Part 3. Conclusions
Australia already produces enough food to feed 60 million people, of which we export almost two thirds. Australia is number ten among net food exporting countries in the world. We have more than enough food to feed ourselves for many decades, if not centuries, to come.
We have learned much from the environmental mistakes made over the past century in developing profitable agricultural production in southern Australia, the Murray-Darling Basin in particular. Agricultural productivity and efficiency are continuously improving and, at the same time, water is being recovered for the environment to remedy past impacts on river and floodplain ecosystems.
In theory, it should be possible to to expand irrigated agriculture in the north in a resource-sustainable way while avoiding significant ecological damage.
The tough questions remaining, however, are these:
- We may have the knowledge, but do we have the political will to fund and implement agricultural practices in the tropical north in a sustainable manner, or will northern Australia simply repeat the mistakes made in the Murray-Darling Basin and elsewhere?
- Even if the political will exists, are the apparently modest economic gains from irrigated agricultural expansion in northern Australia worth the risk of losing the cultural, tourism and other benefits of such pristine and biodiverse tropical lands and river systems?
As has been noted by other authorities, there is probably a far better case for driving greater irrigation efficiencies and productivity in southern Australia than for further developing the north. Here there are already well established food production and market-delivery systems, and the scale of agricultural production is an order of magnitude greater than anything that appears viable in Northern Australia. And to be frank, in the south the ecological damage has already been done and is now, if slowly, being repaired.