Producing more food from less land

By Greg Campbell

As recently reported (in Beef Central 26th September 2018), Cameron Bruett, the JBS head of corporate affairs, urged our industry to recognise the societal pressures facing us, to aggressively promote our successes in the area of sustainability, and to “do more with less”.

One significant area where the Australian grazing industry has for several decades been doing more with less, is the declining area of land available for grazing.

Over the 20 years for which land usage data is available on the ABARES website an interesting, and for the grazing industry at least, a concerning trend has become well established. In area, land given to conservation was one third (33%) of that used for grazing in 1997, but 20 years later, lands given to conservation had grown to just over half (51%) that used for grazing. The relativity and trends can be seen in the Figure 1.

It should be noted that in this chart I’ve lumped lands designated for conservation with lands protected for traditional Indigenous use or other forms of protection from commercial use and development. Vacant crown land, a substantial ungrazed land area in WA especially, has not been lumped with conservation. Grazing lands include those lands where grazing occurs on natural vegetation or modified pastures, but excludes farmed or irrigated land which might at times support livestock.

Figure 1: Since 1996 the area used for grazing in Australia has decreased by around 500,000 square kms and the area under conservation has increased by the same amount. Source: Greg Campbell.


Over the 20 years the land used for grazing has declined 15% while the land area allocated to conservation and other forms of protection has grown by 33%. Of the land lost to grazing, 26% has been converted to dryland cropping but by far the majority (70%) has gone to conservation or other forms of protection, Figure 2.

Figure 2: Land use maps comparing 2001 to 2017 clearly show the shift from grazing to conservation in the Top End, particularly across the Pilbara, Kimberley and Northern Territory. Source: Australian Collaborative Land Use and Management Program.

On current trends, the area of land under conservation or protected from commercial uses will exceed that allocated to grazing by the year 2045. By then, both grazing and conservation will each command around 35% of the Australian land area. It’s already the case that the land allocated to conservation/protection exceeds 35% of the land area in South Australia, Northern Territory, Tasmania and the ACT.

This information is from the detailed but little publicised work by the Australian Collaborative Land Use and Management Program (ACLUMP), a partnership between the Australian Bureau of Agricultural Resource Economics & Sciences (ABARES) and the relevant state land management agencies. Detailed satellite mapping is matched to state titles and other records of land use to look at the areas of land under grazing, farming, conservation, urban and other uses. The data is reported approximately every five years and is available at www.agriculture.gov.au/abares/aclump/land-use.

It’s worth reflecting on what might turn societal and political change more in favour of grazing. Famine would. But in a wealthy, first world country, even extended and widespread drought such as the present, doesn’t equate to famine as it does in many other parts of the world. Australia can and does import food to fill any gaps or access cheaper sources to boost retailer margins. There are also people who believe that some foods, such as beef, can be replaced with a factory-made product.

Much of the answer to moving consumer and political sentiment more in favour of grazing lies in proving our industry’s credentials in the areas of present consumer concerns (managing soil, water and vegetation, and looking after animals) and those starting to emerge (management of antibiotics, farm safety). In today’s terminology, these matters are packaged up as sustainability and the industry has good work underway to establish baselines and report progress through the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework, see: www.sustainableaustralianbeef.com.au

The Framework can help demonstrate to customers (both domestic and overseas), and to the wider community and government the vital role our industry plays in managing the landscape not only to produce food, but to protect the resource base and much biodiversity with it.

The majority of beef producers care for the land they manage. In many instances active land management, including management of weeds, pests and fire is only possible because the cattle industry keeps people with skills, equipment and other resources living in non-urban areas.

We also need to do what we can across the supply chain to minimise any failures which might result in adverse headlines. As an industry, we need to further build credibility and trust with the community and government who become progressively less connected to the sources of their food. Otherwise we risk land access continuing to decline. If the trend continues, in less than 30 years the grazing industry will certainly be doing with much less land. While the productivity gains, figure 3, coming through the application of genetics, other technologies, and increased lotfeeding, will help to deliver more from less, the beef industry needs the social licence (and the resulting land access) to continue producing high quality, safe, nutritious beef, and also to thrive.

Figure 3: Despite a decreasing grazing land base Australia’s livestock farmers have steadily increased production by 53% between 1998 and 2017. Source: ABARES Insights issue 1, 2018.

This article was written by Greg Campbell for Beef Central. Greg is a member of the Australian Beef Sustainability Framework and is the former CEO of S Kidman. Figures 2 and 3 have been added to the original article.

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