SUGAR: by Patrick J. ByrneNews Weekly
A return to feudal agriculture?
, May 31, 2003
Queensland Premier Beattie has a Bill before state parliament to deregulate the sugar industry. It follows the signing last year of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Federal and Queensland governments to deregulate the industry.
However, in contradiction to the intent of the MoU, Deputy Prime Minister John Anderson has said that he would oppose any deregulation that would transfer market power from cane farmers to mills. Both he and Federal Agriculture Minister, Warren Truss, have now threatened to withhold the $120 million Federal funding package that is part of the MoU, if Queensland passes the current Bill.
While indicating they might withdraw from this part of the agreement, they have not gone so far as to threaten withdrawing from the MoU, as called for by industry groups and Federal National Party member, De-Anne Kelly.
Premier Beattie says that he has written to the Prime Minister to 'sort out' what the Federal Government really wants and says that he will dump the legislation if Canberra opposes the Bill.
An indication of what awaits sugar cane farmers if the industry is deregulated is contained in a pilot cooperative program beginning to be trialled in several cane areas.
This co-operative program is not designed to operate in the interest of farmers, as with most co-operatives, but in the interest of sugar mills.
The model leaves farmers owning their own land, equipment and debt, but signs over the ownership of the cane on their land to the mill, and control of the process of growing and harvesting to a mill manager.
Stephen Ryan, General Manager of the Australian Cane Farmers Association, says that this cane farm model being pushed by the Federal Government severely undermines the concept of private property and could mean the end of the family farm.
He said that the co-operative model being proposed will render farmers a mere resource of the mills.
'The biggest concern is that it is the farmers who will carry the full financial risk for the co-operative for little control. A manager is to be appointed basically just to do the mill's bidding, as it is the mills who will own all the rights to the sugarcane on the land and control the process of growing through to harvesting.
'There is also a concern that the model being touted binds future generations into the co-operatives as all rights and obligations are transferred upon inheritance,' Mr Ryan said.
Currently under the Queensland Sugar Industry Act, farmers and mills are required to set the price of cane to the farmer at the beginning of each season through a compulsory collective bargaining arrangement. This is important as farmers are price takers, not price makers. Collective bargaining stops the mills from exploiting farmers by bidding off one farmer against another.
The co-operative model being trialled is lifted from a proposal incorporated in the 2002 Hilderbrand report on the sugar industry, which was conducted under the auspices of Federal Agriculture Minister, Warren Truss.
This model is comparable to feudal agriculture, where peasants worked the land for large land holding lords. Under the proposed co-operative model for the sugar industry, farmers are to work the land at the beck and call of millers.
This is how the Brazilian sugar industry operates, inherited from the notion of feudal plantation agriculture. Huge tracts of land are owned by semi-feudal land owners and the land is worked by peasant farmers.
Australian agriculture, particularly since Federation, has been based on the principle of widespread ownership of land and the idea of family farming.
Hence, the crisis facing sugar growers comes not just from Queensland legislation deregulating the industry, but also from a Federal Government sponsored plan that will entrench a system that gives mills almost total economic power over farmers.