It has been a big year for Australian agriculture. Many farmers around the country have been hit with floods and drought. There is an increased demand for agriculture products, there are staff shortages as well as major changes to regulations and legislation. After spending some time in Western Australia’s regions and having the opportunity to speak with industry advocacy groups, regional councillors and farmers, it appears they are carving certainty.

In early July, Australia’s trade minister visited Europe to negotiate better access to export markets for Australian producers. The Australian government walked away from the talks without striking a deal. The deal stumbled over naming conventions for over 400 products ranging from wine to dairy. Representatives from the EU wanted to put an end to Australian producers using names like Prosecco and Feta for their products in an attempt to follow the example set by France’s Champagne region. The Champagne industry successfully campaigned that only sparkling wine produced in the region, in accordance with specific rules and regulations, could bear the name Champagne.

A free trade deal with the European Union would be a win-win situation. It would open export opportunities for Australian producers, and provide more options and steady supply for European consumers. Australian produce is well regarded for its quality. So to restrict market access, for the time being, at least, is a real loss for European consumers. It does, however, protect the European producers from any ‘dilution’ of their product heritage.

The troubles facing Australian farmers do not stop at the challenges facing producers looking to explore different markets internationally. Some of the issues stem from regional workforce shortages as inter-generational agribusinesses are unable to find successors. Some businesses passed through families for generations will be making difficult decisions as the next generation is lured into different professions, different industries or to the big cities. From the uncertainty and struggles other pressures have sprouted. Major changes to two livestock-based industries are on the way in Australia. These changes include a ban on the export of live sheep and a ban on caged eggs.

These changes aren’t happening immediately, but the farmers and producers I spoke with are desperate for more consultation. As business owners, they are scared they might have to go at it alone and invest serious amounts of cash to diversify or transition away from these practices to meet statutory obligations. These decisions, at the moment at least, have to be made with no framework in place to provide support. The live export ban in particular is a decision championed by the national government, but the states and territories have been left to work out the details with industry. Australia’s current government made a campaign promise to ban live exports at the last election and they are following through. Simply banning the practice could have the opposite effect on animal welfare. The international demand is still going to be there after the ban comes into effect. The live export industry took positive steps after disastrous incidents during transit as well as in the abattoirs of the exported countries’ livestock. New Zealand and Brazil have shown a commitment to enshrining animal welfare and the two countries have demonstrated the industry can continue in a modern context with stricter oversight and regulation. One solution being explored in Australia is to increase capacity at domestic abattoirs. For this to become a viable solution workforce shortages and infrastructure requirements need to be addressed, and quickly, to handle the extra supply. The ban on live exports will also hit the wool industry. The industry is already forecasting large hits to flock numbers and a devaluation in sheep stock within the next twelve months. Farmers and producers are facing tough decisions about their futures without the guarantee of support or a viable return on their current investments.

Diversification is a buzzword for regional and metropolitan politicians at the moment. The conversations I had with producers and regional authorities indicated most farms or producers are, in some way, already diversified. Most farmers have an alternative revenue stream to lean on if a primary crop or revenue source dries up. If a farmer is required to entirely change their primary source of income, however, the financial risk may be too great to justify the switch. It has been suggested that some sheep and wool producers move into the grain industry. Usually a safe bet and Western Australia has, in fact, an entire region of the state named after one of the nations biggest exports. The obstacle here is cost. To move from livestock to grain at the level required to make the change viable and sustainable as a primary source of income for a modest-sized property requires a multi-million dollar investment. The farmer wears all the risks and the transition requires a significant commitment in terms of time. Would you invest three to four millions dollars ($A) and have no return on the investment for a number of years while having no way of generating cash flow in the meantime? Perhaps you would. You are, possibly, a braver gambler than Australian farmers right now. Australian grain prices have been artificially inflated by the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and harvests have been particularly high over the last couple of seasons. Promising numbers for farmers looking to enter the industry, however, these market conditions are unlikely to continue into the foreseeable future.

The ban on cage eggs, and battery hens, announced by the Australian government in mid-July is set to come into effect by 2036. Unless you’re a farmer in Western Australia, where the ban will come into effect four years earlier in 2032. The timeline gives farmers over a decade to phase out battery hens, but for some producers, it means increasing the amount of space they use and different machinery. Increasing their production footprint. The current regulations and requirements for barn laid and free range mean if producers of cage eggs transitioned immediately they are looking at shouldering long odds for a return on investment.

A concern for Western Australia’s peak industry bodies is the changes proposed over the last couple of years indicate the most wholesale changes to Australia’s agriculture industry in a generation. With multiple sectors impacted, there is no certainty over how long these changes will be in effect before they change again. A conversation with one industry group said it would have preferred the changes be motivated by consumer demand. The group was hoping demand for battery hen eggs would diminish over time, in turn motivating producers to move away from cage eggs to barn-laid and free range. The impact of a similar ban in New Zealand has led to product shortages and price increases, definitely not what Australian consumers need to hear amidst a cost of living crisis.

So, why does this matter? The issues facing Australia’s agriculture sector are not unique. The uncertainty around the future and viability of farming and food production businesses around the world is making it harder to guarantee food security. I hope this discussion provokes a little more mindfulness to make you think about the people involved, and the challenges they face, in putting food on the shelves, the wine in your glass or the clothes on your back. Volatility in commodity prices and global markets, generally looking for the highest volume at the lowest price, has destabilised what used to be a dependable stream of revenue for farmers and agricultural businesses.

The situation facing farmers and producers who put food on the table on a national scale, clothes on our backs and fill the containers destined for overseas markets is uncertain. The next generation of farmers will need to innovate and balance the social conscience of metropolitan politicians with the reality of running a viable and sustainable business. The environment modern farmers and producers have to exist in, both natural and economic, is becoming more complicated than ever. Australian products may become a rarity on overseas markets so enjoy them while you can before they become either too expensive or affected by domestic demand.