Cheap food = A country without farmers

Sugar, Rice and supermarket power

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday 23rd February, 2013.

A big fortnight for food news.

We saw the release of new national dietary guidelines, which basically reaffirmed good, solid, grandma’s advice: eat a variety of healthy foods, above all your five veg and two fruits, go easy on sugary and fatty foods, and keep physically active.

The major change was the official recommendation, for the first time, that Australians ‘limit’ our intake of sugar, especially in soft drinks. Despite the Guidelines Working Committee basing their recommendations on no fewer than 55,000 pieces of peer-reviewed evidence, the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC), which represents the likes of Coca Cola Amatil, weren’t happy at all about the advice to limit sugar intake. ‘The jury is still out’ on whether added sugar is part of a healthy diet, according  to them.

This reminds me of how the tobacco companies used to say ‘the jury was still out’ on whether there was a link between smoking and lung cancer, in order to resist and delay health warnings on cigarette packages.

Meanwhile, the burden of obesity on our public health system is getting ever larger. In the UK, which faces exactly the same issue, the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges has put out a demand for a 20% tax on fizzy drinks, a strict limit on fast food outlets near schools and other places where children and youth gather, the removal of junk food vending machines from hospitals, and a prohibition on junk food ads before 9.00 p.m.

I can just see the AFGC spokesperons going purple in the face if anything similar was ever proposed in Australia. Which it will be, as we get sicker and sicker, and finally realise why.

Then there was exciting news from India’s poorest state, Bihar (pop 100 million, and 50% of families in poverty), where the application of what’s called the System of Rice / Root Intensification (SRI) has ‘dramatically increased yields with wheat, potatoes, sugar cane, yams, tomatoes, garlic, aubergine and many other crops’, according to the Guardian newspaper. World-record rice yields of 22.4 tonnes per hectare have been achieved – with no GMOs, and no herbicides.

A fact sheet from Sunrice boasts that ‘Australian rice yields of 10 tonnes per hectare are the highest I the world’. Not any more they aren’t!

In the case of rice, SRI means planting out fewer, and younger, seedlings, in drier soil, and with regular weeding to aerate the roots. An advocate of SRI, professor Norman Uphoff of Cornell University, says that the agricultural shift of the 21st century has to involve moving away from the obsession with genetics and using chemical fertilisers, to better crop management practices: ‘We have tried to make agriculture an industrial enterprise and have forgotten its biological roots.”

Meanwhile, new reports in the United States showed that two million acres of native grasslands have been converted to corn and soy monocultures in the past five years alone, driven in part by government subsidies and targets for the ethanol industry.

Finally came the news that Australia’s competition watchdog, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), will investigate Coles and Woolworths for alleged ‘unconscionable conduct’ in the form of bullying tactics against food and grocery suppliers over prices and supply contracts.

We’ve been here before, in 2008. Professor Christine Parker, an expert in competition law from Monash University, says that this current investigation ‘only treats the symptoms and diverts attention away from the real cause of the problem: supermarket power’; and that because of the way the legal provisions are worded, it will be very hard for the ACCC to win any case against the supermarkets.

Coles Farmer Pain

In her view, the ‘tragedy of the Coles-Woolworths duopoly is the narrow, greedy, profit-oriented way in which they control and manipulate the relationship between all of us who eat food and those who produce it…Squeezing producers on prices is supposedly part of [the equation of delivering cheap food to consumers.’

In a piece on the ABC Drum site (18 February), farmer Sophie Love urged consumers to send a signal to the supermarkets and push for fair milk prices. She was met with a torrent of anti-farmer sentiment. But then there was farmer ‘Bluey’, who had this to say:

“Let’s look at a mixed farm. Last year I produced 5000kg of fine wool, 600t of good protein wheat, 80t of quality oats and 8000kg of lamb. Income was $183,000. Costs (fuel, fertiliser, freight, rams, shearing, rates, parts, tax, electricity, labour, interest, etc) $175,000.

We’re already broke and it isn’t even the end of February. We’re getting out this year, all our friends have already left. We can’t compete with mining wages, we can’t (and wouldn’t) strike and nobody gives a stuff.”

At the end of the day the real cost of cheap food will be a country without farmers. Is that what we really want?