No business as usual in state's rangelands

View From the Paddock: No business as usual for rangelands

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Dr Geoff Edwards, president, Royal Society of Queensland.

Dr Geoff Edwards, president, Royal Society of Queensland.

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It's a blunt conclusion - the average profitability of rangelands enterprises is not sufficient to pay down the accumulated debt, and a transition from traditional business models based upon grazing towards stewardship models will be required to survive.

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Business won't be continuing as usual in Queensland's rangelands.

This blunt conclusion arose from a Rangelands Policy Dialogue in July co-organised by The Royal Society of Queensland, AgForce and NRM regions Queensland.

More than 120 attendees from a wide range of backgrounds heard unambiguous evidence that the state's variable climate is expected to become increasingly variable as well as hotter, with more severe episodes of flood and drought and compounding environmental stress.

In addition, average profitability of rangelands enterprises - occupying more than three-quarters of the state's land area - is not sufficient to pay down the accumulated debt, so some form of rural reconstruction is inevitable.

We heard that afforestation and restoration of grass cover is the only practicable method of withdrawing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere on a large scale.

As this reality dawns upon our leaders in commerce and politics, money will flow towards carbon-friendly projects.

This will require a transition from traditional business models based upon grazing towards stewardship models deriving income from a range of products, including environmental services as well as conventional commodities.

Resilience, optimism, tireless effort and knowledge of their production systems won't be enough to secure a sustainable, profitable future for many pastoral enterprises. This is because there are forces outside their control pulling in a range of different directions.

These include free-trade policies, competition policy, kangaroos, rural lending and interest-rate policies and drought aid policies with uneven relevance to need.

But above all, increased climate variability will challenge all rangelands families, even those in the better-watered districts.

These disparate forces cannot be reconciled by a reliance upon market forces, as many of the elements of a pastoral landscape supply public goods which are not valued in mainstream markets.

The Rangelands Dialogue was convened because there is no known policy package that will steer a transition from our current situation to a more sustainable, climate-constrained future.

Pastoralists have been badly misled by their political leaders and media commentators who have ridiculed scientific warnings as "alarmist".

Those warnings have been unambiguous since earlier than 1990 and the opportunity for smooth adjustment has now been lost.

The dialogue resulted in a consensus Rangelands Declaration. This document is now available on the Royal Society's website.

The three co-organisers have confirmed a commitment to work together - independent but inclusive of government - to take the dialogue around Queensland's regions and nationally.

It is proposed to form a consultative forum to assemble a policy package and to build a stronger knowledge base so that landholders and their communities can plan for the future more confidently.

- Dr Geoff Edwards is the president of The Royal Society of Queensland. These are his personal reflections.

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