What If...Salinity policy: a tale of fallacies, misconceptions and hidden assumptions

Photo of a field suffering from a salinity problem.

Past national salinity policies have been seriously flawed. The new 'National Action Plan' has positive elements but has not sufficiently escaped from the past. We need to get beyond the idea that, with small inputs of public money, farmers will revegetate large areas of agricultural land with perennials, and that this will prevent salinity from affecting our natural resources and public infrastructure.

There is an assumption that we already have a range of treatments for salinity prevention which farmers could successfully adopt over very large scales. In reality, viable treatments for salinity prevention are currently available only for a small proportion of the agricultural land where they are needed.

For farmers at least, the benefits from salinity prevention are usually not enough to outweigh the direct and indirect costs that they have to bear to establish sufficiendy large areas of perennials. The levels of money available under the National Action Plan are not sufficient to overcome this problem on a large enough scale to prevent much salinity.

There has been a view that, even if they don't have economically viable treatments available to them, farmers would be willing to make the sacrifices required to prevent salinity. This fails to recognise the scale of change required and the scale of costs that farmers would have to bear.

The next misconception is that, by being clever in the way we design and locate treatments, we can have a large impact on salinity with only small areas of treatments. Unfortunately this is not the case, except in relatively rare cases. The level of off-site benefits per hectare of agricultural land treated turns out to be much smaller than we previously believed or hoped.

We also now know that some of the salinity problem is not caused by agriculture. In affected country towns, the salinity problem is largely caused within the towns.

Need for broad-scale solutions

This all means that we have to change our concept of what we are trying to achieve. Rather than putting treatments on small areas to protect the broader landscape, prevention of salinity will require development of profitable production systems based around perennials (trees, shrubs and perennial pastures), integrated with engineering.

We cannot afford to buy farmers' cooperation on the scale needed, and even if we could afford it, it probably would not be a good investment.

We must stop spreading the available money as thinly as my grandmother used to spread Vegemite. Instead, we should target the money strategically in four main ways.

Firstly, money should be directed towards the development of better ways to prevent salinity. One way is to establish profitable industries based around production of perennials of various types. We need a whole suite of different profitable perennials for different locations and different soil types.

Secondly, we need to better face the reality that a lot more land is going to go saline. We should invest in R&D to identify and test a much bigger range of salt-tolerant species and work with farmers on ways to use them. A number of non-agricultural uses for saline land and water also appear promising and deserving of support for their development.

Thirdly, there are engineering methods. We need to better understand the existing engineering options and, if possible, develop better ones, including drainage, pumping and perhaps desalination.

Fourthly, we need expenditures specifically targeted to protect particular public assets (towns, rivers, water resources, nature reserves, and so on). For different public assets, the most cost-effective combinations of off-farm and on-farm treatments will vary widely.

We need to be systematic and much more hard-nosed in the approach we take to evaluating what combinations of treatments are needed, what they will cost, what their benefits will be, and whether or not they are actually worth the investment.