A vacuum of political leadership on food policy in Australia

Questions for the Federal Government – and the Opposition

A version of this article was first published in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday, 8th June, 2013

Two weeks ago the Federal Government launched the National Food Plan White Paper, after nearly three years of preparatory work.

With colleagues at the Australian Conservation Foundation, the Food Alliance (Deakin University) Gene Ethics and the Sydney Food Fairness Alliance, I have been going through the White Paper closely, in preparation for a briefing from the office of Minister for Agriculture Joe Ludwig.

So far we’ve come up with 10 pages of observations and over 50 specific questions. We’re not expecting the Minister’s office to address all of these in a 90 minute briefing, of course, but it should give you an idea of the extent of misgiving and disquiet about this Plan felt by the representatives of Australia’s Fair Food movement.

There are two headline targets of this Plan: an increase in Australia’s commodity exports to Asia of 45% by 2025; and an increase in agricultural productivity of 30% by the same date. Just in case the reader doesn’t get the message that this Plan is all about exports and productivity, it is rammed home through relentless repetition. The word ‘export’ and its derivations are mentioned 118 times in the 104 page document. ‘Productivity’ receives no fewer than 80 separate mentions.

The word ‘health’ and its derivations appear even more frequently – 140 times – but don’t be deceived: this plan is not mainly about health, or for that matter environmental sustainability. If we follow the money, nearly $40 million of the $42.8 million in new funding that this Plan represents is focused on growing exports and boosting productivity, with the largest chunk – $28.5 million – to be spent on researching Asian markets.

With the exception of the Community Food Initiatives and Food Literacy programmes ($1.5 million each) – which are welcome and somewhat unexpected inclusions, if symbolic rather than substantive – the whole question of health has been deferred to a National Nutrition Policy, work on which is slated to begin in 2014. Given that the Food Plan was intended to be an integrated, whole-of-government food policy, this is a major disappointment. Quite frankly, it’s a cave-in to big food lobbyists who always pushed for this outcome.

As well as side-stepping our health crisis, the Plan makes very light of climate change as a risk factor, and includes no targets or action plan for reducing the fossil fuel intensity of our food system. This is quite extraordinary, given that the latest data suggest that the Arctic may be ice-free in the summer within one or two years, contrary to the ‘worst-case’ projections of the International Panel on Climate Change that such an occurrence, with all its implications in terms of cascading non-linear feedback loops, would not happen before 2075.

Free trade is held up as the best and only route to happiness and prosperity. Meanwhile this week brought news that Simplot is threatening to close down its Devonport frozen food factory in the face of waves of cheap imports, with major consequences for Tasmanian growers. Ausveg rightly says that the loss of this capacity and with it many growers is a real threat to our food security.

Judging by the Food Plan, the Government is not concerned about such developments; and the Opposition’s only answer is that scrapping the carbon tax will solve all our problems. Such is the dearth of leadership on basic questions of our national security and our children’s future.

Veggie swaps - a growing phenomenon
Veggie swaps – a growing phenomenon

Meanwhile, some positive news on the local front. The first harvest swap in the Coffs Harbour region will take place at Sawtell Primary School on Sunday 23rd June, from 11.00 a.m. – 2. 00 p.m. If you have armfuls of surplus cabbage or kale, this is your chance to spread the love! (but keep the caterpillars at home!) If you want to attend, please contact Juliet Thomas, jtinthegarden@gmail.com