Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Battle of the Basin

By Simon Grose

Differences between farmers and scientists are being heightened by a process designed to reconcile them.

Australian agriculture and Australian science have a lot in common. Both are well-resourced and technically sophisticated. Both have contributed immensely over many decades to the accumulation of Australia’s national wealth. And they have a long history of working cooperatively, with scientific research enabling our farmers to raise productivity and to do so more sustainably.

However, as the tortuous process of reform to water usage in the Murray-Darling Basin grinds and lurches more sideways than forwards, schisms and distrust between our scientists and farmers are threatening to dominate their relations. Two consecutive conScience columns in this magazine highlight the emerging conflict.

Last month the executive director of the National Irrigators’ Council, George Chesson, after acknowledging the productive history of cooperation between science and agriculture, said that the “prostitution of scientific opinion is devaluing science in general and turning scientists into activists, often resulting in a high degree of mistrust that I believe is unfortunately increasing”.

Chesson questioned the validity of the precautionary principle and the integrity of the peer review process, argued that farmers should be given the power to review scientific findings, and said “some scientific organisations” are using agriculture “as a whipping boy for fundraising. We would like to see an audit undertaken to ensure that scarce funding isn’t being siphoned off by organisations that continually make spurious claims to the media to justify their existence and more funding.”

Chesson didn’t identify any organisations but the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists is a likely target.

This month’s conScience column (p.4) comes from Tim Stubbs, an environmental engineer with the Wentworth Group. His fire is not aimed directly at farmers but at the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, the pig-in-the-middle as it seeks to reconcile the economic, social and environmental demands on the water that flows – and sometimes doesn’t flow – in the Basin’s rivers. Stubbs accuses the MDBA of being “confused at best and deceptive at worst” in its selection of data to inform its current draft plan for the Basin.

The MDBA will undoubtedly take umbrage at this criticism, and we will invite it to respond next month. But the judgements it is making are shaped by its need to fashion a plan that delivers politically saleable compromises between the irreconcilable demands of farmers and environmental scientists. This is indeed an impossible challenge, and the MDBA has not been aided by leadership at the top level of the organisation or at the ministerial level of national and state governments where the primary motivation is to maximise votes to fit the electoral cycle rather than governing for the longer term.

Whatever the shape of the “final plan”, it will be pilloried by farmers and scientists, hardening their conflict.

Simon Grose is a Director of Science Media (