On July 17 the Minister for Agriculture Joe Ludwig released the green paper for Australia’s first-ever National Food Plan. According to the minister, this plan: “[W]ill 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. On closer inspection, it is really a plan for large agribusiness and retailing corporations. This should surprise no one, given that the plan 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 National Food Plan’s Issues Paper, released in June 2011, contained 48 questions, 24 of which concerned the need to develop a “competitive, productive and efficient food industry”. There was a solitary question regarding environmental sustainability, and the government set the agenda as to what was on the table for discussion. 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 simply assumed to be of universal and unquestionable public benefit.
Despite this unpromising trajectory, many members of the Australian community engaged in good faith with the government’s invitation for public consultation. Two hundred and seventy nine written submissions were received, with several identifying the need for transformative changes if Australia was to have 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.”
The green paper is largely based on such assumptions, reflecting a complacent and self-congratulatory approach. Thus, 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”. A key focus is about our food industry “seizing new market opportunities”, reflecting the prime minister’s recent urging that we become “the food bowl of Asia”.
In a recent The Conversation article, Professor Allan Curtis has exposed that claim – which underpins much of the green paper – as a frankly preposterous example of wishful thinking.
In this article, we discuss other significant flawed assumptions on which the green paper is based. These assumptions tend to be implicit, reflecting an underlying political commitment to the free market, free trade and the necessity of constantly expanding production, which is 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. Overwhelmingly, however, the message is that more food needs to be produced, and that such production will, when combined with the further liberalisation of trade in agriculture, deal with the challenge of 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”, which will in turn be positioned to “seize new market opportunities” created by anticipated rising demand for food.
Yet food insecurity persists and is increasing in a world awash with food. In Australia, conservative estimates indicate that about 5% of the population experience food insecurity, although we produce enough food to feed 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 all food purchased is wasted.
The green paper says very little about the fundamental, underlying cause of food insecurity: glaring, and increasing, 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 need. The overriding 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 speaks of “temporary” disruptions to food production through adverse weather events, and how some communities might suffer “transient food insecurity” as a result. It is equivocal about the impacts of climate change, ignoring recent detailed assessments by the Bureau of Meteorology and CSIRO, which confirm a decades-long pronounced drying pattern along Australia’s 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.
Assumption 3. Farm incomes will be higher when more is produced
As noted, the core of the green paper is about Australia exporting to Asia. 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 into 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. Lower cost producers will target these niches, and the consequences will be more of the same for Australian producers – diminishing returns.
Further, the green paper glosses over the demographic crisis facing Australian farmers, accepting as an inevitability ongoing rationalisation and “structural adjustment with declining farm business numbers (that is, fewer people operating the same land area), increasing technological adoption and use of other management models such as corporate farming”.
Assumption 4. Food corporations and markets will solve the problems of inequity
While the government wants Australia’s food industry to “feed the world”, this industry, by any measure, has failed to achieve the basic objective of maintaining a healthy population in Australia.
Current projections show 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, and on children in particular. So it’s a rich irony that the green paper assigns a major responsibility for redressing this situation to the very corporations who have profited so well from cultivating consumer preferences – and particularly the tastes of children and youth – for unhealthy and addictive products.
Assumption 5. The free market-based food system is efficient
If free markets are the most efficient economic system known to humanity, 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?
In truth, the “market efficiencies” are largely illusory. Cheap and easily accessible oil has allowed the industrial food system to flourish, but this era is ending. 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 key cause of the mass suffering that took place in the 2008 food crisis.
A different way forward – the People’s Food Plan
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’s why the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance is inviting all concerned members of the Australian 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 Canadian People’s Food Policy Project and the Scottish Food Manifesto as examples of what is possible.
The People's Food Plan proposes a holistic view of our food system and a comprehensive understanding of the changes required to turn this system into one that meets the needs of the people who depend on it rather than filling the coffers of the companies who control it.
The People’s Food Plan needs to be widely debated, discussed and re-drafted to reflect the concerns and priorities of the Australian community as a whole. We are inviting those who belong to groups to hold a meeting of your members during September and October to discuss and comment on the plan and to suggest changes or additions. We are keen to get your feedback so that we can capture as many voices from the fair food movement as possible.
Our aim is to finalise the plan in time to launch by the end of November. With the federal government planning to release its National Food Plan White Paper by the end of the year, it's important that the perspective of Australians who feel that food policy should be about more than corporate profits is also heard at the same time.
[For more information, please contact Claire Parfitt, firstname.lastname@example.org, 0414 766 476), or Nick Rose, email@example.com, 0414 497 819. An earlier version of this article first appeared on The Conversation.]