More export markets – but who benefits?

Export! Export!

A version of this article first appeared in the Coffs Coast Advocate on Saturday 18th August, 2012.

A fortnight ago the Australian Grains Industry Conference – ‘the premier industry-hosted conference for grain industry market participants and service providers’ – was held in Melbourne.

Described as a ‘high-level market event that brings together the Australian and global grain industry in a premium networking event’, this Conference was truly a gathering of the great and the good in the world of grains.

Which is why, when I heard that my colleague Fran Murrell, co-ordinator of MADGE (Mothers are Demystifying Genetic Engineering), had scored a ticket, I was fascinated to see what her impressions would be.

Grain Industry Report

She wrote to tell me that she had found the event ‘extremely worrying’. It’s not that anything particularly out of the ordinary happened. What’s shocking is simply the very ‘normality’ of how the large corporate players view the food and agricultural system as an arena purely for speculation and profit, regardless of the destructive social and environmental consequences of their actions.

This was made crystal clear when one speaker said that a significant reduction in the outrageously high levels of food waste – 50% or more of all food produced in developed countries is wasted, by some estimates – would represent a ‘threat’ to the burgeoning ‘investment opportunity’ that large-scale land acquisitions and clearances of rural and indigenous people in Africa and South America represents.

Let me illustrate the sheer, chilling insanity of this perspective by reference to a few facts about food waste, via Stuart Tristram’s excellent Waste: Uncovering the global food scandal:

  • ‘the irrigation water used globally to grow food that is wasted would be enough for the domestic needs (at 200 litres per person per day) of 9 billion people’
  • ‘if we planted trees on land currently used to grow unnecesssary surplus and wasted food, this would offset 100% of greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuel combustion’
  • ‘all the world’s one billion hungry people could be lifted out of malnourishment on less than a quarter of the food that is wasted in the US, UK and Europe’

Just let those facts – and there are many, many more – sink in for a minute. And then reflect on the claim, endlessly repeated by the government and most media, that the world ‘must double food production’ by 2050 to meet ‘growing global demand’. There’s a very good case to be made, in my view, that the real challenge we face is how to curb wasteful overproduction.

Yet our federal government, in its wisdom, has placed increased production of commodities for export as the centrepiece of its ‘National Food Plan’, out for public consultation until 30 September. The grains industry, naturally, takes its cue from the urging of the Prime Minister, that Australia, in addition to being Asia’s quarry, also become its ‘food bowl’. It’s focused on supplying meat, wheat and dairy commodities to the Asian middle class, also exporting in the process all the diseases associated with diets based largely on these products.

The financial industry was also well-represented at the grains industry conference. Its spokespeople regard agriculture as the ‘shining sector of the economy for the next five years’. In their worldview, it’s assumed that the sale of Australian land and agricultural assets to sovereign wealth funds, global corporations and foreign investors will benefit Australian farmers and consumers.

Meanwhile US multinational Cargill is positioning itself as the farmers’ friend, as it increases its control of the Australian Wheat Board; as well as domestic grain storage, handling and marketing infrastructure. As Fran pointed out to me, while we’re being asked to trust that this type of foreign investment is in all our interests, we shouldn’t forget that Cargill is currently being prosecuted by the Argentinian government for large-scale tax evasion.

The corporatisation of our food system means that there will be a relentless and constant drive for efficiencies, all in the name of ‘global competitiveness’ and ‘productivity’. Amongst other things, that means far fewer farmers. The numbers of Australian grain farmers have fallen from 40,000 to 22,000 over the past thirty years. We can expect that trend to continue, even accelerate.

But don’t worry – it’s all going to be fine, because we’ll have new export markets!