LOCAL conservationist and bio-dynamic organic Gundy farmer, Dr Patrice Newell AM, has been awarded the Member of the Order for significant service to the environment and sustainable farming practices.
Dr Newell has lived in the Upper Hunter for 34 years with her husband Phillip Adams and has spent her career advocating for agricultural practices which focus on the ecology of farming, rather than the economy of farming.
“I have been opposing chemicals for a long time and I’m an advocate for a different kind of agriculture than the one we have now,” Dr Newell said.
“I probably did have a bit of an ‘ah ha’ moment back in the early eighties, in a previous job when I researched chemicals in agriculture,” she said.
“Back then, I learned of the appalling volume of toxicity and chemicals that were legal to use and how, in many regards, these chemicals drive what you can do with your land,” she said.
“There’s a great saying, which I try to remember and repeat often. We live in an ecology, not an economy. Farmers have this battle to make a quid in the economy, that’s what most of the conversations are, can I grow this cost effectively to make a quid?” she explained.
“I believe they don’t really feel they live in an ecology anymore, their focus is purely economic,” said Dr Newell.
Dr Newell said Australia has fallen far behind the rest of the sustainable world, particularly in its failure to ban poisonous chemicals.
“It’s a great tragedy that many Australian farmers are addicted to glyphosate. They are educated to use these chemicals because it is legal to do so, so they think it’s okay. The reality is, consumers don’t want poison near their food or fibre,” Dr Newell said.
“I don’t believe that Australian agriculture is on the road to sustainability yet, because the use of chemicals is rising. It’s legal to do it and it’s the existing system we have. To change the system is to change the way we see and respect the land. As long as the people who want the product and people doing the tasks believe it’s okay to poison the earth, then nothing will change,” she said.
“Look how long it’s taken us to get on board with domestic violence, it’s just taken us so long to take that topic seriously and I feel the same about the abuse of the land. It’s taken a long time to get it out there, we’ve had these extraordinary state of the environment reports published by the government, official documents revealing the devastation of the environment of the nation, most caused through agriculture and we still don’t take it seriously,” she said.
“I’ve always used the domestic violence analogy, because I think if you abused a person the way we abuse the land, it would be regarded as illegal, but you can cause so much environmental abuse and it’s still legal. You can spray toxic chemicals over everything and it’s legal. You can dry up rivers and divert water and steal water and if you get caught you can be a criminal, but there’s still a lot of things you can do that are abusive and legal,” she said.
“Many places like Berlin and Paris made leadership decisions to not poison their public spaces and stop using glyphosate. It changes our attitude to how you look at planting things, see things and how you feel about a landscape. If we get hung up with something that is A and need something as good that is B, well that’s not what it’s about. When you live in an ecology, you see things differently,”she said.
“The last 34 years has taught me to stay calm as much as possible and be patient, because it is amazing what it takes to have any of us change,” Dr Newell said.
Dr Newell said the agriculture sector also has the unique ability to aid Australia in reducing its green house gas emissions. She would like to see Council representatives show enthusiasm towards climate change action at a local level.
“Our Council could take leadership from Paris and stop using glyphosate,” Dr Newell said.
“The Upper Hunter Shire Council has never been big on matters of sustainability. In many other areas, climate change denying people get elected and so long as that’s the case, it will slow progress down when it comes to climate change mitigation,” she said.
“There has to be across the board enthusiasm for the task. It’s easy to be enthusiastic about road and parks and cultural events but when you get into the nitty-gritty like embedding sustainability across the Council and taking leadership across the Shire, well that’s different,” she said.
“The important thing about agriculture right now, is recognising we are the third biggest green house gas emitting sector after stationary electricity and transport. The ag sector not only needs to reduce its green house gas emissions, but it is the sector to draw down the existing emissions.
“The over arching agriculture conversation is not framed within the climate change narrative. Stationary electricity and transport are not doing drawing down, the ag sector can,” she said.
“Not all believe in climate change, I know many people who don’t . . . the fact is, we’re living in a climate emergency and we need more than educating the next generation because we have to act now,” said Dr Newell.
The most important thing for Dr Newell, is to keep the conversation going. Her latest project is a podcast called ‘Bee Therapy’ with her “bee buddy,” Dani Lloyd-Prichard.
“The conversation isn’t narrow, because farmers don’t farm alone, we farm in a community. The different involvement I’ve had in the different areas over the years include all the water reform discussions during the 1990’s, then the climate change discussions, then anti coal,” Dr Newell said.
“When you’re involved in things defending the environment, it has many different forms,” she said.
“This new podcast, which wouldn’t have existed thirty years ago and having this conversation about bees and insects and ecology is just another way to have the conversation, through topics that cross over. If you’re into environmental sustainability, you’re just living it,” she said.
“We weren’t all sitting around talking glyphosate every day and then boom, big court case and all these governments deciding to stop using it. Suddenly, the world is having a conversation about glyphosate, just as they started having a conversation about neo-nicotines, the chemicals that were killing bees. Things happen all the time that give a new focus.
“And I didn’t start talking about any of this yesterday, that’s why I’m excited about the podcast,” she said.
“Plus insects are really important because most conversations you have about them are to kill them and therefore somehow finding an insect fascination is a really handy thing, so this podcast has been therapy for me,” Dr Newell said.
Dr Newell said as a Republican, it’s a tad ironic to be listed as a honorary member for the Queen’s birthday, but “life is full of irony.”
“Someone somewhere must agree with my work,” joked Dr Newell.
Conservation and the Environment
- President and/or Secretary, Pages River and Tributaries Water Users’ Group, 1997-2014.
- President, Upper Hunter Waterkeepers’ Alliance, 2006-2010.
- Co-Founder, Climate Change Coalition, 2007.
University of Newcastle
- Conjoint Fellow, School of Environment and Life Sciences, Faculty of Science, current.
- ‘Who’s Minding the Farm?‘, 2019.
- ‘Tree to Table – Cooking with Australian Olive Oil’, 2008.
- ‘Ten thousand Acres – A Love Story’, 2006.
- ‘The River’, 2003.
- ‘The Olive Grove’, 2000.
Hunter Olives Association
- President, 2017-2020.
Scone Shire Council (now Upper Hunter Shire Council)
- Member, Rural Lands Development Committee, 1996-1998.
- Member, Agenda 21 Committee, 1999-2001.
- Sustainability Committee, 2017- present.
Community – Other
- Secretary, Gundy Rural Fire Brigade, 2006-2014.