There’s a lot a debate about water use in Australia at the moment. Should we drink recycled water? Should we build a desalinization plant? To those questions I’d answer yes and no respectively, but ask a better question: Why don’t we save water by largely abandoning agriculture?
But what will we eat, Scott?
Well, at present we use 60% of our land, and a massive 80% of our water on agriculture. What does this get us? Not much. All that expenditure of scarce resources contributes less than 3% of GNP.
Even more shockingly 99% of that farmed land is running at a loss. 80% of all Australia’s agricultural profits are derived from about 0.8% of the land under cultivation – land in south-western Western Australia, around Adelaide, in south-east Victoria, and in eastern Queensland. Land in these areas has the benefits of fertile soil due to volcanism or glacial uplift, and/or reliable rain. The rest of our agricultural enterprise is carried out on exhausted soils whose few nutrients are held in the layer of vegetation covering them. We pretty much clear the vegetation (nutrients), plant some crops, exhaust the soil, top it up with massive doses of fertiliser, run sheep and cattle on it, till it either blows away, becomes irretrievably saline, or becomes too expensive to grow plants on. The government subsidises this uneconomic business in the form of below-cost water, tax concessions, and subsidised infrastructure.
“Abandoning the Bush” is not the best headline for governments to generate though, so it looks as if we’ll continue with the status quo, at least until more serious problems crop up, e.g. we run out of oil and start starving to death.