Country Parties: Do they have a growing role in a bio-based society?

March 28, 2011 |

In the Australian state of New South Wales, a conservative coalition swept into power in elections held this week.

One coalition partner, the rural-based Nationals, won swings of up to 36 percent against the Labor Government, and took 18 out of 93 seats  – a level of strength last seen in 1938. A one-off? A trend?

What role will rural-based political parties play in societies looking to regional development to power national growth? The Digest investigates.

In most post-industrial democracies, rural voters generally divide their votes between urban-dominated parties of the left and right, that divide over social, foreign and fiscal policy. A bi-partisan coalition of rural politicians may come together tactically, but rarely in support of a far-sighted rural or agricultural policy.

But in a post-industrial, internet-connected, distributed society – where biotechnology is opening up new opportunities for rural wealth and strength – the role of country parties may be re-examined.

Take for instance the speech by Nestle chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, in which he said “Today, 35 per cent of US corn goes into biofuel…What is the result? Prices are going up. It’s not very complicated.”

Cheap grain: winners & losers

Here is dilemma of agricultural prices. Reducing demand, and commodity prices, benefits meat and dairy producers, and oil & gas companies. High prices benefit farmers, and technology companies creating new markets and co-products from land cultivation.

The interest in “everyday low grain prices” finds support where urbanites have increased their meat, cheese and processed food intake; all all times, but now more than ever, urbanites love cheap food.

Plus, there is a section of the environmental community that likes to have lots of carbon-absorbing, naturally undisturbed fallow land. And a section of the international community that sees high grain prices as destabilizing for Third World masses. Not to mention employers who like the steady stream of jobless migrants out of rural communities as one means to keep a lid on urban wages.

So, cheap food is popular. But do low grain prices invariably lead to a better fed world? It is worth noting that, in a continent famed for malnourishment, one-eighth of all land available for maize cultivation in South Africa lies fallow, because the farmers can’t make enough money to live on at current prices.

Not enough to make you nervous?

OK, try this one. Why are one hundred million acres of arable land lying fallow tonight in Russia? Isn’t that enough (at current average EU yields) to produce 234 million tons of wheat, enough to wipe out world hunger within the year?

Why does it lie fallow? Why is the chairman of Nestle not simply campaign for the planting of enough grain in Russia to solve all the world’s problems? Or, as a capitalist, quietly investing in it as quietly and quickly as possible so as to gain a first mover advantage.

What exactly is going on?

The answer is simple as the motivations are complex. There isn’t a food shortage in the first place. There is more food produced per capita today, across the planet, than in 1960. There is not a food crisis, there is a wage crisis, and a Nestle business model crisis.

The Winds of Change

It appears that rural voters, in Australia at least, are begging to suspect that not every slogan that issues from the lips of an urban politician or industrialist leads to a policy in their interest.

They noted that, over the past forty years or so, Sydney has become one of the most wealthy and glamorous of world cities. Meanwhile, rural communities have yet to see broadband internet, suffer under ineffective policies for Australia’s scarce water resources, have depopulating country towns, still experience agricultural boom and bust, suffer high unemployment, and even the residents have shorter lifespans due to inequitable health care provisions.

What they have seen is a steady drift they now attribute to a policy aimed at cheap food, free trade, and globalization.

Is that a great policy for Australia? That’s for Australians to say, but certainly the rural voters of New South Wales have opted for a stronger rural-based political voice. Their motivations are complex – but at least one motivation would be a recognition by rural Australians that, when it comes to long-term investment in the rural economy, they are on their own. In a competitive world, unity brings strength.

What does it mean for you?

In the US and other countries that have no formal party representing regional interests – the impact will be “not much” in the short-term. A third party to represent rural interests has long been considered a “dying breed”, and in most democracies has been extinct for decades. The flight of population and talent to the cities has made rural votes worth less and less every year.

But it raises the question, for voters in, say India and the US, or within the EU, if in the long-term a political system is best served by a pair of urban-based political coalitions – or whether a vibrant third force, representing the rural economy, has a place.

Change vs more of the same

For so long as the leaders see the role of the countryside as producing cheap grain for Nestle, the future of the countryside may well be more de-population, shorter life spans, the breakup of families due to unemployment, and underfunded education. A set of policies you might put under the headline of “more of the same.”

The Biotechnology revolution promises “change” – if there is vision to realize the potential. Expanding markets for food, feed, fiber and fuel. Increased R&D in rural areas, and the growth of scientific institutions in places off the beaten path. Energy self-sufficiency. Jobs moving back to rural communities. Families staying together, re-engaged in community building. General revival. Wealth creation.

Who will seize that day? Conservatives? Liberals? A third political force to represent rural interests? No one at all? For sure, rural voters are becoming convinced that the pursuit of happiness does not pass through the land of $2 per bushel field corn, no matter what Nestle says.

The cities have been the centers of wealth creation for a long, long. It may be that that is changing, or may need to change. Certainly rural voters have hard thinking ahead about hard choices, and how they assure their growth when their small populations dictate suppor in state and federal parliaments.

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