Australia's Corporate Food Plan

Michael Croft and Nick Rose

In July 2012, the Minister for Agriculture Joe Ludwig released the green paper for Australia's first-ever National Food Plan. According to the Minister, the 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. On closer inspection, it is really a plan for large agri-business and retailing corporations. This should surprise no-one, given that 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 the 2010 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'.

A June 2011 Issues Paper 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.

Despite this unpromising trajectory, many members of the Australian community engaged in good faith with the Government's invitation for public consultation. 279 written submissions were received, with several identifying the need for transformative changes. Melbourne University's Victorian Eco-Innovation Lab, which produced the ground-breaking Food Supply Scenarios report, 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 business-as-usual assumptions. Thus, Australia 'has a strong, safe and stable food system' and our food industry is 'resilient and flexible'. A key focus is about our food industry 'seizing new market opportunities', reflecting the Prime Minister's urging that we become 'the food bowl of Asia'. Allan Curtis has exposed that claim – which underpins much of the green paper – as a preposterous example of wishful thinking.

In this article, we discuss 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.

1. Food insecurity will be addressed through increased production

The green paper makes some concessions to the multidimensionality of food insecurity. 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.' Yet food insecurity persists, and 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 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 over-riding imperative of this system is to generate profits, not to feed people well.

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 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.

3. Farm incomes will be higher when more is produced

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. But any farmer knows that price-taking commodity producers suffer price reductions in a glut. Targeting niche markets 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 (i.e. fewer people operating the same land area), increasing technological adoption and use of other management models such as corporate farming.'

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. Thus it is 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.

5. The free market-based food system is efficient

If free markets are the most efficient economic system known, why is it that, in 1940, the more localised 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 occurred 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 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're inviting those who belong to groups to hold a meeting of your members to discuss and comment on the plan and to suggest changes / additions. We are keen to get your feedback so that we can capture as many voices from the fair food movement as possible.

This article first appeared in The Conversation. For more information, visit australian.foodsovereigntyalliance.org

Michael Croft is a biological family farmer, a director of several industry organisations, a leader in the Slow Food movement, and President of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance. Nick Rose is the national coordinator of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance and a Director of the Food Connect Foundation.