Agriculture in Australia

Agriculture in Australia

Agriculture in Australia is a major industry. 402,000 people are employed in agriculture and agriculture related services, and agriculture accounts for approximately 3% of Australia’s GDP. Until the late 1950s agriculture accounted for up to 80% of Australia's export earnings, but that percentage has fallen with diversification of the economy.

Australia produces a wide variety of crops and livestock, and 80% of all agricultural production is exported. Australia is a vocal supporter of fair trade in agriculture and is a member of the Cairns Group. No regular support or subsidies are granted to Australian agricultural industries, although relief is provided in 'exceptional circumstances' such as severe droughts to farmers who pass a means test.

Challenges to the future of Australian agriculture they produce include developing sustainable water management strategies for a drought prone environment, combating dryland salinity, and the decision to grow, or not to grow genetically modified foods. Domestically, some commodities are facing increased competition from imports.

History of agriculture in Australia

Indigenous Australians did not practice agriculture as we know it today. They were hunter-gatherers although the production of some foods were encouraged using flood irrigation and what is known as fire-stick farming. Following European settlement of the continent, the wool industry was the first large scale agricultural enterprise in Australia’s history. Wool was of key importance to the Australian economy, so much so that the phrase ‘Australia rides on the sheep’s back’ is still a part of the Australian vernacular. Wool production is less crucial today; the wool industry shrunk significantly in the 1990s due to low world prices and competition from synthetic fibre.

In the 1860s sugar was successfully grown in plantations in Queensland. A raw sugar mill was established at Ormiston, near Cleveland, Brisbane, by Captain Louis Hope. As the industry expanded throughout coastal Queensland and Northern New South Wales growth eventually became limited in the 1880s by high wages for farm labour. To overcome this problem, cheap “contract” labour was brought in from the South Pacific islands. Between 1863 and 1904, more than 60,000 Kanakas were brought to Queensland to work on sugar plantations, some illegally through a process known as “blackbirding”. This involved Europeans luring islanders onto ships by pretending that they wanted to trade with them, but instead they were kidnapped and shipped to Australia where they were forced to work in sugar cane plantations. Regulations were introduced in the late 1880s to control the import of Kanakas, and by 1908 many Kanakas had returned home. Bulk handling was introduced to the industry in the 1950s, and 100% of cane was mechanically harvested by 1979. Australia is the world's largest exporter of sugar, but due to falling world prices and restrictive international trade practices in the global sugar market, grower incomes are predicted to fall.

The export of beef and mutton to the United Kingdom commenced with the advent of refrigeration. Export markets drove the expansion of meat production, and the 1932 Ottawa agreements granted preferential access for Australia to British markets. When this agreement expired in the 1960s, market focus shifted to the United States, Japan, the USSR and the Middle East.

Large scale broadacre cropping was promoted from 1901, when the Australian states formed the Federation of Australia. Between 1901 and World War I the wheat belt doubled in size. At the onset of World War II, the Australian Wheat Board (AWB) was established to stabilise prices and meet war time demand. The AWB was allowed monopoly control of the domestic market for 40 years. The security of a fixed price, soil improvement, disease-resistant varieties and improved cultivation techniques led to further expansion of the wheat belt. Increased mechanisation resulted in increased productivity, making wheat the dominant cereal crop produced in Australia. Domestic wheat marketing was deregulated in 1989.

Until the late 1950s, agricultural products accounted for more than 80% of the value of Australia's exports. Since then, that proportion has declined markedly as the Australian economy has become increasingly diverse. The quantity and value of production have expanded in the mining, manufacturing and, in recent years, the service industries.

Major agricultural products

Australia produces a large variety of primary products for both export and domestic consumption. The forecast top ten agricultural products by value are listed for year 2006-07, with production figures from previous years. [cite journal
title = Gross value of farm and fisheries production
journal = Australian Commodities
volume = 13
issue = 2
pages = 438 and 439
publisher = ABARE economics
date = June quarter 2006
accessdate = 2006-10-02
] .

Value in millions of Australian Dollars:

The Beef Industry

The beef industry is the biggest agricultural enterprise in Australia. The Australian beef industry is dependent on export markets, with over 60% of Australian beef production exported, primarily to the United States and Japan. The industry has benefited from the discovery of BSE (also known as "mad cow disease") in Canada, Japan and the United States, as Australia is free of the disease.

The Lamb Meat Industry

Lamb has become an increasingly important product as the sheep industry has moved its focus from wool production to the production of prime lamb. The beef meat industry and the lamb industry are represented by Meat and Livestock Australia. Live export of cattle and sheep from Australia to Asia and the Middle East is a large part of Australian meat export. Live export practises came under scrutiny after the carrier the Cormo Express carrying 52 000 animals was turned away from Saudi Arabia in 2003 due to suspected cases of scrapie. The sheep were eventually given to Eritrea. Media coverage has led to calls from animal rights activists for the live export trade to cease.

The Pork Industry

There are currently an estimated 2,000 pig producers in Australia, producing 5 million pigs annually (Productivity Commission). Although relatively small on the world stage (0.4% world production), the industry provides a significant positive impact on local, regional, state, and national economies through income generation and employment. The pork industry contributes approximately $970m to Australia’s GDP and the supply chain contributes $2.6billion to the GDP. The industry generates over $1.2b of household income, directly employing 6,500 full time positions, and the supply chain employs 29,000 people. The Australian pork industry is represented by Australian Pork Limited, a producer-run company created by legislation.


Dairy products are Australia's fourth most valuable agricultural export.

Domestic milk markets were heavily regulated until the 1980s, particularly for milk used for domestic fresh milk sales. This protected smaller producers in the northern states who produced exclusively for their local markets. The Kerin plan began the process of deregulation in 1986, with the final price supports being removed in 2000. []

Growth in the Australian dairy industry is dependent on expanding export markets. Exports are expected to continue to grow over time, particularly to Asia and the Middle East.


The gross value of production of Australia's fisheries and aquaculture products was $2.3 billion in 2002-03. The Australian aquaculture industry's share of this value has been steadily rising and now represents around 32 per cent.The value of exports of fisheries products in 2002-03 was $1.84 billion. Australia's main seafood export earners include rock lobsters, prawns, tuna and abalone.


Wool is still quite an important product of Australian agriculture. The Australian wool industry is widely recognised as producing the finest quality Merino wool. This is largely attributable to selective breeding and a superior genetic line.

As of 2001 Australian wool production accounted for 9% of world production (Australian Bureau of Statistics Data). However, it dominates the fine quality wool sector, producing 50% of the world’s Merino wool.

Although sheep are farmed Australia-wide, 36% of the flock is in New South Wales.

Research and development for the industry is led by Australian Wool Innovation Limited (AWI), a producer owned company. Australian wool is marketed by the Woolmark company. Both companies are held by Australian Wool Services, a company created by legislation.

The industry is export-oriented. Historically, up to 90% of Australian wool was exported. The industry has suffered from a lowering demand for natural fibres, a stockpiling of product, and a crash in wool prices world-wide.

Animal rights organisations including PETA are currently promoting a boycott of Australian, and all Merino wool, as a protest against the practice of mulesing. cite news
title = Pink angers Australian government
date = 20 December2006
accessdate = 2007-01-09
publisher=BBC News
] Due to the worldwide attention, AWI has proposed to phase out the practice by 2010.cite web | url= | title = In the News | date = 8 November,2004 | accessdate = 2007-01-09 | author = Peter Wilkinson | publisher = Australian Wool Growers Association ]


Australia also produces considerable amounts of cotton. The majority of the cotton produced is genetically modified to be resistant to the herbicide Roundup or to actively kill pests through the production of Bt toxin (Bt-cotton).


Agriculture is both a federal and state responsibility in Australia. The Federal Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry (DAFF) is involved in agricultural policyas well as running The Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS).The states departments perform extension work, and have plant breeding programs to make cultivars with properties suitable for the conditions in each state. The state departments are:
*Department of Agriculture and Food Western Australia
*Department of Primary Industries, Victoria
*Department of Primary Industries, New South Wales
*Department of Primary Industries and Water, Tasmania
*Department of Primary Industries and Resources, South Australia
*Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries, Northern Territory
*Queensland Department of Primary Indistries and Fisheries

Since Australian agriculture focuses on agricultural exports, the Australian government has been a strident supporter of international reforms to agricultural trade barriers. In 1986 Australian created the Cairns Group with 16 other agricultural producers to promote trade justice in Agriculture. The Cairns Group has continued to play a key role in setting the agenda for the agriculture negotiations at meetings of the World Trade Organization.

In the 1995 Uruguay Round of World Trade Organization talks Australia supported the Agreement on Agriculture, which provided for increased market access to international markets through tariff cuts. Australia and the Cairns Group also played a key role in the 2001 Doha Development Round of WTO talks. At the Doha meeting a number of multilateral trade negotiations were agreed on, and the Centre for International Economics estimates that worldwide reductions in agricultural subsidies could be worth as much as US$1.3 billion annually to the Australian economy by the end of the Doha round in 2010.

As well as government involvement, there is also an established system of industry-level national governance by statutorily-created limited companies. These companies are run by members and funded by levies. Compulsory levies on producers are able to be imposed under commonwealth legislation, to be managed by industry bodies to fund research, development, and marketing. Levies do not apply in all agricultural industries. Levies are collected by the government levies revenue service and distributed to the statutory bodies under contracts authorised by the legislation. This strong system of funding and representation has helped certain Australian industries take the national and forward-thinking approach required to increase competitiveness in today’s global marketplace.


Drought is a significant challenge for Australian farmers. Australia has periodic drought due to the El Niño-Southern Oscillation. Drought halved wheat production in 2002-2003, and had detrimental effects on the production of other crops and livestock. Competition for limited water use exists between provision of water for irrigation and water supply networks.

Water resource management is key for the productivity and longevity of Australian agriculture. Many scientists expect that climate change will cause to major declines in rainfall over important farming regions, which will make irrigation impossible in areas where it is the lifeblood of the economy.

More drought tolerant crops are the focus of research institutes funded by Australian farmers, such as the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics.

alinity and soil acidity

Salinity on land and in fresh water is a byproduct of the European farming practices which replaced native vegetation with shallow-rooted crops and pastures in Australia. Rising groundwater levels, caused by these farming practices, are bringing with them dissolved salts which were stored in the soil. Salt is being transported to the root-zones of remnant vegetation, crops, pastures, and directly into wetlands, streams and river systems. The rising water tables are also affecting rural infrastructure including buildings, roads, pipes and underground cables. Salinity reduces agricultural productivity and biodiversity in non-farm areas. The goals of saline land management are to stabilise and reverse the effects of salinity, improving water quality and supply.

Some crops and farming practices can make soils more acid than normal. This can affect the availability of nutrients in the soil and can lead to nutrient toxicity (e.g. aluminium toxicity or too much aluminium) or deficiency. Like salinity, soil acidity also limits the uses of agricultural land.

Invasive species

Feral animals, weeds, plant and animal disease caused by fungi, bacteria and viruses all have negative effects on Australian Agriculture. Feral Animals may carry and spread disease. This frustrates attempts to eliminate systemic animal diseases in Australia. They can also damage property and stock.

Australia maintains a strict Quarantine regime to prevent the entry of new invasive species.

Land Clearing

While the problem of land clearing isn't a serious environmental issue now in Australia (although land clearing in the Northern Territory remains controversial), problems stem from lack of land clearing. The problem is on the New South Wales Grasslands, where for thousands of years Aborigines would burn off shrub and woody weeds to allow grasses to grow to attract animals for hunting. When the Europeans moved in to the grasslands and forced the Aborigines off the land, the shrub and woody weeds grew back because of ignorant farming practices. The shrubs and woody weeds destroy soils, accelerate erosion and reduce biodiversity. The problem is worse today than ever, and successful Green group lobbying has helped accelerate the problem.

Disease and pests

Australia's lower rates of disease and pests increases productivity and allows Australia to position its products as "clean, green, fresh" produce, particularly in export markets. The ability to maintain this market position is reliant on the Australian Quarantine and Inspection Service (AQIS) enforcing rules and Biosecurity Australia (BA) developing appropriate Import Risk Assessment (IRA) guidelines.

Biosecurity Australia is an operational unit of the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry and has no independence from government policy. It is charged with conducting its assessments based on science and according to the precautionary principle. BA IRAs have been controversial, the subject of senate inquiries and court actions. BA has been criticised for trying to placate the concerns of trading partners, rather than considering on the science on the devastating affects of overseas pests and diseases. This concern has been reinforced after the US Free Trade Agreement, and in particular US congressmen expressing the opinion that Australia should accept their deadly diseases as part and parcel of free trade.Fact|date=April 2008

Particularly topical IRAs have regarded pig meat from PMWS affected countries, apples from New Zealand, and bananas from the Philippines.

Preventing the entry and establishment of disease is a key issue the industry will continue to face in the future.

Animal Welfare

Australian livestock industries advocate a science-based approach to animal welfare. National 'model codes of practice' operate to regulate industries, although compliance and enforceability vary. Animal welfare is a state issue and further information is available from state departments (see external links).

The pork industry has recently been subjected to increased public scrutiny with animal activists pressuring the industry over its use of ‘sow stalls’. Sow stalls confine the animal and prevent it from turning around. The industry argues that pigs are aggressive animals and cannot be farmed in group housing however according to industry data, stalls are not used by 37% of Australian pork farmers. The ‘savebabe campaign’ run by Animals Australia used a website and billboards in all capital cities to promote the cause. It was supported by Babe actor James Cromwell, and other Australian celebrities.

Genetically modified crops

GM crops are a new policy area for Australian agriculture. The only genetically modified plants currently grown in Australia are GM carnations and cotton. GM cotton is grown for the production of lint for textiles and for oils for human consumption and livestock feed. The Office of the Gene Technology Regulator (OGTR) was established by the Australian government in 2001 under the auspices of the Commonwealth Gene Technology Act (2000). The OGTR must approve genetically modified crops for release in Australia. The OGTR approved the cultivation of GM Canola in 2004, but the crop is not currently cultivated since the state governments have banned GM food crops outright or imposed moratoria.


*All statistics come from:
**The Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics [] , and
**The Australian Bureau of Statistics Australia Yearbook 2003 [] .
* Cornwall, J, Collies, G, adm Ashton, P. (2001). "Sustaining a Nation: Celebrating 100 years of agriculture in Australia". Australia:Focus Publishing. ISBN 1-875359-74-5.
*Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade: Trade in Agriculture []
*History of the Australian Sugar Industry []
*The Australian State of the Environment Report 2001 []
*Australian Bureau of Statistics, Special Report: The wool industry - looking back and forward. []

External links

Industry associations

* [ Australian Pork Limited] Australian Pork Limited, the corporation representing Australian pig farmers, performs research and marketing functions.
* [ Meat and Livestock Australia] MLA is the industry body representing the red meat industries (lamb and beef), and is the key source for information on these industries. Research and marketing.
* [ Australian Dairy Farmers Limited (Formerly Australian Dairy Farmers Federation)] is the dairy research and development organisation
* [ Dairy Australia] is the dairy marketing organisation
* [ Dairy Industry Association of Australia]
*Cotton Australia represents cotton growers and corporations along the Australian east coast
* [ Australian Wool Innovation Ltd]
* [ Australian Association of Stud Merino Breeders]
* [ Australian Cashmere Growers Association]
* [ Australian Chicken Farmers Association]
* [ Australian Egg Corporation Ltd]
* [ Horticulture Australia] HAL is owned by specific-commodity industry associations. The associations for smaller commodity groups have more limited resources/influence. A full list of smaller commodity group organisations is available [ here]
* [ Apple and Pear Australia Ltd] APAL represents apple and pear producers and is a member of Horticulture Australia.
* [ Australian Banana Growers' Council] The majority of the banana industry is in Queensland, but this is the national body and member of HAL.
* [ Australian Vegetable and Potato Growers Pty Ltd (AUSVEG)] is a member of HAL and also a significant political force. Rain the 'fair dinkum' campaign for country of origin labelling.
* [ Australian citrus growers] is also a member of HAL.
* [ Pulses Australia] Pulses are also known in the US as legumes.
* [ Grain Research and Development Corporation] GRDC performs only R&D functions for the grains industries. Marketing functions are performed by other (state and national) bodies. Often, for grains industries, these are under statutory monopolies.
* [ Grains Council of Australia]
* [ AWB Limited] AWB operates the statutory monopoly of wheat in Australia, having been privatised from the Australian Wheat Board.
* [ Cotton Australia]
* [ Canegrowers of Australia]

See also:
* [ National Farmers' Federation]

Australian agricultural government departments

* [ Commonwealth Department of Agriculture, Forrestry, Fisheries]
* [ New South Wales Department of Primary Industries]
* [ Queensland Department Primary Industries]
* [ South Australia Department of Primary Industries, Water, and Environment]
* [ Tasmania Department of Primary Industries, Water, and Environment]
* [ Victoria Department of Primary Industries]
* [ Western Australia Department of Agriculture]

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