RURAL | Agri-sprawl

Posted on 26/11/2022


Agri-sprawl or agricultural sprawl is a reference to the expansion of agricultural land use. By association it involves land clearing to create pasture and fields. Land clearing or deforestation is a major issue in Australia with significant impacts on biodiversity and habitat. Like urban sprawl which proliferates suburban development, agriculture sprawl prioritises rural land uses over ecological preservation. Ordinarily major issue is the loss of farmland and forest to urban sprawl which has roll on implications for the land use further away from urban centres. Government policy tends to set targets like massively increased exports or worth; so as farming land disappears closer to cities, depending on commodity, new lands are opened up further out to meet those targets while also supplying commodities to domestic markets. This means urban sprawl and agricultural sprawl are systemically connected. I’ve observed whenever governments seek to change land clearing regulation, a might uproar ensues followed by expedient land clearing ahead of any mooted change. This means the suggestion of change can accelerate the rate of land clearing.

According to the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, in 2018, agriculture used 88.4% of the state’s land area, with grazing using 85.9% of the land area. Significant areas of Queensland are grassy plains and grazing does not necessarily rely on modified pasture and grazing in Queensland relies on both modified and native pasture. A significant proportion of agriculture is irrigated. This land use data most likely refers to the designated land use rather than actual land use which means land holders who are not fully utilising their land for agricultural production can expand production through land clearing. Land clearing also impacts cultural heritage, landscape, riverine, soil and ecological resilience and health during extreme climate events. That 2021 State of the Environment Report found high competition for land assets among agriculture, forestry and mining, with growing profits driving up clearing rates and eroding natural capital.

The Australian Conservation Foundation recently released a report about the scale of land clearing and lack of referrals for significant areas in Queensland and found insufficient obstacles to land clearing contributing to Australia’s parlous record in biodiversity loss, habitat loss and extinction. The ACF report:

analyses the 2018-19 Statewide Land and Tree Study (SLATS) data to quantify destruction of forested habitats for threatened species and threatened ecological communities listed as Matters of National Environmental Significance (MNES) under Australia’s national environment law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). The EPBC Act requires that any action likely to significantly impact a MNES must first be referred to the environment department (“the regulator”) for assessment and if considered ‘significant’, either approved or refused, with some exemptions.

The key findings of the report include:

  • A total of 421,246 ha (roughly the size of the Gold Coast) of mature or advanced regrowth forest more than 15 years old, which is mapped as “likely to occur” habitat for threatened species or threatened ecological communities, was wholly or partly deforested in Queensland in 2018-19
  • land clearing that negatively impacts 100 animal species, 126 plant species and 11 threatened ecological communities including koala habitat, and Briglow ecological community
  • Almost all (96%) of the MNES habitats destroyed – a vast area of 404,652 ha – were destroyed for livestock pasture expansion on thousands of properties without evidence of any referrals or approvals.

The report finds that pasture expansion is largely unregulated while other parts of the industry and other industries make necessary referrals (or seek authorisation) in relation to MNES. This does not apply to all land clearing. The image below indicates the extent of destruction of MNES habitats across 5545 properties. I mentioned earlier that relying on private land holders to appropriately manage ecological systems is not always wise – the low levels of management and compliance on one property can severely impact others. Given the seeming disregard for ecologically significant areas and habitats, the ACF is calling for a major overhaul of environmental regulation to ensure that these areas are retained. This and other kinds of land clearing are a form of agri-sprawl where the singular land use eradicates other land uses resulting in land use patterns that lack diversity and resilience.

At the regional scale, land use mosaics is an approach to land use that can be used to shape sustainable patterns. Of course, other approaches are applied but land use mosaics can be multi-scalar, almost fractal, though lacking greater systems awareness. The questions of planning tend to be what ‘we’ want to do with land (how we profit from it, leverage it) rather than what is good for land. Rural is land use rather than ontology. Thorbeck doesn’t refer to this approach but he does acknowledge the need for multifunctional landscapes and patterns that support biodiversity, ecosystem services (nature based solutions). Such an approach means that landscapes can be shaped to provide good water, carbon storage, biodiversity, GHG emissions reduction, regeneration and ecosystem support and conservation. Ultimately this requires an ethos of stewardship and bio-cultural diversity rather than extractivism. Research from the University of Zurich found that “A mix of different land-covers including grassland, forest, urban areas, and water bodies improves the function and stability of a landscape, irrespective of the plant species diversity, region, and climate.” This includes providing resilience during extreme weather. Equally important is the need to match land use with land capabilities or natural capital to ensure land use is suitable, even regenerative. Like any system of principles, land mosaics have limitations and need to be applied creatively and with grounded experience or knowledge. However, when uses like agricultural sprawl dominate across the country to the detriment of biodiversity and habitat, the environment can only degrade. The national pattern becomes one dominated by the worst kind of practices – suburb sprawl (which is evident in many rural towns now) and agri-sprawl (which results in degraded landscapes, ecosystems and soils).

The Land Use Futures project by Climate Works notes the importance of land use in relation to reducing GHG emissions, and combatting climate change and biodiversity loss. Their mapping project, Land Use Australia, indicates that 23% of the land mass is dedicated to conservation while urban uses comprise 0.2%, with the remainder used for agricultural and forestry purposes (60%) and other purposes (17%). Climate Works call for nothing less than transforming our food and land use systems. This includes the need to use land within planetary boundaries as Australia has transgressed limits for biogeochemical flows, biosphere integrity and land-system change. This means land use methods are failing to support environmental integrity, which is no surprise. The voices like Gabrielle Chan and George Main are so important as insiders who understand the stresses farmers and rural communities face while also seeking new pathways. In part, we have to stop seeing it as possible to undertake these resource intensive activities sustainably. Radical transformations are necessary with transitions underway. The health and wellbeing of Country and connectedness to Country needs greater priority; not as something separate from us but as something to and in which life is deeply connected.

Philosopher/farmosopher Glenn Albrecht has used the term Symbiocene to describe a possible new era of human development after the Anthropocene, an era that affirms the interconnectedness of life and living beings. It’s not just an easy flow from one era to the next but an intentional shift to more loving and careful modalities attuned to ecological pulse. He proposes:

In the Symbiocene, human action, culture, and enterprise will be exemplified by those cumulative types of relationships and attributes nurtured by humans that enhance mutual interdependence and mutual benefit for all living beings (which is desirable), all species (essential), and the health of all ecosystems (mandatory). Human development will consist of creative actions that use the very best of biomimicry together with other eco-industrial, eco-technological, eco-agricultural, and eco-cultural innovations.

Other narratives are emerging with ideas of eutopia and protopia proposing trajectories for connecting places to possible presents and futures.

Posted in: ruraldesign