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Issue #1557      25 July 2012

Food plan green paper gets red light

Last week the federal government released a “green paper”, a discussion document that foreshadows the proposed National Food Plan. The initiative is welcome and timely. The problems that face Australia and other nations in producing enough food to feed the world’s population are very grave.

Those problems include long periods of drought or wet weather, extreme weather events, rising sea levels that will engulf productive agricultural areas, and the diversion of agricultural resources to produce biofuels. Pollution of the land, sea and atmosphere continues unabated, and the seas are gradually being stripped bare by massive long-line fishing craft.

In Australia coal seam gas and coal mining now pose a huge threat to Australian agriculture. Our fresh water reserves are diminishing. Vast areas of land have been rendered barren because of inappropriate agricultural practices. Our major river system is slowly dying. Urban and industrial development is encroaching on arable lands, and young people are abandoning rural life.

The stated aim of the Plan is to ensure Australia has “a sustainable, globally competitive, resilient food supply, supporting access to nutritious and affordable food.”

The green paper declares that the government intends to:

  • Support the global competitiveness and productivity growth of the food supply chain, including through research, science and innovation.
  • Reduce barriers (that) food businesses face in accessing international and domestic markets.
  • Contribute to economic prosperity, employment and community wellbeing in regional Australia.
  • Identify and mitigate risks to Australia’s potential food security.
  • Maintain and improve the natural resource base underpinning food production in Australia.
  • Reduce barriers to a safe and nutritious food supply that responds to the evolving preferences and needs of all Australians and supports population health.
  • Contribute to global food security.

This summary obviously lays a heavy emphasis on food production as a matter of business and marketing. That’s a major problem in itself. The world of business is motivated by infinite greed, not by rational decision making based on humane considerations.

The green paper nominates a number of factors influencing our food production, including world population growth, changing food preferences, differing economic growth rates, climate change, natural resource limitations, and health issues.

Despite these challenges, it concludes that Australia has a strong, safe and stable food system, that our people enjoy high levels of food security, and that we “have the capacity to increase food production in response to market signals”.

These comforting reassurances are highly questionable. In his book The Weather Makers scientist Tim Flannery noted that the areas of southern Western Australia given over to agriculture have actually been shrinking as a result of salinity and a 30 percent decrease in rainfall over the past 40 years.

The green paper’s statement that “Australia currently produces far more food than it consumes” is also misleading. It’s certainly true that Australians don’t consume all the food the nation produces. However, we also consume imported food. Conservative MP Bob Katter said, “Within four years this country will not be able to feed itself. We will be a net importer of food.”

That’s not to say that we necessarily produce less than we require to feed ourselves, nor does it mean that we could not produce more, even though we may be approaching our limit, as Flannery suggests. As the green paper mentions, some of the food we produce is wasted. Moreover, some our best agricultural land is used for non-agricultural purposes and the popularity of agriculture as a career is falling.

However, rectification of those problems depends on the willingness of our governments to tackle the major issues involved. And if the green paper is any guide, that’s the most questionable thing of all.

Setting the alarm bells ringing

The green paper contains suggestions that deserve support. For example, it emphasises the need for more research and development in food production, and endorses the need for non-profit food stores in remote areas of the Northern Territory and other areas.

That idea would meet a warm welcome in the rest of the nation, where as the green paper coyly notes, two major corporations “have significant market power”. (Coles and Woolworths actually control about 70 percent of the retail food industry).

The green paper also highlights the need to make provision for possible food shortages in certain regions of Australia, particularly during emergencies. It draws attention to unhealthy foods and the poor diet of many Australians, but does not lay the blame specifically on fast foods.

Despite its positive aspects, the green paper’s neo-liberal focus on marketing our produce overseas, particularly to the rising middle class in Asia, results in a strategy of “anything goes” which is expressed in a number of alarming proposals and statements.

Many of these relate to the environment. The international community faces the challenge of producing enough food and ensuring that everyone can afford it, but also of doing so without ruining the planet.

Nevertheless, the green paper places little emphasis on tackling the major environmental problems we face. For example, it does not accept that there is a necessary contradiction between agriculture and the rapacious mining industry.

In patronising tones it acknowledges that there are community concerns about coal and gas mining, but it declares enthusiastically that the government “is confident that mining and farmland can coexist without affecting Australia’s food capacity”.

The government, it says, “recognises that land use policy is a significant policy issue that must be considered carefully”, but that coal seam gas mining is only likely to affect one percent of Australia’s agricultural land.

The answer, it seems, lies in the taxpayer pumping funds into research and development, to make sure everything goes okay. The green paper announces proudly that the government has “committed $200 million to support the management of the potential impacts of coal seam gas and large coal mining developments on water resources”.

It also reveals that the government wants to replace the 1908 Quarantine Act with “new biosecurity legislation that reflects the shared responsibility for quarantine between governments, industry and the public”, and wants to review the Imported Food Control Act 1992 and the Export Control Act 1982.

Its recommended approach, which involves satisfying international trade obligations and “managing risks” has already resulted in the dumping of quarantine restrictions on the import of apples, and Australian orchards are now threatened by imported diseases such as fire blight.

The draft Plan also canvasses the development of “a national strategy on the consistent application of modern biotechnology (including genetically-modified crops)”. Apart from widespread concerns about the potential threat to public health, this proposal threatens Australia’s trading advantage as a genetically-free exporter.

The green paper fails to tackle other crucial issues, for example the cultivation of water-guzzling crops such as cotton and rice, which are inappropriate for our dry climate, and which divert much-needed surface water from fruit and vegetable crops.

When dealing with trade it has nothing to say about the food bartering system which some developing nations have undertaken, and which avoids them having to cope with the fluctuating value of the international currency standard, the US dollar.

It places insufficient emphasis on our obligation to help developing nations feed their people and fulfil their national potential. It sees food shortages in developing countries primarily as a market opportunity. It notes: “Measures to improve global food security contribute to social and political stability, and facilitate global economic growth. It is therefore in Australia’s national interest to help improve global food security.”

Off to a very bad start

The government should be congratulated for undertaking a national food plan, which is sorely needed. However, as a first step along that road the green paper deserves rejection.

It treats the market as a cure-all for inadequate or inappropriate food production. It also fails to deal with the question of overseas ownership of agricultural enterprises in Australia.

It notes that the government wants to ensure that foreign investments “are not contrary to the national interest”, but says nothing about how, or under what circumstances, this occurs.

On the contrary, it warns sternly that “Any reduction in foreign investment in the agricultural sector would likely result in lower food production with potentially higher food prices, lower employment, lower incomes in the sector and lower government revenue.”

It also fails with regard to environmental issues. Significantly, the word “environment” does not appear in its introductory summary of the government’s intentions. Instead, it refers to “the natural resource base underpinning food production”.

Public concerns about improving the environment are not treated as praiseworthy, but as obstacles to the development of the agricultural sector. Description of the document as a “green” paper is a gross misnomer.

The government has called for submissions regarding the green paper. That in itself is creditable, but the government would be well advised to dump many sections of the so-called “green paper”, sack its economic-rationalist advisers, and rewrite the document.

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