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We need plans and education to protect agricultural land: farm group

As the debate over foreign ownership of prime agricultural land and Australia being Asia’s ‘foodbowl’ rages, a new review by a leading farming group has found that the land needs to be preserved.

The Australian Farm Institute (AFI) found that everybody thinks their particular interest in land should be prioritised, whether they’re environmentalists, farmers, miners, or even overseas and urban developers.

The Does Australia need a national policy to preserve agricultural land? report also looked at the suggestion that local production would have to increase by 70 per cent to become the world ‘foodbowl’ Prime Minister Gillard wants us to be.

She made the comments last month, saying Australia should embrace the growing Asian middle class, and gear itself towards supplying their food.

But it has been slammed by experts, who say Asia won’t need Australian food because it has already made contingencies to supply for its own people, and by farmers who say the PM is out of touch with farmers and that current policies are hindering the industry, not helping it.

The AFI recommended in its report that  Australian policy-makers should think carefully about future farmland management.

The report is largely focused on mining and the onset of coal seam gas and its impact on farming and the environment, but it also touches on the hugely controversial foreign ownership of agricultural land, and the governmental policies to encourage investment from overseas companies.

"We can only go by what the statistics tell us and there are no useable statistics on how much agricultural land is being lost to competing interests and foreign owned farming companies each year," AFI executive director Mick Keogh said.

There were calls earlier this year for a register of all the investors in Australian land, to provide transparency for the industry and wider Australian society.

"An increasing number of people are starting to express concerns that Australia is being too reckless with its best agricultural land and future generations might regret decisions that are currently being made about the future use of that land," Keogh said.

"Agriculture productivity is directly related to the quality of a soil and prevailing climatic conditions and while Australia appears to have plenty of land in reality only about three per cent is actually suitable for cropping and even less of this is considered to be prime agricultural land.

"With urban, mining and environmental demands taking up more land and foreign investors also purchasing significant areas it's legitimate to ask whether Australia can realistically plan to become the future food bowl of Asia."

The AFI's research also found Australia did not have a good understanding of where our prime land is located or how much of it was not being used for agriculture.

Earlier this week, the Federal Government’s plans to make Australia the Asian food bowl were labelled “a waste of taxpayer’s money” by the Wilderness Society, and a poll found over 80 per cent of Australians are also against plans to encourage Chinese investment in agricultural land.

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