Australia is the driest continent on earth and as we push towards an ever increasing population we must be mindful of the fact the less than 9 per cent of our continent's surface is arable land: a far smaller portion of that is prime agricultural land, and an even smaller portion of that has underground water resources.
This limited area for producing food for the nation is under threat from coal seam gas mining and so far the pendulum has been firmly tilted towards the miners' interests. There is a way the two industries can co-exist, but it will require a moratorium on further mining exploration while a regional plan is formed.
I cannot overstate the importance to the country of our food producing areas. The Liverpool Plains in the north-west of NSW, where I am from, is an area of just 1.2 million hectares that produces about 37 per cent of the nation's cereal crops. After 185 years of working the land, locals now use some of the most advanced broad-acre farming practices in the world, while local irrigators led the state in water reform.
Many Australians have their wealth tied up in mining stocks and it is in their own interests to imagine that these companies will never affect the agricultural viability of our nation. A few well-run media campaigns have ensured that Australians hold this view. I too felt the same way until mining came into my life six years ago.
The truth is far different – pollution, damage and destruction are the norm, and water resources are being compromised and destroyed on an hourly basis. For far too long, this industry has been able to fix any problem by waving the cheque book.
The legislation in this area is totally inadequate to deal with the coal and gas rush in this nation. Farmers in the Liverpool Plains engaged in the process as set out by the Acts, but the process failed to protect our property and water rights and interrupted our ability to work our own land. We then went to NSW Supreme Court and won, only to have the NSW Labor government of the time retrospectively change the laws, with the full support of the opposition.
Yet while agricultural areas are under siege, Queensland will protect urban areas from mining. NSW and Victoria say they will not follow suit, but the issue of urban mining and the controversial extraction method of fracking is gaining prominence.
The issue of mining in agricultural areas, leading to questions of how the country will feed itself, sits alongside broader questions about how the nation will generate heat and light into the next millennium.
The mining industry suggests that money justifies everything. But like the little boy who ate too much chocolate cake, we as a nation must think about tomorrow.
We still need a mining industry but, like other industries, it must be held accountable for the damage it inflicts. Until now, the nation has turned a blind eye – we love our wealth and we love our prosperity, and Australians have been unaware what they've been sacrificing to meet these ends.
Good fences make good neighbors, but at present the mining industry is not prepared to be fenced out of anywhere. They say they do no harm, but all around we see evidence to the contrary. Throughout the Hunter Valley wells are dry and rivers no longer run clean, while aquifers in central Queensland are predicted to drop more than 50 metres following coal seam gas extraction.
The only way agriculture and mining will be able to co-exist is if extractive industries are kept away from productive agricultural land and the precious water resources on which it relies. A regional plan is needed that sets out areas for certain land use, including agriculture, wine production, thoroughbred breeding and mining. Boundaries drawn in black are the only way to achieve a diverse regional Australia where the various industries can co-exist in peace.
Forcing the mining industry to be accountable could also serve to promote renewable energy policies and investment. We cannot eat money or coal, yet we still need light, warmth and industrial activity. Technologies to harvest energy from the sun, the wind and the ocean are advancing fast – if we cast our minds to it, who knows what wonders are ahead? The time to take action to preserve our future is now or there will be no turning back.
Timothy Duddy is a Liverpool Plains farmer and stood as an independent candidate at the last NSW election.