Stewardship plan a folly: Snooke

Jo FullwoodThe West Australian

A Grains and Research Development Corporation-funded research paper has recommended a grains stewardship program be implemented across Australia, with 100 per cent of producers exposed to the initiative by as early as next decade.

The paper, prepared by Roth Rural and Regional in February last year, cited chemical and fertiliser use, market access and the ability to retain a social licence to farm as key drivers for implementing the proposed industry-driven voluntary program.

The research paper stated a grains industry stewardship program would provide a mechanism to allow farmers to retain a social licence to farm.

A stewardship program could include administration requirements, education and training and possibly even peer review.

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But the paper has angered PGA Western Graingrowers chairman John Snooke, who said growers who funded the development commission were kept in the dark.

"This program, if implemented, will be extremely onerous on growers, forcing them to seek approval from the wider community to farm," he said.

"There is broad opposition to stewardship programs because they are an unnecessary intrusion and build obstacles.

"Our freedom to farm should always be protected because it allows farmers to be adaptive and innovative. Rules just inhibit a farmer's ability to solve problems."

While the program would be voluntary, Mr Snooke said it would become the baseline regulation for the industry, only to be built upon again and again by industry and bureaucracy.

"We have just witnessed how readily the State farming organisations wave the white flag," he said.

"We all hear the stories of how hard it is to farm in Europe because of the ridiculous rules.

"Why is the Australian grains industry so eager to replicate those stewardship systems here?"

Despite receiving support from the majority of WA farming organisations, Mr Snooke challenged GRDC to seek the support from all levy payers across Australia.

"The GRDC is trying to distance itself from stewardship," he said.

Mr Snooke questioned if the GRDC knew growers would oppose programs of this type.

"They are caught and they know it. Blaming Grain Producers Australia for their dilemma will not work. Common-sense should have prevailed when the request came from GPA to fund the stewardship program," he said.

"Surely they knew growers would oppose these types of programs? The GRDC knows that a significant number of growers are not represented by State farming organisations.

"Why not be honest with this unrepresented section of the grains industry and ask their opinion, especially on such an important issue?"

Mr Snooke said the GRDC could not engage with growers through State farming organisations.

"We receive a lot of magazines and brochures from the GRDC in the mail," he said.

"They know everyone's address, they have everyone's contact details and they need to engage - they can't just engage with growers through the State farming organisations.

"I would be very surprised if the members of all these State farming organisations supported this type of stewardship program, especially when it's based on a social licence."

The Roth paper suggested 50 per cent of all growers be exposed to the stewardship program by 2016, with that statistic rising to 100 per cent of all growers by 2022.

The paper stated there was an identified need for collective grains industry action to demonstrate good farming practice to protect grain growers' social licence to farm.

"Industries need to earn a social licence to operate, to ensure they are meeting community and market expectations," the report stated.

"Grain growers not only need to comply with legislation, they also need to demonstrate that they are managing land, inputs and their product in a responsible manner.

"An industry stewardship approach will help growers to demonstrate this and will prepare the industry for future sustainability reporting requirements."

In other countries, agricultural stewardship programs generally require farmers to demonstrate best practice environment and food safety plans.

In the United Kingdom, the regulatory stewardship program is linked to subsidies from the Common Agricultural Policy.

However, the Roth report acknowledged that while a stewardship program might become a pre-requisite for market supply, experience indicated premiums were unlikely.

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