Food security – are we safe in the global marketplace?

She’ll be apples - or will she? flickr/Andy Polaine

Victoria now has a Minister for Food Security and the Federal coalition too has rebranded its shadow minister Minister for Agriculture and Food Security.

Food security is a notion that over the last three years has burst into the Australian media landscape. It was mentioned in a total of 177 articles in The Age, The Herald Sun and The Weekly Times in 2010.

This is a new record, topping the 111 articles in 2009 and the 127 in 2008, and a nine-fold increase on the average of 19 articles per year for the 10 years up to 2007.

Why this new interest in the security of our food supply?

There is no doubt that Australians share with others around the world a heightened awareness of the constraints facing world food production.

We face limited resources of land, water, energy and nutrients; growing demand due to growing population and dietary changes; competition over production resources between food crops and agri-fuel crops. Looming over it all are the challenges of maintaining production levels under a changing climate.

While writers such as Australia’s Julian Cribb have been sowing the seeds many years, it was the world food crisis of 2008, during which the prices of major food commodities trebled and “food riots” occurred in some 30 countries which appears to have fertilised the public conversation.

Australia relies on the market to save us

In India, China or sub-Saharan Africa where upwards of half the population eat mostly the food they grow themselves food security is clearly very closely linked to the productivity achieved on farms. But in Australia?

Currently around 80% of the food that Australians eat comes from Australian farms. That’s an artefact of history not current policy, and it’s declining.

There’s currently no policy at state or Federal level that links our food supply to domestic food production; in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

Our policy since the mid-1970s is that agriculture, like other industries, should operate in a competitive global market where producers sell to the highest bidder wherever they are, and buyers are free to buy the cheapest produce, wherever it comes from.

Farmers are to make production decisions on the basis not of food needs in Australia or anywhere else, but on the basis of price signals.

Why are our supermarkets full of Chinese garlic? Why since 2007 have we been importing a greater value of fruit and vegetables then we have been exporting?

Why does Australian farmland get converted into suburbs or mines, or sold to overseas investors? Why during the recent drought was irrigation water in northern Victoria sold by dairy farmers to wine and almond growers?

Because the market has been working its magic, directing resources to the most economically efficient and profitable uses, delivering cheaper food for consumers along the way.

Our policy position is clear – we look to the market, and not to Australian farmers, for our food security.

It’s a policy that has much to commend it.

If we get a greater economic return on labour from mining than from picking apples, and if China can grow apples at lower cost than what we can, then it’s a good deal. We sell them our coal and buy their apples and everyone (except our orchardists) is better off.

As long as we are cashed up (as a nation and as individuals), and as long as there is food to buy, our supermarket shelves and our plates will be full. It’s bitter fruit for some farmers and their communities who find themselves competed out of a livelihood, but that’s life in the global marketplace.

But what if there isn’t food to buy?

Remember the global food crisis of 2008, which was more or less repeated in 2010-11? The first response to rocketing food prices by some food exporting countries was to ban food exports – World Trade Organisation rules be damned.

If we look at the world food situation there is real cause for concern. Food production is critically dependent on fossil fuel energy and non-renewable phosphate rock – supply of both of which is close to or at its peak.

Water resources are in decline in many of the world’s food bowls (including our own Murray-Darling Basin), and investment in, and productivity dividends from, agricultural technology R&D are also in decline.

Markets are good at many things – but foreseeing major surprises down the track is not one of them.

Facing such an array of destabilising influences I wonder if it is wise to put all our trust in global markets.

If I was Minister for Food Security I’d be thinking about a more diversified policy portfolio that hedges risks. Let’s think about local food systems as well as global ones.

Let’s think about production systems that are less dependent on diminishing input supplies.

And let’s think about the value of maintaining a critical mass of skilled farmers who feel valued for producing high-quality food for Australians as well as for export income.

What do you think? Should we be letting the market look after our food security?