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Why agriculture is different

By Peter Mailler - posted Tuesday, 25 March 2014

"The farmer is the only man in our economy who buys everything at retail, sells everything at wholesale, and pays the freight both ways" - John Fitzgerald Kennedy

Recently the dire situation faced by many farmers and graziers induced by yet another "drought" has reignited the debate around justification for Government financial support to farmers.

On one hand there is the visible and emotive scenario of dying stock and desperate farmers that demand immediate aid. This call for financial support externalises the disruption of drought and market interruption and deems them beyond reasonable management.


On the other hand there is the cold and objective rationalist position that argues, 'agriculture is a business like any other and hard times are a fact of life, and so if you can't handle the pressure – get out'.

The problem is not as simple as either argument, fundamentally because the business of agriculture is not a business like any other. The debate about drought support belies a much bigger conundrum in Australian agricultural policy and Australian trade policy that goes to the core of the issue around farmer resilience that is borne out of global expectations on the provision of food, fibre and energy.

Globally we see divergence on balancing agricultural supply excess with farm viability. Some countries argue agriculture is not a business at all because it is a social imperative. Often these countries have a social or cultural "memory" of starvation or at least devastation of their agricultural capacity. On this basis they justify massive public money support to their farmers and in so doing massively distort world agricultural trade.

On the other hand we have Australian agricultural policy based on the notion that agriculture is a business like any other. As a result Australia has pushed, largely unsuccessfully, to rid the world of agricultural subsidies to try and achieve a global agricultural market free of impediment and subsidy. The Australian trade agenda is deemed unsuccessful because every so called Free Trade Agreement (FTA) Australia has negotiated has seen agricultural trade offs that have resulted in the retention of significant distortion and/or restriction against Australian agricultural products. Even the most recent FTA with South Korea saw key Australian commodities excluded. In every negotiation the Australian Government has ultimately been forced to trade off agricultural access to the benefit of the broader economy.

The reality is that agriculture is not a just a business, it is also social imperative. No amount of economic rationalisation has moved, or will move, the rest of the world on this issue.

It is a telling consideration that the chant of the crowd in the 2011 Egyptian uprising was "Bread, freedom and social justice!" It was a bread shortage that was the ultimate catalyst for revolution. As old as the Romans it has been known that the provision of basic needs is the key to stable government and the social and political importance of the food business is evident long before people starve. Unfortunately, as civil unrest escalates, often the provision of food can be further disrupted and political issues escalate to full blown humanitarian disasters and ultimately militant conflicts.


Simply, people need to be fed. Globally, including in Australia, society assumes people have a right to food.

In 2013 the Australian Government launched a National Food Plan that declared it is a Government imperative to ensure all people have access to safe affordable food.

The problem in Australia is that society, through Government, seems to think it is solely the role of the farmer to feed the world. At the same time, society, through government, impinges on Australian farmers through regulation and direct intervention that severely diminishes their collective competitiveness. The reality is that the primary role of the farmer is to feed his or her own family. If society wants agriculture to sustain the global population now and into the future it needs to ensure that there is enough reward in that pursuit for farmers to feed their families, in good times and bad.

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About the Author

Pete Mailler is a forty-two year old grain and cattle farmer from Northern NSW. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Agricultural Science and is a Fellow of the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation. He is the former Chairman of Grain Producers Australia Ltd, the National Representative Organisation for Australia’s 27000 grain producers.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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