Australian Economy

A disease that could wipe $80bn from the economy is on our doorstep — it’s just one challenge facing the new agriculture minister

Many of Australia’s farmers are riding high after two profit-making seasons driven by record prices and, for the most part, kind weather.

But Murray Watt, the freshly sworn-in agriculture minister, will have plenty of challenges to overcome if the good times are to continue for the $80-plus billion sector.

First elected in 2016, Senator Watt most recently served as shadow minister for northern Australia and natural disaster and emergency management. Prior to that he was a Queensland state politician and a lawyer. 

Now he’s returned to his roots, telling the ABC in one of his first interviews as minister, that he has “farming in my blood”.

“And on my mother’s side, there was a lot of dairying on the Darling Downs.

Two men shake hands in an ornate room with other people looking on.
Queensland senator Murray Watt with Governor-General David Hurley. (ABC News: Matt Roberts)

“I’ve certainly inherited a real interest in agriculture and a real passion for trying to help the sector grow as well as making sure regional communities get a fair deal from their federal government.”

Here are some of the most pressing challenges Senator Watt will face as the nation’s new agriculture minister.

Disease and pests

Australia’s cattle, dairy, sheep, goat and pig farmers are on high alert as foot-and-mouth disease spreads through Indonesia.

About $26 billion of livestock-related exports would draw to an immediate standstill if the disease were to be detected in Australia.

A wide-scale outbreak would cost the Australian economy $80 billion over 10 years.

There are other diseases and pests, including lumpy skin disease — which looks as it sounds — that could jeopardise Australia’s environment, tourism and agriculture sectors.

A cow with spots on it caused by cattle.
Lumpy skin disease has been confirmed in Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia.(Supplied: Department of Agriculture)

Senator Watt must work to ensure that they are kept out of the country by adequately funding biosecurity at Australian borders and working with neighbouring countries to eradicate risks.

Former agriculture minister David Littleproud previously committed to a tax on shipping containers to fund biosecurity, but it was rejected by some industries. Farmers want a sustainable funding model. 

Water woes

It is crunch time for Australia’s $13 billion Murray Darling Basin Plan; a bipartisan agreement that sets out how water from the country’s largest river system should be shared.

Senator Watt must work closely with incoming Minister for Environment and Water Tanya Plibersek as major water-saving deadlines approach.

State water ministers agreed in 2018 that some water should not be recovered for the environment unless it was done in a way that caused no social or economic damage to communities in the basin.

So far 2 gigalitres has been recovered toward the 450GL target.

Pelicans sit on rails and in the water at Lake Alexandrina.
South Australia’s Lake Alexandrina at the bottom of the Murray Darling river system.(Supplied: Gary Hera-Singh)

But federal Labor says it wants to see the 450GL, roughly the equivalent of one Sydney harbour, returned in full.

It is not ruling out buying the water back from farmers – a move supported by the Greens but opposed by farm groups and the Victorian and New South Wales governments.

Net zero and a commitment to go green

Plenty of farmer groups committed to carbon-neutral targets well before Australia signed on to net zero by 2050.

Access to markets around the world can hinge on environmentally friendly credentials. 

Farmers are looking at how they can participate in robust carbon and biodiversity markets, offset emissions, contribute to and draw on reliable renewable energy sources and best manage the land.

A curious cow leans close to the camera at Milabenna in Tasmania's North-West.
Australia’s livestock industries having been working to reduce emissions.(Supplied: DairyTas)

With no shortage of natural disasters, Australia needs a clear policy about how to respond to droughts, fires, floods and other environmental disasters and build resilience. 

Senator Watt’s experience in the shadow emergency management portfolio should stand him in good stead in this regard.

Where are the workers?

Like most employers across Australia, farmers are crying out for workers.

Australia’s horticulture sector claimed to be 26,000 workers short at the height of the pandemic.

Whether it is picking fruit, making coffees, working in meatworks or aged care homes, driving trucks and headers, tuning machinery or milking cows, the competition for workers in regional Australia is driving up costs for employers.

two men kneel down in a paddock of beetroot
Labor says it won’t invite any more foreign countries to participate in the agriculture visa.(ABC News: Sarah Abbott)

Productivity falls for those who can’t get workers.

Those left in the workplace have jeopardised their own health and safety by working overtime for extended periods.

The Coalition had pinned some hopes on a new agriculture visa that was yet to deliver an extra worker to Australia.

But Labor says it can fill the void with domestic training and workers from the Pacific.

Crop costs jump as supply chains buckle

War in Ukraine, COVID-related shipping and logistics hiccups plus a general lack of domestic manufacturing have delayed and disrupted Australia’s supply chains.

A large green tractor ploughs a field at dusk
The cost of planting and producing a crop has skyrocketed for farmers.(Supplied: Lynelle Urquhart)

Fertiliser and fuel prices are through the roof and despite high prices for many crops, farmers fear they will go backwards because the cost of production has jumped.

For plenty of growers, it means this year’s harvest cannot fail.

A sheepish call

An animal rights group announced federal Labor’s plans to end live sheep exports just weeks out from the federal election.

A flock of sheep are looking away from the camera
Labor says it will end live sheep exports from Australia.(Unsplash: @sthomanns)

Labor confirmed its intentions but refuses to set a deadline on the trade which operates almost exclusively out of Western Australia, where the state government thinks the idea is rubbish.

It will now be up to Senator Watt to explain the decision and establish some certainty for the sector by producing an adequate transition plan.

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