Much ado about nothing much. A somewhat alarmist story in Crikey back in June raised the prospect of “government-backed companies” beginning to buy up farmland around the world, “with Australia’s vast tracts of top quality primary production land a prime target.” Dick Smith, the country’s leading rent-a-mouth, was quoted saying he has “no doubt” there has been an increase in foreign-controlled companies buying up local agricultural properties. “What people don’t realise is that if someone buys prime agricultural land, we can’t force them to sell us the food from that land,” he told Crikey. “They can ship the food from the land directly to their country and I think that should be looked at. … I think we should just say any land that produces food should not be sold to overseas interests”

That promoter of economic xenophobia Ausbuy was given the opportunity to promote its message too with the organisation’s CEO Lynne Wilkinson pointing to many recent instances, including the sale of over 100,000 hectares of farmland in Western Australia to the Arab States, which show the Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) and the ACCC are not looking after Australia’s long term security interests.

“When countries buy our land it raises issues of sovereign risk, and in our grab for cash we lose the intellectual property of generations of Australian farmers,” she told Crikey. “We cannot guarantee the food grown on this land will stay in Australia or that the profits from exports will be here.”

If you read that story you might have thought there was some kind of emerging crisis with our very food security at risk which means you will be surprised by the results of survey results released today by the Australian Bureau of Statistics. In an Agricultural Land and Water Ownership Survey (ALWOS) conducted in March 2011, with data requested as at 31 December 2010, the Bureau found:

  • 99% of agricultural businesses in Australia were entirely Australian owned
  • 89% of agricultural land was entirely Australian owned
  • 91% of water entitlements for agricultural purposes were entirely Australian owned
  • In a statement accompanying the release of these findings the ABS said the survey results are broadly comparable with levels of foreign ownership of agricultural businesses and land collected in the Agricultural Census of 1983-84. The ABS has not previously collected data on foreign ownership of agricultural water entitlements.

    Estimates from ALWOS indicated that the total number of agricultural businesses in Australia on 31 December 2010 was 135,600. Of this total, 133,600 agricultural businesses, or 99% of Australian agricultural businesses, were entirely Australian owned; 1,300 agricultural businesses had some level of foreign ownership; and 732 had an unknown ownership status.

    Of the businesses reporting some level of foreign ownership, 139 businesses had less than 10% foreign ownership, 330 had between 10% and 50% foreign ownership, and 824 had greater than 50% foreign ownership.

    Of the 824 agricultural businesses which were more than 50% foreign owned, the greatest number (313) were in New South Wales / Australian Capital Territory, 117 were in Western Australia and 107 were in Victoria.

    Proportionally, Queensland had the lowest level of foreign ownership of agricultural businesses, with 0.5% of its businesses (132) reporting some level of foreign ownership. Northern Territory had the highest level of foreign ownership of agricultural businesses, with 3.2% of its businesses (20) reporting some level of foreign ownership.

    The industry group reporting the highest proportion of local ownership was the Other Crop Growing group (which includes sugar cane and cotton growing), with 99%, or 6,800 businesses, entirely Australian owned.

    The industry group reporting the highest proportion of some level of foreign ownership (therefore the lowest proportion of local ownership) was the Mushroom and Vegetable Growing businesses (ANZSIC 012). Nearly 2% of this group reported some level of foreign ownership, leaving around 97% or 4,500 businesses entirely Australian owned.

    Estimates from ALWOS indicated that the total area of agricultural land in Australia on 31 December 2010 was 398 million hectares. Of this total, 353 million hectares, or 89% of agricultural land in Australia, were entirely Australian owned, 45 million hectares had some level of foreign ownership and 0.3 million hectares had an unknown ownership status.

    Of the agricultural land with some foreign ownership, 168,500 hectares were owned by businesses which had less than 10% foreign ownership, 22 million hectares were owned by businesses which had between 10% and 50% foreign ownership and 23 million hectares were owned by businesses which had more than 50% foreign ownership.

    Of the 23 million hectares of land which were more than 50% foreign owned, the greatest area (9.4 million hectares) was in Northern Territory and a further 3.1 million hectares were in Western Australia.

    Proportionally, Victoria had the lowest level of foreign ownership of agricultural land, with 0.8% of its land (99,500 hectares) reported as having some level of foreign ownership. Northern Territory had the highest level of foreign ownership of agricultural land, with 24% of its land (14 million hectares) reported as having some level of foreign ownership.

    The industry group reporting the highest proportion of Australian land ownership was the Nursery and Floriculture Production , with 99%, or 279,000 hectares, entirely Australian owned.

    The industry group reporting the highest proportion of some level of foreign ownership (therefore the lowest proportion of Australian land ownership) was the Sheep Beef Cattle and Grain Farming group. More than 11% of this group reported some level of foreign ownership (representing nearly 44 million hectares), leaving approximately 88% or 329 million hectares entirely Australian owned.

    When it comes to the total 13,700 gigalitres of water entitlements used for agricultural purposes, approximately 12,500 gigalitres, or 91%, were owned by entirely Australian owned businesses; 1,169 gigalitres had some level of foreign ownership; and 97 gigalitres had an unknown ownership status.

    Of the businesses reporting some level of foreign ownership, 84 gigalitres were owned by businesses which had less than 10% foreign ownership, 170 gigalitres were owned by businesses which had between 10% and 50% foreign ownership, and 915 gigalitres were owned by businesses which had more than 50% foreign ownership.

    Of the water entitlements for agricultural purposes which were more than 50% foreign owned, New South Wales and Australian Capital Territory had the largest volume of water entitlements with some degree of foreign ownership (459 gigalitres). The Northern Territory reported no agricultural water entitlements for agricultural purposes being owned by businesses with any level of foreign ownership.

    The ACTU should act. The continuing revelations about the way the Hospital Services Uni0n has operated must be doing considerable damage to the image of the whole trade union movement. Why anyone would want to pay union dues to a body like the HSU is beyond me and the silence from the ACTU leaves the impression that it considers rorts  by officials are simply par for the course.

    More bad judgment. Flying home early from the South Pacific Forum meeting in New Zealand is just another example of the Prime Minister’s political wisdom. Rushing to hold an emergency meeting with Cabinet colleagues on how to handle the issue of boat people just adds to the sense of crisis already surrounding this Labor Government. The clever Prime Minister would have stayed on an extra day to watch Australia’s first game in the rugby union World Cup rather than acting like the Ugly Australian and walking out on the final official dinner held for the leaders of our Pacific neighbours.

    And on that rugby business, a little whimsy from xkcd:

    Peter Fray

    Get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for $12.

    Without subscribers, Crikey can’t do what it does. Fortunately, our support base is growing.

    Every day, Crikey aims to bring new and challenging insights into politics, business, national affairs, media and society. We lift up the rocks that other news media largely ignore. Without your support, more of those rocks – and the secrets beneath them — will remain lodged in the dirt.

    Join today and get your first 12 weeks of Crikey for just $12.

     

    Peter Fray
    Editor-in-chief of Crikey

    JOIN NOW