Australia: the world’s unsustainable ‘mine’

16 09 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has finally woken a few people up in this country. The closure of our automotive industry, the volatility of the mining sector, the deteriorating relations with our largest trading partner (China) — all these have seem to have acted like smelling salts for our semi-conscious leaders.

Australia has an abysmal manufacturing capacity, and I know that trying to fix this is very much on the table now at the highest levels. Australia is for the most part a 7.7 million km2 ‘mine’ to the world — we of course dig up our minerals and ship them overseas, and we export shit-tonnes of coal.

But much of our agricultural produce goes overseas too, including the very poorly valued live-export industry that takes the little water and minerals already in Australian soils and turns them inefficiently into livestock that is then sold overseas whole and living. Even putting aside the woeful animal-welfare issues this entails, it’s not much of a value-add and really a poor business model.

We also fish our oceans and send the bulk of the ‘fruit of the seas’ to other countries either fresh or frozen. South Australia’s tuna aquaculture is a poignant example of this.

But our lack of manufacturing is as much about short-sighted economic resilience as it is about environmental resilience. Export-focused agriculture has other big problems in addition to the inefficient consumption and export of precious water resources.

For example, soil degradation from erosion, depletion, chemical fertilisation, salination and toxification is a massive global problem — ~ 12% of global agricultural supply has declined from soil degradation alone over the past 50 years.

Another sobering reminder of agricultural inefficiency is the situation in aquaculture. The overall global average conversion ratio of fishmeal (commercial product made from grinding whole ‘trash’ fish and other seafood, trimmings, bones, etc., derived primarily from small, boney, oily fishes) in aquaculture is about 0.70, which means that it takes about 1.43 kg of fish-based meal to produce 1 kg of farmed fish (although this is still more efficient than livestock production).

In Australia where resource extraction and export — coal, minerals, seafood, topsoil and water in livestock — are responsible for most of the country’s economic success, the are also responsible for the environmental mess in which we now find ourselves. For example, our deforestation crisis continues unabated mainly because of agricultural expansion.

Thus, not only are our future prospects of maintaining the current standard of living highly threatened as these resources become depleted, there is little avenue for less-destructive businesses to replace them.

Inefficient use and exportation of Australia’s rare water resources alone should ring alarm bells. In a political climate where science, technology and manufacturing are of low priority, the writing is on the wall if this ‘mining’ mindset continues.

If Australia wants to continue its path toward returning to what could essentially be described as ‘undeveloped’, shifting from primarily exporting to high value-added manufacturing will also likely assist in removing the stress on our natural environments (although its continuing reliance on fossil fuels could indicate we still haven’t learned this lesson).

CJA Bradshaw


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