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The draft National Food Plan: putting corporate hunger first

The Federal Government released on Tuesday the green paper for Australia’s first-ever National Food Plan. According to Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig, this plan “will ensure Australia has a sustainable…

Time for real change: the Government’s new draft National Food Plan puts the interests of big business ahead of health, equity, and food security. Flickr/mermaid99

The Federal Government released on Tuesday the green paper for Australia’s first-ever National Food Plan. According to Agriculture Minister Joe Ludwig, this plan “will ensure Australia has a sustainable, globally competitive, resilient food supply that supports access to nutritious and affordable food”.

Ostensibly, the plan is for the benefit of all Australians, but on closer inspection it is really a plan for large agri-business and retailing corporations. This should surprise no-one, given it was conceived at the urging of the former Woolworths CEO, Michael Luscombe, for a food “super-ministry” prior to the 2010 Federal Election. The plan’s early development was guided by a corporate-dominated National Food Policy Working Group, established after that election to “foster a common understanding [between the Government and the food industry] of the industry’s priorities, challenges and future outlook across the supply chain”.

The Issues Paper, released in June 2011, contained 48 questions, half concerning the need to develop a “competitive, productive and efficient food industry”. There was only one question about environmental sustainability. The nature of the “consultation” as a top-down, tightly-controlled process was clear, with the Government setting the parameters of acceptable topics, and corporate representatives having an inside and direct channel to decision-makers. The further liberalisation of trade in food and agriculture, for example, was not a matter on which the Government wanted the opinion of the Australian public; free trade was assumed to be of unquestionable public benefit.

Despite this unpromising trajectory, many members of the community engaged in good faith with the public consultation. Two hundred and seventy-nine written submissions were received, with several identifying the need for bold and transformative policy changes if Australia was to develop a sustainable food system. Melbourne University’s Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab, which produced the ground-breaking Food Supply Scenarios report in April 2011, commented that:

Substantial, unavoidable and imminent changes in our food supply systems … require fundamental shifts in how we manage land and resources for food production … These potentially non-linear changes mean the past is not necessarily a reliable indicator of the future and care must be taken in avoiding ‘lazy’ assumptions about the possibility of continuing in a business-as-usual trajectory.

Unfortunately the green paper is largely based on precisely such assumptions. According to the green paper, Australia “has a strong, safe and stable food system” and “Australians enjoy high levels of food security”; our food industry is “resilient and flexible” and we “have one of the best food systems in the world.” The paper focuses on our food industry “seizing new market opportunities”, reflecting the Prime Minister’s recent urging that we become “the food bowl of Asia”. Last week on The Conversation, Allan Curtis gently exposed that claim – which underpins much of the green paper – as a frankly preposterous example of wishful thinking.

Here we discuss some of the more significant flawed assumptions of the draft National Food Plan. These tend to be implicit, reflecting an underlying commitment to the free market, free trade, and constantly expanding production - an unavoidable imperative in a capitalist economy.

Flickr/Rainforest Action Network

Assumption 1: Food insecurity will primarily be met through increased food production

The green paper makes some concessions to the multidimensionality of food insecurity: poverty, distribution inefficiencies, and political instability are mentioned, for example. Yet the overwhelming message is that more food must be produced, and that such production will, when combined with further liberalising agricultural trade, deal with food insecurity.

When the Food Plan was first announced, it was presented as an effort to “develop a strategy to maximise food production opportunities”. Now the green paper states that the first strategy to ensure Australia’s food security is to “build global competitiveness and productive, resilient industry sectors” positioned to “seize new market opportunities” created by anticipated rising demand.

Yet food insecurity is increasing in a world awash with food. In Australia, conservative estimates indicate that around 5% of the population experience food insecurity, although we produce enough food for 60 million people. Globally, the world produces enough food for 11 billion with a global population of 7 billion, and yet nearly 1 billion people are chronically malnourished, and as much as 40% of food purchased is wasted.

The green paper says little about the fundamental cause of food insecurity: inequality. Hunger – and other related social pathologies, such as the obesity pandemic - are the result of a corporate-controlled food system that distributes resources according to the ability to pay, rather than by need. The over-riding imperative of this system is to generate profits, not to feed people well.

Assumption 2: The future will look much the same as the past

The green paper states that:

even though Australia’s food supply is secure overall, we cannot be complacent in preparing for natural disasters, adverse weather conditions and other sudden and unexpected events … these events have the potential to temporarily disrupt food production and distribution and could expose some individuals, communities or regions to transient food insecurity

These transient risks are the only ones identified as explicitly threatening Australia’s food security. The green paper is equivocal about climate change impacts, citing ABARES models suggesting that agricultural productivity might increase with more rain in some scenarios. This flies in the face of recent detailed assessments by the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO which confirm a decades-long drying pattern along the east coast, and south-east and south-west regions.

According to the Minister, “Australian inventiveness” will “find the solutions”; and our excess production will emerge unscathed, even enhanced, if only, it would seem, our farmers embrace bio-technology. Yet the world’s leading agricultural scientists and development experts, and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food have made it clear: we need holistic and systemic change in agriculture. We cannot rely on the same practices that have led us to the current food and resource crises to get us out of them.

Assumption 3: Farm incomes will be higher when more is produced

According to the green paper:

The real value of world food demand [is expected] to be 77 per cent higher in 2050 than in 2007 … This gives our food sector good prospects over the long term, due to our comparative proximity to Asia … and our existing strengths in commodities such as beef, wheat, dairy, sheep meat and sugar

The assumption here is that demand growth will outstrip supply, and so there will be a more or less permanent dynamic of increasing returns to Australian producers through higher volumes supplying niche markets in Asia. But any farmer knows that price-taking commodity producers suffer price reductions in a glut. Targeting niche markets, no matter how big they are, is a response to oversupply and price squeezes. In a free and unrestricted market, lower cost producers, quite likely from South America, will target these niches. The consequences will be more of the same for Australian producers - diminishing returns.

Assumption 4: Food prices adequately embody environmental, health, and social costs

It’s well known that markets externalise, or socialise, many costs associated with production and consumption. Nowhere is this more true than in the industrialised food system, where the “real costs of cheap food” are exceedingly high, but the green paper, with its relentless focus on the need for a competitive, productive, food industry is seemingly oblivious; the phrase “cheap food” is not mentioned, and at only one point is it acknowledged that fresh food is rising in price faster than unhealthy food.

On the basis of work by Australia’s top scientists, the findings of the Prime Minister’s Science, Engineering and Innovations Council Reports of 2010/2011 on water, energy, and food security are at odds with the green paper’s predictions about the costs and reliable supply of food. Unlike Scandanavia, Australia has no junk food tax – nor is any proposed in the green paper – which means that food corporations can receive handsome profits, while the taxpayer picks up the hefty healthcare tab of the obesity pandemic, and our children face reduced life expectancies.

Assumption 5: Food corporations and markets will solve the problems of inequity and social justice

We’ve noted earlier the central role that Government has signalled for Australia’s food industry in “feeding the world”. Yet by any measure, the food industry has failed to achieve the basic objective of maintaining a healthy population in this country, with current projections showing that nearly 80% of the adult population will be overweight or obese in little over a decade. The principal burden of the associated ill-health falls on lower socio-economic groups. It’s richly ironic that the green paper assigns a major responsibility for redressing this to the corporations who have profited so well from cultivating consumer preferences for unhealthy products:

the food industry has a key role to play in addressing health-related messages and is implementing initiatives to help Australians maintain a balanced diet … The Australian Government will continue to work with the food industry to change the dietary behaviours of Australians

Here as elsewhere, the green paper reads as though the GFC and its continuing reverberations never happened. Its rigid ideological adherence to “market-led solutions” (see below) keeps those companies, who are the principal source of the food system’s social, environmental, and economic dysfunctions, at the helm of the system’s evolution.

Assumption 6: The free market-based food system is efficient

According to the green paper:

The Australian Government’s overall approach to food industry policy is part of a general economic policy approach that aims to foster a flexible economy and a sound and stable business environment … A key objective of the market-based approach is to improve competition and productivity across the economy, allowing resources to gravitate to their most valued use. Competition in domestic industries can, in turn, improve international competitiveness of domestic firms by encouraging improvements in productivity, flexibility, innovation and efficiency

If free markets are the most efficient economic system known, why is it that, in 1940, the more localised short chain food system produced 2.3 calories of food for one calorie of oil; but, after several decades of “market efficiency dividends”, it now takes between 8 and 10 calories of oil – and often much more - to deliver that same calorie of food? What’s worse, in 1940 oil was easily extracted from a few hundred feet at a cost of one barrel of oil to produce 100 barrels. Today the ratio is 1:10, dropping to 1:3 for “non-conventional” oil sources such as tar sands and coal seam gas.

In truth, the “market efficiencies” are largely illusory. Cheap and easily accessible oil allowed the industrial food system to flourish, but this era is ending. Oil is an extremely compact and versatile energy source with no simple replacement. Biofuels are one of the market’s responses to the price rises of this dwindling resource (coal seam gas is another); but the corporate rush to produce them, underwritten by state subsidies and targets in the name of the “green economy”, has been identified as a chief cause of the mass suffering that occurred in the 2008 food crisis.


In short, contrary to the Government’s claims, the green paper is a recipe for increasing vulnerability, lack of resilience, and heightened inequality in our food system. A different approach, based on a different set of values and priorities, is required. That is why the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance is inviting all concerned members of the public to join us in a participatory and democratic conversation to develop a food system that is truly fit for the challenges of this century.

We look to the the Canadian People’s Food Policy Project and the Scottish Food Manifesto as examples of what is possible; and we ask all who think there is more to food policy than meeting the needs of corporations, to join us in the months ahead as we develop a “People’s Food Plan” which will highlight best practice in creating a food system which is sustainable, healthy, and fair.

Comments welcome below.

Join the conversation

33 Comments sorted by

  1. David Thompson

    Science Communications at Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment (UWS) at University of Western Sydney

    If those assumptions are the basic criteria on which food security will balance, then the plan will almost certainly not deliver on its objectives. The Canadians have their approach to health well-developed and I think the article is right that we could actually look to them for an idea of what works.

    1. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to David Thompson

      David, we already have the thing well managed here in Australia, at our end anyway, yet like most things it doesn't get through the media and the public consciousness while academics persist in importing and churning endless theory (= conjecture) from overseas.

      Wouldn't it be great for Australian scholars, who've been here all the while, completed all their field research here, developed all their theoretical modeling from data derived from here, who've tested and retested and validated their…

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    2. Simon Batterbury

      Associate Professor at University of Melbourne

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      In surveys done by my students of attitudes towards climate change among Australian dairy and broadacre farmers, a strange disconnection emerges. Stong understanding of climate variability and the negative effects of droughts and floods on production in living memory, great local environmental knowledge, but a hostility towards any notion of anthropogenic climate change and those that promote such a notion (often castigated as 'urban greens' and so forth). This extends to many farmers not supporting…

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  2. Tim Scanlon

    Author and Scientist

    No wonder my boss came out against this rubbish today. Good article Nicholas and Michael.

    I can only shake my head at this proposal. Clearly not written by anyone with knowledge of agriculture. They clearly don't understand the relationship of water and production, especially as it pertains to rainfed agriculture. We'd need some major technology advances to make the leaps they are talking about.

  3. Nicholas Rose

    Research Fellow at Deakin University

    Space required some cuts, one of which was this, which is a very important issue and further illustration of the consequences of the mad rush for more production, more profits, more, more, more...with thanks to the TWU for the link to their campaign:

    "In a further recent example of socialised losses in the drive for maximising shareholder returns, Coles is willing to compromise the health and safety of Australian transport workers – and the safety of the Australian travelling public – by driving down terms and conditions for its drivers, and demanding ever-tighter delivery schedules. This is the logic of a system focused exclusively on the bottom line of profit, the real meaning of their corporate slogan: ‘down, down, down’..."

    1. Michael Croft

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Nicholas Rose

      As anecdotal evidence of the pressure truck drivers are under to compromise their own and the public's safety.

      Media reports like this are all too common and the individual driver's actions are merely symptoms of a dysfunctional system that demands impossible schedules be met, regardless of the Work Health and Safety consequences.

  4. Richard Widows

    logged in via Twitter

    Thanks Michael and Nick for this comprehensive analysis of the (many) fundamental failings of the National Food Plan process. I have long feared it was little more than a bureaucratic box ticking exercise; this Green Paper has only served to confirm this fear.

    Many of us are aware that food production in this country needs a lot more than the business as usual approach being adopted by Government/Corporate. I congratulate you on having the vision and foresight to use this process as a call to arms for those people seeking real change, where do I sign up?

  5. Ian Donald Lowe

    Seeker of Truth

    I don't know what to say, except please add my name and email to any list of supporters of "The People's Food Plan" and please keep me updated on developments.

    These sorts of policies that are driven from the top down seem only designed to entrench the current system even deeper, no matter what the consequences. Obviously there is a crying need for change that is meaningful and progressive but this green paper is not anything like that. Thank you for the article.

  6. James Jenkin

    EFL Teacher Trainer

    The article states: "Yet by any measure, the food industry has failed to achieve the basic objective of maintaining a healthy population in this country, with current projections showing that nearly 80% of the adult population will be overweight or obese in little over a decade."

    Are we mainly concerned about food supply in rural areas? I live in Melbourne's less affluent west, yet supermarkets are well stocked with fresh fruit and vegetables, and they promote them heavily. So I'm not sure suburban supermarkets can be blamed for obesity.

    1. Paul Wittwer


      In reply to James Jenkin

      Supermarkets need to share some of the blame for obesity. I do the shopping for our household and every time I go to the supermarket the Coke, some biscuits, some chocolate and some bread is heavily discounted.
      The fruit and veg section is spacious due to the method of display by I could fit the entire contents with room to spare in any one of the soft drink, biscuit, potato chip, bread or chocolate and lolly sections.

      Profit margins are much higher for fruit and veg, sometimes several hundred percent compared with 20-30% for processed foods. Imagine the effect on our obesity epidemic if the fresh food was regularly discounted from low profit margins but coke was $10 each instead of 4 for $10.

    2. James Jenkin

      EFL Teacher Trainer

      In reply to Paul Wittwer

      Hi Paul, you're probably right about the amount of fruit and veg on display!

      It's interesting you suggest retailers could use price to help people make wiser choices - and not just through sin taxes, but also by discounting healthier products. Are you suggesting we lobby the industry to do this, or the Government should compel them through legislation?

      Telling businesses how to price would be quite a radical step. There would be no reason for this to stop at food retailing. For example, bookshops could be obligated to discount educational books, and toy shops to discount sports equipment.

    3. Paul Pagani


      In reply to James Jenkin

      Fresh foods are already officially discounted - that is, they are GST-exempt whereas processed foods (e.g. confectionary) are not.

      A junk food tax makes sense - those producers need to be held responsible for the externalities they create.

      However, further regulation of food prices is problematic. Proper food labelling, along the lines of cigarette packaging, is urgently needed and is less likely to create its own distortions like direct price intervention.

  7. Jock norton


    Thanks Nick and Mike. Government has failed us to date on this, compromosed by vested interests and a complacent bureaucracy. If they fail to deliver a food plan that does justice to complexity and emerging realities, it falls to us to attempt to develop one. This is more than about technology or land use; it is about politics. To think that food corporations will do anything other than serve the interests of shareholders is laughable. Their activites contribute nothing in relation to social justice, and never will.

  8. Byron Smith
    Byron Smith is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Ministry assistant, ecologcal ethicist and PhD candidate at University of Edinburgh

    Thanks for a great summary of many of the issues in this important area.

    One very minor quibble:
    "It’s well known that markets externalise, or socialise, many costs associated with production and consumption. Nowhere is this more true than in the industrialised food system"

    I'd argue that it is even more true in the fossil fuel industry. But I'd put industrial agriculture second!

  9. Michael Croft

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Here are a few updates regarding how the National Food Plan (NFP) is being promoted, and how it closely confirms our analysis.

    The first is a seven minute interview with Minister Joe Ludwig discussing the NFP.
    In summary: the plan is all about boosting business and industry opportunities, concerns about land grabbing become much needed foreign 'investment', there is no food insecurity in Australia and it seems…

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    1. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Michael Croft

      Michael, this idea of Australia becoming 'the food-bowl of Asia' is the most complete drivel imaginable.

      The silliness of it in itself is enough to give pause, without the rest of them wading in.

      We have nothing whatsoever to compete with anything in China, even Mongolia, for food productivity, nothing remotely near the Yangtse, Pearl, Mekong or Ganges River systems. We have nothing like anything across Eastern Europe across the Ukraine into Central Asia.

      We have 23 million people, not 2.3…

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  10. Helen Lewis

    General Manager, Director & Educator

    I am an holistic Management eduator and have co authored a paper on Holistic chain management with the South African Wine & Brandy Corp for - linking producer to customer where decisions are values based. Everyone one in the chain works with others to increase product quality, transporting efficiencies, and retail display... unfortunately we lack competition in Australia, as chains in Europe are on the look out for the edge... In addition is there anything in the national food plan that talks about truth in Labelling- there is lots of work to be done on this... not just what is in the product in simple terms, but how the product was produced- intensive/ pastured... we need to be able to trust this process enabling us to make a educated choice...

  11. Garry Baker


    At best this government Green Paper is not much more than a sales brochure to prop up yet another of their weird conceptions on how Australia might proceed in the 21 century. ie: Like the Pink Bats initiative, a project that was flawed from the outset, which only came to a halt when buildings started burning, and some innocents suffered electrocution. Indeed, it was a public furore that caused this "good idea" to come to an end.. So it will be if they move one more inch into this fanciful dream…

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  12. Rosemary Stanton

    Nutritionist & Visiting Fellow at UNSW Australia

    The thing that really struck me about the Green Paper was its omission of any mention of ways we might consider feeding the current 1 billion people who go to bed hungry every night. The fact this occurs in a world where 1.5 billion people eat more than they need is pretty appalling.

    The food insecure in Australia did get a brief mention, although I think it might have had more inpact if it was listed as over 1 million people rather than as 5% of the population (a percentage is easier to skip…

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    1. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Rosemary Stanton

      Go ask the politicians, Rosemary, the party apparatchiks, the organisers, camp followers and progandists, the journalists and media designers, why they've done nothing to regulate the media and truth in advertising in all this time. The answer you'll get is they are all part of the same scam, the same image-mongering, and the same rorts.

      Even forty years ago and longer we were arguing against lolly-water in supermarkets, even worse than newspapers and tobacco and backed by the same dodgy lawyers…

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  13. Julian Cribb

    logged in via Facebook

    I'd agree that the Green Paper appears an attempt to drag Australia backwards into the failed policies of the C20th, rather than forward into a food secure 21st. It appears wholly in favour of corporate agribusiness rather than individual farmers - and history shows corporate investors invariably take flight when the going gets tough. But there is something grimmer behind it: the unending and remorseless toll on farmers, farming communities and the landscape, which is the flipside to the cries of economic effiency. For more on this see my piece at:

    1. Gil Hardwick

      anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

      In reply to Julian Cribb

      Julian, I have to say that I do not at all subscribe to the extent of your negativity. I have spent my lifetime on this, over 25 years studying these issues in detail, not least because my people have been as profoundly affected by it as anyone, in Ireland and Scotland as well and the Borders and West Country quite as much as Australia where we were brought out in the first shipload of experienced farming stock in fact, to begin the process of displacing the convicts and build the colonial economy…

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    2. Ian Donald Lowe

      Seeker of Truth

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Gil, I wonder if there is anywhere in your world view to allow for the possibility that greedy corporations (and other power structures, i.e. Church & State) may have been manipulating events for a very long time? Could you even concieve that these groups may have caused economic turmoil in the past and may have even led us into wars of great destruction?

      I also wonder if perhaps it may be possible that the one issue you seem most passionate about, namely population control/reduction, may have…

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    3. Garry Baker


      In reply to Julian Cribb

      Julian, by far your Canberra Times story articulates the state of the playing field in the most in depth manner I have yet read. "Food security 101"

      Our basic problem is we have had a long succession of short term "simpletons" running Australia. Hopeless country managers devoid of long term strategies, who have been primarily focused on their brief terms in office.

      Now their country managing shortcomings are just starting to bite, because as it stands their desperation for raking in foreign…

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    4. Julian Cribb

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Gil Hardwick

      Gil: I've been studying and reporting on rural Australia and agriculture here and globally for almost 40 years, so give me some credit for understanding what is going on.
      Is pointing out one of the home truths of modern agriculture and demanding that something be done to curb it 'negativity'?
      If so then no-one should raise their voice against any wrong. Let the rich and powerful persecute the poor and vulnerable to their heart's content and drive them from their homes and land. Is that what you…

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  14. Bernadine Morgan

    Social Entrepreneur

    Thank you Michael & Nicholas,

    The governments Draft Food Plan is a very disappointing & seemingly a 'box ticking exercise' to keep the free market managers on side and the global trade machinations on the rails.
    Disappointing? yes. Surprising? no. For me and many like me, it just serves to deepen my resolve that deep & transformative change is not only necessary but is 'coming ready or not' - and I am heartened to know that when this change does come there is an army of incredibly knowledgeable and socially ethically minded people & organisations to lead the way. Supporting and encouraging them is the increasing swell of "ordinary hard-working Australians" (to quote our Prime Minister) who just know in their gut that our current system of food production,processing & distribution is inequitable & unsustainable on so many levels.

  15. Gil Hardwick

    anthropologist, historian, novelist, editor and publisher at eBooks West

    What on earth is Ludwig and his stupid apparatchik mates trying to achieve this time? First it's closing down the entire Kimberley cattle trade right in the middle of muster over some Indonesian amateur abatoir operation, and now it's back to mass-production, transport and supermarkets as the key to 'food security'.

    Over the whole of my lifetime, and believe me I've been IN IT, the trend has always been away from small enclosed blocks populated by cockies transported from England's post-war industrial…

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  16. MedievalFuture

    logged in via Twitter

    Every species ultimately finds itself in conflict over resources.
    We are genetically programmed by evolution with a double purpose in life, to eat and procreate, our success rate in doing it is our own business. The infrastructure of civilisation is just window dressing. If we succeed and breed, then nature promotes us higher up the evolutionary ladder. If we fail, tough. End of story, or our particular story anyway.
    When discussing the niceties of trade, food supplies, energy depletion and so…

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  17. Shane Pearce

    logged in via Facebook

    I am currently working with a group of retailers in the fresh produce and grocery industry to help them organize what is, like smaller farmers, a fight for their survival. When we look at the NFP Green Paper closely, it is so obvious that this is a fait accompli organized by big business and their minions, and the only way for Australians to control their food supply is to join together, and say to politicians and big business, this is one step too far: hands off our food supply. Big business has…

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  18. Craig Carter

    Healthy Nutritionally Dense Food Producer

    Hi, I've only just found this excellent commentary. My reading of the summary would indicate that this policy is designed to keep the food processing, supermarket and health industry in control. The nutrient density of the food produced has dropped over the past 50 years, if we were to look to increase the nutrient density of our food production - we wouldn't need to stress too much about the volume of production. How to do it - pay for nutrient not bulk...More to read ... cheers

  19. wilma western

    logged in via email

    I haven't read the green paper so am not able to say whether the article is a fair summary - I question whether it is tho' some pretty over- general and rose coloured comments do come from govt depts .But I
    'm dismayed by most of the commentary.

    Some well-based generalisations to correct the wilder remarks above :
    1.Most commercial ( non-hobby ) Oz farming enterprises are family farms still.
    2.They mostly use modern methods and have steadily become more productive.
    3.They are increasingly…

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  20. Dave Star

    IT Network Support

    I like food, and knowing genarally where it has been grown. Good food is health and health is Life. I haven't read the Green paper, but if the underlying objective of it is to shift the responsibility and power of growing our own food away from the Aussie community/Industry and hand it to foreign corporate agribusiness on a silver platter, then no good will come of it.
    I think the ultimate goal of The National Food Plan is to give absolute control from 'paddock to plate' to unaccountable corporate and governing bodies...for what? Increased profit margins? Less rights for the Humans? I don't know. I have also heard that it may be illegal one day soon to grow, clean and store your own seed! Some please tell me this is BS!