreign workers and backpackers with people on the dole. This week the government backed away from the new visa proposal, and Prime Minister Scott Morrison instead launched an initiative to move local workers into farm jobs.

Speaking in support of the new program, Deputy Prime Minister and Nationals leader Michael McCormack said “the government is working to ensure there is a strategic and targeted ­labour force to help farmers and country communities pick the fruit and finish harvest when and where they need it,”.

On farms around the country, eyes rolled over breakfast tables and growers mentally started re-programming their seasonal work schedules.

It is clear from this outcome that the government simply does not understand the reality of a modern intensive farm.

In their world view, farmers are employers of last resort. They should have to take anyone, no matter their qualifications or their work ethic. Yes, of course, send your cannon fodder down on the farm; we’ll absorb them in the paddock somewhere, out of sight, out of mind, off your agenda.

Well, it doesn’t quite work like that.

You see, farmers are actually running businesses in a very competitive environment and with extremely low margins. They’re lean and mean because they have to be. Properties that once supported 20 or 30 staff are now run by the farmer, their spouse and perhaps one of the kids and a part-time employee. When they do require casual labour, they need the best they can get.

They want reliable people who turn up every day on time, who know what they are doing, who work fast, who don’t get distracted by their mobile phone or Facebook, who understand that farms are dangerous places, and who appreciate the importance of the relationship between the work they do and the outcome for the farmer. They don’t want people who don’t want to be there, and who need constant supervision. They don’t want people who turn up stoned. They don’t want people who aren’t prepared for physical work, or who can’t (or won’t) follow basic safety instructions.

The reality is that jobs such as fruit picking are not unskilled occupations. They require skill, speed, experience, and pride in the final product. This is even more important today because often what they package in the orchard or the paddock is the final form of presentation to the market. In other words, this is what determines the end price a farmer will receive for their products.

Furthermore, these are not full-time jobs – by its very nature, the work is seasonal. And work is often located in rural areas far from concentrations of unemployed people. The costs and disruption of relocation and transport for short-term jobs are huge disincentives, especially those who may have families.

These are the reasons why foreign workers and backpackers dominate in this sector. They are not interested in full-time jobs or a career; they are driven by the incentive to work fast and well, and they are often experienced at what they do.

Governments – and politicians – cannot abrogate their responsibilities for dealing with important social issues like unemployment. There are many options for addressing the significant issues identified in ensuring we encourage those who can work to do so; but, at the same time, maintaining a resilient and sustainable welfare safety net.

Farmers are very aware of the key role they play in supporting local communities – but they are running businesses and it is not their job to deliver social welfare outcomes.

That’s something for which we all need to take responsibility.

 

Grim outlook for local weather forecasts

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A plan to move weather forecasters interstate has been labelled dangerous — and a risk to Tasmanian lives in emergency situations such as bushfires.

Following a major review of operations, the Bureau of Meteorology announced earlier this month that weather forecasts will in future be produced by teams based in Brisbane and Melbourne. “Customer focused delivery teams” will be located in other states and territories to provide services to the emergency management sector and local industries – but not predict the weather.

This is simply not acceptable.

Tasmania has a complex geography, with many micro-regions which result in distinct and often unpredictable weather conditions. Mainland forecasters will have absolutely no Tasmanian local knowledge and so will not be able to accurately provide decent weather forecasts.

Tasmania’s local forecasters have provided critical insight during emergencies like the Dunalley fires, and the floods in northern Tasmania and, more recently, Hobart. This loss of expertise will affect many Tasmanians – directly and indirectly. If there is more than one major incident happening across Australia, which is a pretty large land mass, then it is natural to fear that the bigger population centres will get the attention first.  In fact, there is no doubt that a centralised service could put Tasmanian communities at risk during extreme weather events such as bushfires and floods.

One of the worst affected sectors will be agriculture. Every day, farmers make decisions based on forecasting. These decisions involve significant amounts of money and impact on large numbers of jobs. Importantly, livestock welfare is very dependent on access to localised and timely weather forecasting information.

If the Bureau of Meteorology could absolutely guarantee there will be no diminution of the services provided, then there might be a case. However, it would be a brave person who would bet the farm on that promise.

Based on previous experience, the further away from the centre of activity that people like forecasters are, the less likely we’ll get the accurate forecasting that we need. They may say with computers they can do it just as well, but it is not a big stretch to expect that the centralisation of services will result in less accurate forecasts.

The people who know about this stuff have all condemned the decision.

The United Firefighters Union Tasmania said it was “absolutely crucial to have local knowledge” during reduction burns and high fire danger periods.

“It’s the community’s lives as well as the safety of firefighters that are on the line,” their spokesman said.

The Police Association said it would “seriously compromise” operations, while the unions that cover parks and forestry, firefighters and the State Emergency Service said it was “stupid and short-sighted” to separate forecasters from ground crews.

Senator Nick McKim was quick to stand up for Tasmania, moving a motion calling on BoM to abandon plans to centralise forecasting services. This motion was passed in the Senate, with the support of all Labor and two Green senators. For the record, three Tasmanian senators (Duniam, Colbeck, and Martin) were absent for the vote; and Liberal Senators Abetz and Bushby voted against the motion.

In a statement, BoM said it was consulting with staff on the “proposed transformation” and was committed to providing localised expertise to each state and territory.

“Claims of cost-cutting and job losses are simply untrue and there are no plans to remove the bureau’s local presence from any state or territory,” the statement said.

“A proposed new approach to improve services, which is being discussed in consultation with staff, customers and stakeholders, would involve general forecasting services moving to specialised hubs, allowing locally-based staff more time to provide specialist expertise to key state sectors such as emergency services, agriculture and energy.

New federal Environment Minister Melissa Price said there had been an ongoing business review of what the BOM does throughout Australia.

“I know there have been a few people, especially Tasmanians, [who] are getting very, very excited and obviously a bit concerned that this means a loss of jobs.

“I’m assured that’s not what it means. Like any department, they have a business review every couple of years to see if what they’re doing is delivering a good service.

“But I can assure people that they really do not need to be concerned about this review,” she said.

Oh well, as you were – that’s alright then. I’m sure we’ll all sleep better knowing that some mainland politician has our back when Tasmania next faces a disastrous weather event.

 

Food fraudsters should buzz off …

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Testing at a leading international scientific lab that specialises in honey fraud detection last month found that almost half the honey samples selected from supermarket shelves were “adulterated”. This means they have been mixed with something other than nectar from bees.

Experts report that adulterated honey generally included rice syrup and beet syrup, as well as other unidentified substances, which aren’t detected by official honey tests.

International fraudsters, often criminal gangs in China, produce the fake honey and sell it to unsuspecting suppliers at a higher price, making a fortune along the way.

The adulterated samples were all products that blend local and imported honey.

 Phil McCabe, the president of the International Federation of Beekeepers’ Association, said adulterated honey isn’t honey at all. “Everything about it seems to be honey when in fact it’s just sugar syrup or something else … Consumers don’t realise what they are buying and eating isn’t honey,” he said.

And he’s right.

When we buy food, we take it on faith that the product matches the label. These revelations about adulterated honey products have left many questioning this trust.

Counterfeiting by low-cost producers in third world markets has been a challenge to many major corporations and fashion houses for decades. However, fashion goods are not the only targets for brand cheats.

Over recent years, food fraud has become increasingly commonplace. Because it is designed to be undetected, it is difficult to know the true reach of food fraud, but there is no doubt it is a lucrative practice.

Food fraud is essentially the sale of an inferior product represented as a more valuable one. This could be through substitution, dilution, tampering, or misrepresentation of food, ingredients or packaging.

Australia enjoys positive perceptions in rapidly growing Asian markets as a clean and green producer of wholesome, natural and trustworthy food products.

The upside of this means there are opportunities in export markets for Australian farmers and food producers to take advantage of strong demand for our products and, in many cases, to achieve a significant price premium. The downside is that unscrupulous traders want to cash in on these opportunities by muscling in with copies of many of our well-known brands.

High-value and high-demand foods are particularly at risk of counterfeiting. Brands known for quality may be targeted with fake labelling and branding. Certain labels like ‘organic’ and ‘free-range’ that attract a premium price are also popular targets. However, origins can be difficult to trace, resulting in fraudulent use of these labels.

We’re all familiar with food fraud that takes the form of passing off one product as something more up-market. For years, Nile perch has been passed off as Australian barramundi; generic green leaves have been marketed as oregano; and prawns from Thailand and Vietnam have been sold as local product. This can also include deliberate fake country of origin information – for example, labelling snow peas from Nigeria as locally grown.

This is wrong on so many counts.

Calling out cheats is not just about protecting reputations and profits. As importantly, it is about maintaining brand integrity, and ensuring food health and safety.

The ramifications if someone got sick or died from a counterfeit product would be huge. No doubt those affected would sue; and regulators would come down on the legitimate producer like a ton of bricks. Even if they could prove the offending products were fakes, bad publicity could destroy them.

Australian consumers have a right to be able to tell at a glance the origin of their food and where it has been processed. And we need to be able to rely on transparent and simple labelling to help us make informed choices.

Imitation may well be said to be the sincerest form of flattery.

However, when it comes to our fabulous Aussie food products, it is simply theft. We need to take every possible measure to ensure that our brands, and our producers, are strongly protected from opportunists trying to cash in on their hard work and investment.

You can’t buy a car in Australia that doesn’t meet Australian safety standards; you can’t buy a microwave oven in Australia that doesn’t meet Australian safety standards; you can’t buy children’s clothing that doesn’t meet Australian safety standards. Why then can we buy food that doesn’t meet Australian safety standards?

We should be making it clear to our governments that we expect them to insist on the highest possible health and safety standards for all food, regardless of where it comes from.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Time to choose which species to save

Some of the world’s leading population biologists are arguing that it is not possible to save all threatened species from extinction without significant increases in funding. They argue that we need to be looking at habitat and ecosystem protection as a focus over just saving individual species.

The fossil record shows that species do go extinct from time to time for reasons that have nothing at all to do with human impacts.  Of course, we still should do everything we can to minimise our impacts and allow room for nature to prosper. However, we also need to recognise that is impossible to control the natural world and hold it in stasis.

Tradeoffs are required if we’re to maintain any balance.

For example, we could concentrate efforts on the most threatened species. But the price we would pay is that more species will slip onto the threatened species list; and few (if any) species will ever be removed from that list. Alternatively, we could let the most threatened species go extinct, and concentrate on recovering less-threatened species or stopping other species becoming threatened. But with the money available now, it is not possible to do both.

The idea of determining which species to save is referred to as conservation triage, borrowing from term that was first used during World War I to determine the level of medical effort for different casualties.

The challenge with moving to this approach is that our past management and current governance systems are very species-based.

For over twenty years, the approach of governments at all levels to native resource management has been about tightening regulations. All stick and no carrot. No recognition of the positive land management and ecosystem services that many farmers provide to the community. Not to mention the socialised carbon sequestration they provide.

Most government bureaucrats and environmental activists see nature conservation as a ‘them and us’ situation.  In this view, public environmental assets held in private hands are the responsibility of the land-owner, generally farmers. They are prevented by legislation from doing anything that would detract from the value of the public asset; and must also bear the costs of preserving and in many cases enhancing these public assets.

As a result, farmers bear a disproportionate share of the cost of protecting and maintaining environmental assets. In fact, often they are expected to undertake conservation measures that carry with them considerable costs, but where the benefit is to the wider community. This is patently unfair.

For governments, this approach is simple and cheap. But we know it doesn’t work, because the official assessments show that biodiversity has continued to decline.

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. So, if we’re going to make any progress in protecting biodiversity, we must shift to incentive-based systems that work.

This means that, if we as a public want these things saved, we have to be prepared to pay at least part of the costs.

Market-based conservation or stewardship programs are well established in North America and Europe. There are also programs in parts of Africa, Asia, and Central and South America.

Such programs are a way of creating positive economic incentives for natural resource managers to manage their land and activities in ways that improve or maintain environmental health. These might include restoring habitat for endangered species, improving water quality and availability through catchment protection, or sequestering carbon in biomass or soils.

Mark Rey, former Under-Secretary in the US Department of Agriculture, summarised the benefits of using market-based approaches as follows:

“Market-based conservation is an innovative way to … preserve productivity and enhance landowner livelihoods, while producing numerous environmental benefits. Market-based solutions can provide flexibility to undertake actions that have the lowest cost and result in more cost-effective achievement of natural resource conservation and environmental goals compared to traditional command and control approaches. … I look forward to the day when credits for clean water, lower levels of greenhouse gases, and protected wetlands can be traded as freely as corn or soybeans are today.”

In such a scenario, successful stewards of threatened species should be rewarded by those who value them. In fact, threatened species can be a vehicle for supporting rural, regional and remote communities, communities which are currently draining away towards the cities for want of employment opportunities.

Using this approach, it is easy to imagine a future where management of threatened species can sit alongside other rural industries in a green economy.