Agriculture, national security and nation-building in northern Australia

A series of global and national events over the past six months, among them Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the emergence of foot-and-mouth disease and lumpy-skin disease in Indonesia, flood- and Covid-19-affected food supply chains, a bee-killing varroa mite invasion on Australian shores and increasing cost-of-living pressures have all combined to place food security and the role it plays in maintaining stability at the forefront of everyday consciousness.

These factors speak to the critical but often underappreciated role of agriculture in human prosperity and geopolitics. From the rise of agriculture-enabled human settlement some 12,000 years ago to today’s complex global economy, agricultural production has served as a constant, often decisive, feature in human affairs.

As governments and people everywhere seek to grapple with a range of pressures exerting themselves on global and local food systems, for Australia agricultural production presents strategic opportunities just as much as it challenges the rules-based order we seek to preserve. Perhaps nowhere in Australia is the intersection of strategic and agricultural priorities and opportunities more pronounced than across the north.

In Deep roots, an ASPI report released today, I examine the role that primary production can play in realising northern Australia’s strategic potential. The report outlines the strategic importance of agricultural production in northern Australia as a key security-enabling sector with the capacity to enhance social cohesion and prosperity at home and engage with the world to advance Australia’s strategic interests, but only if the policy settings are right.

Together with recent events, a few unfolding historical processes position northern Australia’s agricultural industries, and the people, communities and governments that support them, as powerful instruments for advancing prosperity and national security. Geopolitical factors like intensifying great-power competition and territorial disputes in the Indo-Pacific, increasing personal wealth in Southeast Asia and the impacts of climate change on small island states mean that Australia’s northern approaches occupy a critical space in one of the most strategically consequential regions in the world.

At the same time, scientific, technological and workforce advances in northern Australian agriculture have allowed for the sector’s development, fuelling economic growth, including through exports. The fact that some of these agricultural outcomes have arisen as a result of government investment aimed at developing the north for strategic ends highlights a prevailing awareness among policymakers of the critical link between the region’s prosperity and its security.

However, efforts to engage northern Australia’s agricultural sector in advancing strategic policy must be bolstered if the confluence of opportunities that currently present themselves are to be exploited to their fullest potential.

This agricultural and geopolitical positioning also comes at a time of significant domestic political change. Australia’s recently elected prime minister, Anthony Albanese, has frequently expressed his desire to harness the potential of infrastructure development and manufacturing to advance economic and social outcomes. As Deep roots explores in detail, infrastructure investment is a vital tool for both unlocking agricultural possibilities and improving Defence’s capacity to operate effectively across northern Australia, where transport infrastructure options are limited in comparison with the situation that prevails in southern Australia.

The federal government’s commitment to enhance engagement with First Nations peoples, including through a voice to parliament, will require particular attention to be paid to northern Australia. Here, greater appreciation for the deep and ancient connection between Indigenous Australians and country, their land and waters, can inform policy that improves biosecurity, enables food and fibre production, and enhances environmental stewardship. Deep roots outlines options for policymakers to further engage First Nations peoples, particularly through greater investment in initiatives like the Indigenous Ranger Program and support for agricultural entrepreneurship.

But realising the strategic potential of the agricultural sector in northern Australian is not without its risks. The report identifies significant challenges related to social cohesion, infrastructure investment, rural political discontent, environmental policy, service delivery, biophysical constraints, and biosecurity threats, all of which pose barriers. Federal, state and territory governments need to examine the underlying forces that give rise to these strategy-limiting risks, among them a feeling of abandonment connected to an expanding urban–rural divide, infrastructural deficits that stifle agricultural development, and policymaking that lacks full appreciation of the realities of growing food and fibre in the north’s unique conditions.

Central to overcoming these barriers and harnessing the power of agriculture to propel northern Australia’s strategic importance is the primary producer. The notion of a smallholder farmer on a small block of land doesn’t accurately portray the picture of food and fibre production across much of Australia. While the family farm is certainly an important element, in Australian agricultural businesses the farmer or pastoralist operates an often complex and large enterprise.

Farm owners and managers must frequently employ sophisticated business planning and operations that extend beyond the farmgate, engaging in infrastructure development, research, agricultural extension and education, export market growth, technology development, environmental stewardship, government policy and community initiatives. These activities, while ultimately connected to the farm business, nevertheless speak to the capacity of producers to connect with external stakeholders. This capacity can be leveraged to create alignment between the strategic ambitions of governments and the production aspirations of farmers.

To that end, and in light of a range of social, environmental, cultural, economic and strategic considerations, Deep roots recommends four steps that governments should take, together with communities, businesses and other organisations, to grasp the strategic opportunities that northern Australia’s agricultural sector offers at this critical point in our country’s history.

First, policymakers need to foster and promote a unified message to increase awareness of the strategic role of the northern agricultural sector, with particular emphasis on working with primary producers to convey ownership of shared strategic aspirations.

Second, governments should provide greater investment in agricultural research to grow and protect agricultural industries, born of a realisation that prosperity is key to security but impossible without adequate resourcing of human capital.

Third, policymakers, together with businesses and industry groups, should bolster their efforts to  engage and collaborate with Indigenous communities in northern Australia, particularly in advancing prosperity through agricultural and environmental initiatives. Central to this is an authentic appreciation of and respect for Indigenous knowledge and connection to country.

And finally, the report recommends the implementation of a cohesive nation-building plan that employs both grassroots and big-picture thinking to connect the north’s diverse strengths, taking full advantage of the region’s culture of multi-stakeholder collaboration for infrastructure development.