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.
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.