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Smoke and mirrors: Why agriculture’s home by the sea could be a mirage

Statewide

One of Queensland’s key agricultural research centres is on the doorstep of Brisbane and closer to the ocean than it is to the bush, which is just the start of its problems, according to the State Opposition.

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As farmland on the rich red soils of the Redlands gave way to housing developments, the general consensus concluded that the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries’ Redlands Research Centre at Ormiston would follow the trend.

Up until the middle of the last decade those forecasts appeared to be on track, with the site in the heart of Redland City conducting only three active trials in 2015, a dismal record for a centre with research attached to its name.

Seven years later and the centre is a hive of activity, according to the Palaszczuk Government, providing jobs for 75 people working across 50 projects and trials.

In a media release issued last week, Labor Member for Capalaba Don Brown said many of the breakthrough discoveries and “cutting-edge practices” in Queensland agriculture were a result of the “ground-breaking partnerships” conducted at Redlands.

“With laboratories, glasshouses, shade houses, extensive fields of rich red soil and reliable rainfall, Redlands attracts not just Queensland Government scientists, but also tertiary and private sector partners including the grains, legumes, horticulture  and sports turf industries,” Brown said.

“There’s a huge amount of work going on at the centre, which is currently at full capacity with projects focused on combatting fruit fly, plant disease resistance, sports turf development, converting food waste into protein products and renewable energy systems.”

Brown is convinced the centre now plays a key role in ensuring food security and growing exports, achievements which are, he says, “putting our region on the national and even international stage”.

From a time when it seemed the only thing the centre could grow would be mothballs, the facility has attracted 21 external research partners from just the five who were contracted seven years ago, according to the release.

The number of event bookings for the site has risen from 21 in 2015 to 103 over the last 12 months.

And the number of DAF-led research projects on the site has grown from three to 13.

But shadow agriculture minister Tony Perrett has called the government’s assessment misleading.

For a start, he said, the government admitted the work was being conducted with other parties through partnerships, external research partners, and multi-agency projects.

There was also no clarification if the 75 staff at the facility were Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) employees.

“We know trying to get DAF staffing figures is almost impossible,” Perrett said.

“Staffing breakdowns are deliberately not clear and clouded in secondments, FTE and part time employees, and offices linked to private sector companies, or padded with vacancies.

“After seven years of this government DAF staff has not increased.”

Perrett said the evidence was in the budget papers.

At the end of June last year, there were 238,673 public servants in Queensland and 2118 in DAF.

Last year’s Budget, he said, showed a fall of 10 staff, including one less in Biosecurity Queensland.

DAF staff went from 2118 to 2108.

“It means that staff have been cut in rural and regional areas to allow for an increase in positions in suburban areas like the Redlands,” he said.

“Customer service and front of office roles have either been reduced or lost in regional and rural areas, and extension of services have all but disappeared.

“The government’s closure of agriculture colleges and pastoral education training colleges means that some services linked to those facilities are gone.”

During the sitting of parliament last week, Perrett and his colleagues learned that 13 stock inspectors and veterinarian roles have been cut since Labor came to office in 2015.

“The response shows that in other words, they don’t have any stock inspectors – with stock inspection predominantly now done by the private sector,” Perrett said.

As the livestock industry in particular monitors disease threats such as foot and mouth disease in Indonesia, Member for Redlands Kim Richards said Redlands Research Centre meant her region was playing a significant role in agriscience, with a specific focus on maintaining Queensland’s reputation as a safe food producer.

“Trials led by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries (DAF) are focused on reducing disease impacts and improving yields of staple crops such as capsicum, tomato, zucchini, barley, wheat and mung bean,” Richards said.

“This includes trials that are part of the $19 million national, multi-agency project Area Wide Management of Vegetable Diseases: viruses and bacteria.”

Richards said the Queensland-led project was continuing its diagnoses of what causes disease outbreaks in multiple districts across Australia, while providing valuable knowledge fundamental for developing disease management strategies.

“DAF is also leading a national collaboration to better understand the seasonal cycles affecting fruit fly activity and better target outbreaks of this pest,” Richards said.

“This broad sweep of work is another example of the Queensland Government’s commitment to supporting agriculture as a key economic pillar and safeguarding our reputation for clean green world class produce.”

Agriculture Minister Mark Furner said the centre was focused on tackling diseases and helping to control pests that cost farmers money and jobs.

“Research like that carried out at Redlands means we can grow more, we can grow safely and we can export to the world,” Furner said.

But Perrett said the focus on Redlands by a minister and two local MPs was deflecting from broader problems well outside the “bubble of south-east Queensland”.

“As the minister is being cagey about DAF staff levels, I hear of problems with services cut and operating hours significantly reduced right across the state,” he said.

“Stand-alone office facilities have gone, and many have been absorbed into services from other departments.

“In some instances, farmers have been redirected to an impractical help hotline and ‘digital service delivery’ which is impractical.

“To have included comments from city-based members who have made no advocacy for the day-to-day issues facing agriculture shows just how disingenuous the government is.

“The significant increase in the value of agriculture in this state is not because of any assistance from DAF because the government is not prepared to back it.”

 

 

 

 

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