The future of Australian argiculture

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Consumers have a responsibility to know the facts. Source: Pixabay

The potential for Australian farms to transition from animal to plant-based agriculture is growing rapidly. Whether your concerns are with climate change, animal welfare, land regeneration and sustainability, or the jobs of some 140,000 Australian livestock farmers, there is sure to be an element which convinces you this is the future of agriculture. 

And if none of those reasons spark your interest, a study in the U.S, conducted by the Humane Party, even found that plant-based farming is more profitable than animal agriculture. According to the study, the US yields around 680 billion more kilograms of plant-produce, while using 46 million fewer hectares of land than animal agriculture – a difference in area larger than California. Due to the difference in resource intensity, plant-based agriculture in the US is worth $21 billion USD more than animal agriculture. 

With these US findings in mind, it must be asked how much potential for land repurposing we have here in Australia, where livestock consume more crops than humans do. Our livestock eat twice as much grain as us, and some of these grains, such as wheat and barley, are able to be directly consumed by humans. In general, the quality of crop land for livestock feed is similar to that for human food, meaning the potential for land repurposing is enormous.

The dominance of animal agriculture in Australia is clear in the graph below, outlining just how much land we have available for plant-based farming instead. 

Potential for land repurposing in Australia. Source: veganaustralia.org.au

One story of a successful transition from animal to plant-based farming is that of Western Australian man, Ross Allison, who found the courage to pack up his lifetime endeavours as a livestock farmer and “give the cropping game a go”. Allison doesn’t regret a thing and has enjoyed the challenge of a new enterprise.

“I don’t regret it one little bit. I like the excitement of doing something different.”

Allison’s nephew Kieran Allison says it hasn’t been all blue skies on the revamped farm, however.

“Last year we had 1070mm for the year, that’s huge, it was our wettest year since about 1973,” Kieran said.

“We were just waterlogged for a long period of time, the crops would get up and then become very soggy.”

But Uncle Ross provided the reminder that “you just go with what you have got, you can’t chase markets”, in reference to cattle prices recently surging to a 35-year high now that the Allison farm has moved on from such livestock.

From 2005, Allison took almost a decade to move from livestock (1,500 cattle and 20,000 sheep) to mainly cereal cropping. His farm, which his family bought in the 1960s, will this year crop 2,200 hectares of land for canola, barley, oats, and some feed for their 1,000 Merino ewes (sheep predominantly owned for their wool). 

It’s well-documented that animal agriculture plays a significant part in Australia’s greenhouse gases, accounting for 70% of all our agricultural emissions. Nationally, direct livestock emissions contribute 11% of our total greenhouse gases, meaning there is a sizeable slice of emissions to be eliminated through reducing our use of livestock in Australia.

The EU was recently urged to halve its meat and dairy production by 2050 or else risk irreversible biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions, and Australia should be taking note before choosing to continue with its unsustainable agriculture practices.

People may argue animal agriculture is some sort of cornerstone to the Australian economy and society, but the industry contributes less than 2% of our total GDP and employs around the same percentage of our population. While the added profitability of plant-based agriculture has already been discussed, it is imperative the 140,000 jobs in Australia’s animal agriculture business are willing to re-skill if the issues outlined are to be legitimised.

Animal agriculture contributes less than 2% of Australia’s GDP. Source: IBISWorld

A terrific example of agricultural progression lies in the story of Jay & Katja Wilde, who are the subjects of BAFTA-award winning short film, 73 Cows. Their emotional story shows it is very possible for a farmer whose life depends upon livestock to have a change of heart. The short film follows the farming siblings’ journey as they decide to give their entire herd up while learning from scratch how to live off plant-based agriculture.

And if not for the additional profits, the reduction in greenhouse gases, or the more efficient use of land, then plant-based agriculture is surely a bonus for the 26 million cows, 16 million hens, and 14 million sheep farmed across Australia. Just ask animal activist Chris Delforce about the ins and outs of the animal agriculture industry if you want to know what really goes on behind the scenes.

“The industry is saying they have the right to operate in secrecy. No other business in the world can do that.” – Chris Delforce

Delforce, who founded the Aussie Farms Repository and directed Dominion, a documentary on animal exploitation in factory farms, has been involved in uncovering dozens of animal farming scandals. He believes that if farmers don’t want animal rights activists invading their sheds and paddocks, they should be more transparent about how they treat their livestock.

“Industries have no right to abuse animals in secrecy. If they think that what they’re doing is okay they should be transparent and open about it. They should say to the Australian public, ‘this is what’s happening’, and allow them to make up their own minds.”

While the evidence to support a transition from animal to plant-based agriculture is compelling, those arguing our agricultural practices should remain the same have much less credibility.

If nothing else, people should put effort into researching what they’re eating and what effect it has on the environment, the economy and the welfare of the animals. Today’s rapidly changing world is doing so in extreme ways, and a change in agriculture is one large portion of that humble pie which some people need to swallow.

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