In 1999, Slow Food members Derice and Ross McDonald followed their dreams of living a sustainable rural life, and moved their family from Sydney to the nearby Hunter Valley. Over the past decade they have established a successful biodynamic farm, a 15-hectare vineyard coupled with fruit trees, vegetable crops and beef cattle. However, they are now concerned that their way of life could be shattered by the incursion of Coal Seam Gas (CSG) mining, part of a new wave of large-scale land acquisitions.
The battle for soil
The family lives and works on prime agricultural land. As with many such regions of Eastern Australia, the terrains best suited to agriculture are also where the underground coal seams are found. In recent years, the mining industry has gained increasing access for CSG exploration in the region. Witnessing this development, the couple has rallied together with other farmers and communities who are concerned about the future availability of clean water and land.
“Consistent with Slow Food’s mission we, along with many others, are mounting a challenge for the government to legislate against this intrusion on farming land,” say Derice and Ross. “Without the availability of this untainted land, Australia will become a net importer of food which in the long term will support the degradation of locally produced nutritious food.”
A step in the right direction came in January 2014 when the state government extended CSG exclusion zones to viticulture clusters in the Hunter region. However, concerns about the ‘gaps’ between these zones and for other regions were confirmed just two months later when farmers in the state’s north west received the devastating news that groundwater had been poisoned with uranium as a result of CSG activities.
The Australian public has become increasingly aware of the infringements on farming land posed by CSG, however other land grabs are yet to register a blip on the national psyche. According to the Australian Bureau of Agriculture and Resource Economics, mining firms are just one of three main groups of foreign buyers snapping up Australian farmland. Vast tracks of crop and pastoral lands are being sold to foreign agribusiness companies looking to secure food for export, and to foreign investment and pension funds in direct farmland acquisitions.
“At this moment transnational companies are intending to purchase some 30,000 square kilometers of Northern Australia–that’s roughly the size of Belgium,” says Michael Croft, president of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance and co-leader of Slow Food Canberra Capital and Country. “Australia’s behavior towards big capital is similar to Pavlov’s dogs,” says Croft. “The capital bell rings and we salivate, even when nothing is delivered. Under current laws foreign companies and individuals have the right to buy Australian agricultural land with minimal scrutiny.”
“In return we lose control of vital land and infrastructure. And because most of the crops for export are unbelievably thirsty, we are also effectively giving away vast quantities of our precious fresh water. As for infrastructure, since it’s already in place, all we are doing is ceding control, our sovereignty. A family farm is sold and a few lucky people are kept on as employees or contractors, but once the skills transfer has occurred, will the locals have jobs?”
Family farmers such as the McDonalds are not only concerned about the impact on their land and region, but also for the future of Australian food sovereignty. The more land ownership is centralized and sent offshore, the less control we have; the more farmers are pushed to share resources with mining, the more their ability to operate in the way they desire is undermined. The reason food sovereignty is so important−and different to food security−says writer Raj Patel, is because: “It is a call for the right of everyone to be able to actively to shape the food system… It’s about redistributing power more equitably.”
This is what we must fight for. This is why keeping Australia’s agricultural land in the hands of small to medium family farms will help us create the good, clean and fair future we want. As Croft argues, “The well-being of our communities, and the integrity of our soils and waterways, must be our priority above the profit interests of transnational capital.”
This article was originally published in the Slow Food Almanac.