Local Food, Local Farms

Local food and the 2013 Federal Election

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday, 3rd August, 2013

As the 2013 Federal election draws closer, policy announcements are starting to come thick and fast.

The Government has already set out its stall on food and agriculture, in the shape of the National Food Plan. The ‘big idea’ is that Australia will become the ‘food bowl’ of Asia, with a 45% increase in exports and a 30% in agricultural productivity by 2025.

The Coalition likewise wants a big increase in exports and foresees a ‘dining boom’ to replace the ‘mining boom’. The distinguishing feature from the Government’s plan is the emphasis on Northern Australia, with the damming of rivers and the clearing of land seen as the key to opening up the untapped resources of the northern frontier.

Meanwhile Bob Katter’s Australia Party has taken an entirely different tack, focusing on what he sees as the largely negative role played by Australia’s supermarket duopoly in terms of the viability of our farmers. He has accordingly introduced a Bill to Reduce Supermarket Dominance, which among other things makes it an offence, punishable by a $50 million fine, for any supermarket operator to retain a market share greater than 20% withinsix years after the passage of the legislation.

That $50 million fine contrasts with the $61,200 fine imposed on Coles after it was found to have engaged in misleading conduct, by selling as ‘baked today, sold today’ bread that had actually been made weeks ago in Ireland.

Katter’s initiative, which was supported by Nick Xenophon, has been branded by the industry as ‘radical’ and ‘extreme’. Forcibly breaking up companies is indeed radical, although there are plenty of historical precedents for such actions. I can’t speak for Bob Katter, but I imagine he might say that a situation in which two companies control in excess of 70% of the grocery market is itself ‘radical and extreme’.

On this issue, the Government and the Coalition effectively adopt a ‘do nothing’ approach. The Greens, on the other hand, propose that the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission be given divestiture powers, although they propose nothing as directly forthright as Katter.

Local Food Local Farms
Local Food Local Farms

What the Greens have announced in the past week is the establishment of an $85 million grants program to support various forms of direct marketing of produce by farmers and growers, including farmers’ markets, regional food hubs, and community-supported agriculture vegie-box schemes.

This proposal draws directly on the experience of the ‘Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food’ program operated for some years by the US Department of Agriculture. Partly as a result of such initiatives, the numbers of farmers’ markets in the US have more than doubled in the past decade, from 2900 in 2001 to 7000 in 2010. And the numbers of farms selling some or all of their produce through local markets rose to 136,000 in 2012, a 24% increase from 2012.

The $85 million in grants for direct marketing compares favourably with the $1.5 million grudgingly offered by the Government in the National Food Plan to support community food initiatives such as farmers’ markets and community gardens. That $1.5 million came with many strings attached, including a dollar-for-dollar matched funding requirement. I know of many groups that would have liked to apply but were put off by such conditions.

Many people in rural and regional Australia will be sceptical that the Greens are or ever could be the friends of farmers. That said, direct marketing and local food is growing at 5% -10% per annum in North America, with solid and bi-partisan political support at both state and federal levels, and with clear benefits to farmers. Indeed, net farmer numbers in the US recently increased for the first time in decades, with many new entrants being considerably younger than the average age of 58. Clearly something is going on here.